Rebecca Black, Revolutionary
When her “Friday” video went viral on YouTube, the Anaheim Hills eighth-grader became an internationally famous—if brutally derided—pop singer-celeb. In the process, she also pioneered an ingenious fast track to stardom.
By Patrick J. Kiger / Illustration by Eddie Guy
A peculiar portent of the zeitgeist is unfolding on Twitter one recent Saturday evening as adolescents from various parts of the planet eagerly post tweets @MsRebecca Black, trying to get the 14-year-old Anaheim Hills YouTube phenom to acknowledge their existence.
“@MSRebeccaBlack RT if you love your Aussie fans!” wrote BritWiffen, a 14-year-old girl from Australia, while ElnacodeGerardo, a boy from Mexico, made a similar plea on behalf of teens south of the border. “RT IF YOU LOVE YOUR INDONESIAN FANS! Cause we love you so much,” another cajoles. The U.K., Germany, and the Dominican Republic chime in. “Retweet if you love your Swahili friends,” posts another, somewhat puzzlingly, since Swahili is a language, not a nationality, and the poster clearly does not appear to be African. Sure enough, his own Twitter page reveals that he’s another cutup trying to have some snarky fun at Black’s expense. “Hahahaha Rebecca Black retweeted me cus I said ‘Retweet if you love your Swahili friends,’ ” he tells his own followers. “I’m not really Swahili. I’m Welsh. Silly [expletive].”
That jarring dichotomy—legions of kids who think Black is OMG!, and H8ers who mock her with a passion usually reserved for cafeteria mystery meat—is driving Black’s astonishing rise from typical Orange County teenager to instant pop-music sensation. By July, after just five months on YouTube, her debut music video “Friday” had been viewed more than 160 million times, making it one of the 25 most-watched Internet videos of all time. On Twitter, Black had amassed nearly 300,000 followers, whom she regaled with news of her upcoming follow-up—a five-song EP, this time created under the supervision of a veteran record producer. (“We’re working really hard and fast to get the single out,” she promised one impatient fan.)
All of which leads, inevitably, to questions about what it all means: Is Black just another ersatz YouTube superstar, a cuter, perkier human version of “Dramatic Gopher”? Or has this middle-school student inadvertently done something revolutionary—there’s simply no other word for it—by circumventing the big recording-media executives who’ve long controlled radio airplay and pioneering a broadband-speed route to international stardom?
"I'm so excited," gushes Black, brimming with an effervescent joie de vivre. The raven-haired teen, who’s visiting Orange Coast’s offices to talk about her follow-up single, “My Moment,” has the sort of looks that break adolescent male hearts, but that’s tempered by an earnest, unaffected, just-a-tiny-bit-awkward charm you can’t learn at the Disney teen-idol school.
“A lot of people don’t know what my real voice sounds like,” she explains, referring to the auto-tuned sound of “Friday,” a catchy if cotton-candy-light celebration of the coming weekend’s promise of “fun, fun, fun” and partying with friends. “I think they’re going to be surprised at how different my voice sounds” in her new songs and video. Her naysayers also may be shocked by lyrics a bit meatier than those of “Friday.” “They’re going to be surprised. This song is a little window into my world.”
This time, Black, the daughter of two veterinarians, is working with a team of seasoned music-industry professionals assembled by her new manager, Debra Baum, who’s worked with performers such as Paula Abdul, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, and Tears for Fears. Baum, who was recommended to Black and her parents by an executive who works with syndicated DJ and “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest, says she’s surprised by the eighth-grader’s unadorned vocal talent. “I was aware of the hoopla about ‘Friday,’ and I was curious,” says Baum. “But it was very apparent that Rebecca could sing. She has a really great voice.” Baum also realized, despite Black’s serendipitous rise to fame, that this was no unwitting star. “She’s been doing acting and theater since she was young, and she has wanted this for a long time.”
Black’s unorthodox roller-coaster ride began late last year when the young performer—whose previous claim to fame was starring in school productions of “Guys and Dolls” and “Oklahoma!”—recorded “Friday” at Ark Music Factory in Los Angeles. For aspiring singers such as Black, the studio is the equivalent of a vanity publishing house; if a parent is willing to put up a few thousand dollars—as Black’s mother did as a way to teach her daughter about the music business—producers will write a song for a young performer, record it, and even make a slick-looking music video starring the teen.
