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Is it really such a Black Friday?

Those of you who use social networks (particularly Twitter) and don't possess an immunity to memetic viruses have by now probably heard of Rebecca Black. If you haven't, she's a 13-year-old from California who features in a recent YouTube video singing Friday. The song has been viewed by millions (over 26.5 megahits at the time of writing) and has attracted much criticism for its shallow, unimaginative lyrics, extensive use of autotuning, and musical banality. Consequently, young Rebecca is now the person it's cool to hate, and will probably soon overtake Justin Bieber as the world's most loathed singer.

Most of the criticism is along the lines of "Is this what passes for music these days?" and bemoaning the shallowness of modern pop culture. Unfortunately, but predictably, much of it has gone too far and extended to exhortations of suicide (in response to which Miss Black herself has been laudably sanguine, even retweeting some of her "death threats" and rightly chiding those who make light of teen suicide).

My thesis is that most of this criticism is misdirected. Before your howls of protest rise too high: no, I don't actually like the song. The song itself is just as terrible as everyone says. But the criticism is based on a false assumption about the pretensions of the song's promoters.

This is the way I see it. Imagine you pay £300 for a track day at Silverstone. You get to have fun driving around the British Grand Prix circuit in your Audi TT or whatever you have. You might run onto the grass a couple of times, and maybe lose control of your rear wheels in some of the tighter corners, or even spin around 360° by mistake. But it's OK, because you're only there to enjoy yourself.

Now imagine you get a friend to take a video of your session on the tarmac. That's only natural: you want a souvenir. Then you want to show the video to your friends, so you put it up on YouTube and send them the link. All perfectly normal behaviour in the digital age.

But then your video starts getting more hits, and then more. Soon it has millions, and your driving imperfections are known to half the Western world. You start getting criticism for not being up to the standards of a Formula 1 driver, and even death threats for daring to think you're as good as Lewis Hamilton.

At this point you would probably think the webverse's reaction was a tad unreasonable. And you'd be right. After all, you didn't ask them to watch you messing around on a racetrack pretending to be Michael Schumacher. But actually, you (in this fictional example) are more deserving of criticism than the much-berated Rebecca Black, because the failings she's being slated for aren't even her own.

The video was produced by an outfit called Ark Music Factory, which (apparently) charges $2,000 to make a relatively professional-looking video of your teenage son or daughter singing a pre-written song. It's the musical equivalent of a track day – you get to fool around pretending to be a pop star and get a video to take home at the end of the day and impress your 13-year-old friends with.

Now, $2,000 may sound like a lot of money, and for a 13th birthday present from a middle-class parent it probably is, but in terms of the music industry it's negligible. You couldn't get Beyoncé Knowles to glance in your direction for that amount. So of course the song sounds like it was written on the back of a napkin in under five minutes (and I'm convinced it was). Of course it has pointless lyrics, doesn't scan properly, and is mostly a monotone. The whole thing was done on the cheap, and that's OK because it wasn't really intended for public consumption.

This is the point everyone is missing. We're so used to seeing genuine commercial music videos, which cost millions of dollars to make, broadcast on YouTube for free, that when we see something that looks faintly like them we assume it's for real and the album will be coming out next month. The idea of a fake music video made only for the enjoyment of the person in it, and maybe a few of their mates, just doesn't compute.

Yes, the song is now available to buy on the iTunes library. But that was only after it went viral. The producers spotted an unexpected opportunity to make a quick buck, and seized it with both hands – who would do any different? Before everyone started berating the video, it was an irrelevance, and had no pretensions at being anything else. Now that it's well known, it's being treated like something that's well known. I can't see any evidence that those behind it have at any time had pretensions beyond its actual status. This isn't what passes for pop music these days – nobody was trying to sell it until the opportunity fell into their laps.

And what of Rebecca Black herself? Well, to state the obvious point that everyone still seems to be ignoring, she didn't write the song. I can't imagine she doesn't know that the order of the days in the week is not news to any of her listeners, that sitting in the front or the back seat is not the most profound dichotomy ever to face humankind, or that "we so excited" is gratuitously ungrammatical. If any of you doubt this, read her tweets (@_RebeccaBlack_) – she comes across as pretty switched on, and takes the piss out of "her" song's silly lyrics as much as anyone else. The people who are getting so irate at her for inflicting her vapid song on their sophisticated ears have only themselves to blame for clicking the link in the first place.

The sad thing is that if she does ever manage to get a real musical career, singing songs people might actually want to listen to, she'll never escape the stigma of Friday. Her embarrassing baby steps in the music world have been made public. No matter how well she does, she'll always be the 13-year-old who sang that terrible song. It's just as well for most of our well-thought-of celebrities that we never got to see the embarrassing things they got up to when they were 13. I'll bet even Lewis Hamilton did a few kangaroo hops his first time in car.

Moral of the story: 1) Go easy on Rebecca Black – what you're listening to is essentially a 13-year-old doing karaoke; 2) This whole thing reveals more about her detractors than about her or the music industry; 3) Be careful what you post on YouTube; 4) If you want to pretend you're a pop star, stick to doing it in front of your bathroom mirror.



Camilla,  21.03.11 00:13

Well, she can (or, rather, could) take comfort in the fact that I have (had) never heard of her. I will say I wouldn't be terribly surprised if this had been what passes for pop music these days, but I am happy to hear that is not the case.
Tor,  21.03.11 21:12

The people who are getting so irate at her for inflicting her vapid song on their sophisticated ears have only themselves to blame for clicking the link in the first place.

Well said. And of course, I choose to protect my sophisticated ears from unsophisticated noise, and so I can't really comment upon this particular instance of mass stupidity on the internets. But in general, it seems people quite often spends a lot of energy complaining about things to which the proper response would be to look the other way.


Camilla,  15.05.11 10:06

Last edited by
Tim, 21.03.11 15:35