After Ark posted “Friday” on YouTube, Black had what was at once both supremely bad and good fortune. In March, Comedy Central host Daniel Tosh came across the video and made light of the song in his blog, simply commenting: “Uh-oh. Not good.” But that link triggered an onslaught of curious viewers, and by that night, “Friday” had amassed 100,000 hits and scores of comments, most of them derisive. As the traffic mushroomed into the millions, parodies began springing up on YouTube, and publications such as Rolling Stone and Time (which called her video “hilariously dreadful”) took notice.
An Internet-age brouhaha ensued. Stories about her started popping up on foreign-language news websites. Black appeared on TV programs such as “Good Morning America” and “The Tonight Show,” where host Jay Leno asked her, “How’s this overnight sensation thing feel?” Paparazzi snapped surreptitious shots of Black at her brother’s Little League game, and a British tabloid, The Daily Mail, groused that, for all her fame, she looked “glum.”
Nick Susi, a blogger at the website of the prestigious Berklee College of Music, denounced her as an example of how the Internet is killing the music business. “Higher standards and stricter filters must be reinstated,” he sneered. “Music like ‘Friday’ that is ‘silly’ or ‘average’ made by an inexperienced artist has its place, but that place is not on a pedestal amongst serious musicians.”
But for all the mockery of the repetitive simplicity of the “Friday” lyrics (“We so excited/We gonna have a ball today/Tomorrow is Saturday/And Sunday comes afterwards”) and cyber-taunting about everything from Black’s makeup to the digital manipulation of her voice, a funny thing happened: Other young listeners liked what they heard, and the downloadable MP3 version of “Friday” passed up Justin Bieber’s “Never Say Never” in iTunes sales.
“There have always been songs that have been successful even though they were derided by others,” explains John Braheny, an L.A.-based music consultant and author of “The Craft and Business of Songwriting.” “Some of my favorites have been trashed, and some of my least favorites—‘Achy Breaky Heart,’ for example—have been big hits.”
To Braheny, “Friday,” despite its banal lyrics and the “weird, gratuitous, and incongruous” rapper inserted in the middle, had a “light fun and innocent charm” that may bode well for Black’s future. “For all we know, Black may have been able to write a much better song herself,” he says.
By the end of April, the song had been downloaded 215,000 times at 99 cents a pop. Former “American Idol” judge and “X-Factor” creator Simon Cowell wanted to meet Black. “Anyone who can create this much controversy within a week, I want to meet,” he told The Telegraph, a British newspaper. Forbes calculated—erroneously as it turns out—that she already was a millionaire. (The industry publication Digital Music News calculated Black’s earnings from YouTube and iTunes, as of mid-April, at a still-impressive total of just under $200,000.)
Since then, the Rebecca Black phenomenon has continued its almost preternatural growth, making clear that she’s got more staying power than, say, the “Charlie Bit My Finger” kid. “I went with her to Las Vegas for the MTV Awards,” Baum recalls. “A 13-year-old girl is walking through the airport and hotel lobbies, and it’s amazing how many people are asking her for autograph and pictures. And they’re all supportive. She has a fan base already.”
Baum insists she’s not just spouting hype when she suggests that Black has enough talent to become the female version of Justin Bieber, another former YouTube sensation-turned-teen superstar. “There are a lot of good singers out there,” she says. “And there are a lot of people who look good on camera, who have a cute smile and a great presence. But Rebecca has the whole package.”
But Black’s sudden notoriety has changed her life. She’s now home-schooled—“It was nice to have a break from all that middle-school drama,” she laughs—and she has to deal with paparazzi instead of yearbook photos. But she’s still able to hang with a few close buds and go to the mall and Disneyland with them. She says: “I know who my true friends are now.”
There was a time, back when some of today’s parents were Rebecca Black’s age, that teens vying for pop stardom had to work their way up through talent shows and as opening acts at county fairs or local nightclubs, hoping to be discovered by a talent scout from a major record label. Tiffany Renee Darwish, who at 16 topped the Billboard Hot 100 with a remake of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “I Think We’re Alone Now,” started singing at a country-western bar in Norwalk when she was 9, and opened for adult singers in clubs in Alaska and Texas. Her demo tapes were rejected by 10 record labels before MCA took a chance on her at age 14, when she showed up at the label’s offices and sang in person.
Debbie Gibson, whose 1988 No. 1 hit with “Foolish Beat” made her, at 17, the youngest female artist ever to write, produce, and perform a song that went to Billboard’s top spot, sang in the New York Metropolitan Opera children’s chorus and acted in national TV commercials before signing with Atlantic Records at 15.
Even into the 1990s, the route to teen stardom remained laborious. Britney Spears spent years working the fringes of the business, appearing in commercials, as a contestant on “Star Search,” and as a Disney Mousketeer, before being discovered at 16 by record executives when she auditioned for a spot in a girl group. It took two more years for her to release a CD. “… Baby One More Time” went double-platinum in a month and became the top-selling album by a teenage artist.
While those singers seemed precocious in their day, their progress toward fame would appear glacial to a contemporary generation of teenagers who’ve grown up watching sitcoms on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon—“Hannah Montana,” “Jonas,” “Sonny With a Chance,” among others—in which the plots center around young adolescents who have made it big in the entertainment biz. (“If there’s anything that I’ve learned about kids today—and I’m not saying that it’s good or bad—it’s that they all want to be stars,” TV producer Dan Schneider told the Los Angeles Times in 2009.)
They’ve also grown up amid the explosive growth of YouTube, Twitter, and social networking on the Web. Andy Warhol’s famous crack needs to be revised. Today, it seems, everyone can be famous in 15 minutes.
The contemporary role model is Bieber, who began posting homemade videos of his renditions of Usher and Chris Brown songs on YouTube when he was 12. The following year, a former marketing executive from a hip-hop label searching for another singer’s YouTube video accidentally clicked on one of Bieber singing for spare change outside a theater in his hometown. He was so taken that he tracked down the 13-year-old and flew him to Atlanta for a studio session.
There, Bieber met R&B star Usher, who became enamored of his videos as well. Usher helped put together a recording deal for the teen with Island Def Jam Records. By 15, Bieber had four singles on the Billboard Hot 100 list and at 16 was a headliner at Madison Square Garden—all before he had his learner’s permit.
Black’s career started even earlier than Bieber’s. She appeared in a local commercial for Puzzlecraft, a building toy, when she was 6, and was taking vocal lessons by 10. “I’ve always loved to sing, and dance, and act. I just love to be on any stage,” Black says. “It’s so fun for me. It’s my way of expressing myself.”
Black’s mother, Georgina Marquez, told The New York Times in March that paying for the recording session at Ark was her way of giving her daughter a taste of how much work would be involved in pursuing a career as a singer.
If Black is fortunate enough to build on her YouTube breakthrough and release another song that reaches the top of iTunes or Amazon, it could create an even quicker, more direct route to teen stardom than Bieber’s—and perhaps more importantly, one that doesn’t depend on having the promotional muscle and cash of a major record label behind it. Her initial success is amazing not only because she survived all the media mockery and Internet bullies, but because she managed to sell all those downloads even with radio stations virtually blackballing “Friday” from their rotations. (“It’s not going to get played unless a major label promotion department brings all of its resources to get it played,” a radio station programmer told Digital Music News. “Otherwise, things just don’t get added” to the rotation.)
Ark’s much-derided pay-to-play arrangement gave Black a chance to be heard on the Internet—and to get paid. As Slate blogger Annie Lowrey has pointed out, Black has done better in that regard than most of the fledgling artists who’ve been signed by labels. Had she been under contract when “Friday” broke big, her recording company typically would have siphoned off most of the proceeds to cover its expenses before she ever saw any money.
“Black would have in essence worked to pay off her debt to the label,” according to Lowrey.
Instead, Black has parted ways with Ark, and her new management has tangled with the subsidy label about control over her “Friday” video, which vanished from YouTube in June after Ark, apparently without Black’s knowledge, tried to convert it into a $2.99 rental. “We’re trying to create a new model,” says new manager Baum, who put Black together with veteran record producer Charlton Pettus. Pettus has worked with acts ranging from Tears for Fears to Hilary Duff. Baum also solicited potential songs from a wide range of new and established writers. Black since has finished a five-song EP, which was scheduled for independent release in late July, along with a video for “My Moment.” Based on an exclusive preview for Orange Coast staffers, the video is a significant step forward artistically and in production quality.
Black, who helped write the lyrics to one of her new songs, is thrilled about the record. “A lot of the stuff on it is about experiences and friendships I’ve had, things I’ve had to deal with. It’s all stuff I can relate to, that I would listen to on the radio. There’s ballad-y stuff, and even a song with a Latin sound, which is great because I’m half-Mexican—my Mom is from Mexico City. So I’m embracing my inner Latina.” The mix, she says, is “a reflection of who I really am.”
Black recently got another big break when she was invited to appear in a nonsinging role alongside Katy Perry in the latter’s new video for the single “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.).” Black portrays a hip teen who helps give Perry’s nerdy, braces-and-glasses-wearing wallflower a makeover. “It started out as a cameo,” Black says, “but it started growing into this big part. It was one of the best weekends of my life. ... It’s crazy to think that a year ago, I was one of those girls who are up in their rooms with microphones, pretending to be her. Someday, if I ever become as big as Katy Perry, I’d love to give a helping hand to someone else. It’s so nice to have someone believe in you who has the sort of power she has.”
Of course, at this point, there’s no way to tell whether Black will get to that level. Will she create the same sensation with her unaltered voice? Will she be swept under by an even more vicious tsunami of Internet meanness? Will radio continue to freeze her out? Or will her hundreds of thousands of fervent Twitter followers and iTunes patrons finally prove irresistible to programmers desperate for new ears?
And then there’s the biggest question of all: Should someone Black’s age even be subjected to this sort of emotional test?
“Most 14-year-olds would tell you they’d love to be a star,” industry pro John Braheny cautions. “But I’m not sure how many who were stars at that age would tell you they’d elect to do it again. Someone needs to get real with both the kid and her parents. There’s a lot of pressure on someone that young. There’s a lot they don’t know yet about staying true to themselves before they really even have a sense of who they are.”
But Braheny thinks Black will develop. “She seems to have an appealing personality devoid of pretense or phoniness. If she can hold onto that, she has a shot.”
Black admits to having felt a few butterflies. “Sometimes, I’ll feel that everything has to be perfect for the record and the video, or else I’ll end up on one of those where-are-they-now shows on VH1,” she says. “I’ve had nightmares about it. But I’ve started to gain confidence. The people I’m working with are so fantabulous, and I’ve got so much support. I think I’m letting go of the pressure.”
She’s looking forward to the concert tour her management is trying to set up. “I’ve been performing for a long time in front of people, though not as many people as there would be [in a big venue]. But I don’t really get nerves on stage. It’ll be nice to see them dancing along with me and enjoying the songs. That’s going to be such an adrenalin rush.”
For now, Black seems to be breezing into that future with the aplomb only a 14-year-old can muster. As she recently tweeted: “You know what, haters gunna hate. But I’m proud to say I don’t drink haterade.”
Still haven’t seen the original “Friday” video?
It’s easy. while The official version has disappeared from youtube, you can still find it by searching the web by BLACK’s name and “Friday” or click here.
The Snark Magnet
Like Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video has provided inspiration for numerous Internet satirists and, for some, a bounty of page views. Here are the more popular ones.
1.“Hitler’s Reaction After Hearing Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’”
1.5 million views
In a mischievous misuse of the bunker scene from the 2004 movie “Downfall,” Hitler’s aides inform him of this latest menace to his musical tastes. (“She talks about how Friday is fun for her? What about me? Where’s my fun?”)
2.“Friday, As Performed by Bob Dylan”
3.3 million views
We’re invited to imagine how the song would have sounded had it been written and performed by Dylan in his early 1960s Greenwich Village days.
3. “Friday (Chad Vader Official Parody)”
The protagonist of “Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager”—a Web-based comedy series featuring a relative of the “Star Wars” villain who works in a supermarket—re-enacts Black’s morning routine, with rewritten lyrics.
4. “Rebecca Black ‘Friday’ (Brock’s Dub)”
23.9 million views
The “Friday” lyrics dubbed by a Christopher Walken impersonator, with a pointed observation about the youth of the car’s driver, ending with a devastating crash off a cliff, followed by the somber sign-off: “Don’t let 13-year-olds drive … or sing.”
5. “Leave Rebecca Black Alone!!!”
A simultaneous send-up of both “Friday” and Chris Crocker’s infamous 2007 “Leave Britney Alone” rant, performed by a shrieking, tear-streaked woman. (“Do you know how difficult it is to wake up at 7 a.m. in the morning and go to school?”)
Patrick J. Kiger’s most recent story for Orange Coast was about ongoing memory research at UC Irvine [“The Rememberers,” April 2011].
This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of Orange Coast magazine.