Hey this sucks, but you’re gonna’ be famous.
While not the worst thing Rebecca Black would read about herself that year, these words would come to mark a turning point in her life when she opened up her laptop one fateful day in March 2011. That was the day she went from being Rebecca Black, the teenager from Anaheim California, the drama nerd with an unapologetic love of performing and Glee, who had struggled with cliques and bullying in the past but was starting to feel at home in her school’s musical theatre department, who had finally found the place where she belonged, to Rebecca Black, that kid from the Internet.
Black was just 13 when Friday was released. The song had been written for her by producer Patrice Wilson and released by his production company – ARK Music Factory, a short-cut for aspiring musicians with parents willing to fork out $4,000 to give their kid the pop star experience. The video itself is a heavily autotuned portrayal of teenage awkwardness, a day in the life of Black as she celebrates the end of the school week with her friends. It feels like a 30 year old man’s attempt to render the complexities of the preteen years; the result is uncomfortable. It was supposed to be a harmless venture that would allow Black to sing inside a real recording studio and perform in her very own music video.
And for the first month after the song’s release it was harmless, racking up a few thousand views and a handful of comments, most of which had been left by supportive friends and family. But after featuring on Tosh.0, a popular blog ridiculing Internet culture, Friday went viral. And the Internet had a lot to say about it. Ranging from the concise ‘this is shit’, to the hurtful ‘she has a horrible voice and she is ugly’ to the abusive, ‘kill yourself’. While some came to her defence, these voices were quickly drowned out by the consensus of the masses – that Friday was the worst song ever written and Black deserved everything she got. The video currently has 3.8 million dislikes on YouTube.
Everyone had something to say about Friday at the time, with the exception of Black herself, who recalls trying to “shut out that part of (her) brain”, the part that fully engaged with the abuse she was receiving, too “fed up in (her) own little world of 13 year old insecurities” to comprehend what was happening.
This reads in her interviews at the time: the then 13 year old Black smiles opaquely as adults read hurtful comments to her. In one late night show, the audience cheers when Black says that the comments “really don’t bug (her).” They admired her resilience, the way this plucky thirteen year old took death threats and incitements to suicide on the chin. “It felt easier to try to get myself to feel nothing than to feel hurt,” she says.
“I was just trying to show that I could have a sense of humour about it and be in on this joke,” she says. In her Rebecca Black Reacts to ‘Friday’ video, there’s a moment around the three minute mark where Black exchanges a pained look with her audience as she cringes at her creation, inviting herself in on the joke she had previously been excluded from.
What strikes me most isn’t the vitriolic reaction she received from the public, but rather the way these interviewers make no attempt to shield her from it. In an interview with ABC, a journalist reads out one particularly nasty comment – “Friday is the worst song I’ve ever heard in my entire life, even deaf people are complaining,” – with no real understanding of the effect this might have on a young Black. They framed her story in a very specific way; she became a cautionary tale for a digital age.
“I don’t think that the world had as much responsibility in the way they treated children,” she tells me, “it will still so fresh at the time that people didn’t really know what to do with it. Anyone who had this crazy, out-of-nowhere attention, you weren’t a person. You were a spectacle.”
Through the intense media coverage and the successful YouTube channel she launched in 2011, Black is in the unique position of having thoroughly documented her teenage experience. At the click of a button, she can revisit her life at 13 in all its pimply, insecure glory. I wonder if this is a blessing or a curse.
“It’s pretty weird,” she acknowledges, “it stays in the void. It wasn’t too long ago that for some reason I was going back and having a look at old videos on my channel and I think what strikes me the most is seeing the parts of myself that were trying to put on such an act.”
[Watching the channel], “I do feel for the younger version of myself that was hurt, who felt like she couldn’t even say that. I wish I would have known when I was younger that it is 100% okay to admit that you are hurt and that is so much better than trying to pretend you are not, because then you start essentially gaslighting yourself.”
“What I did wasn’t necessary something that was so, so wrong. It was weird, and it was strange, and definitely not this beautiful piece of art that I look back on. But I was a kid, and I was trying something new, and there is an innocence in that that I think was lost at the time.”
This self-awareness has come to characterise her career in the years after Friday. In 2013, she collaborated with Dave Days to produce Saturday, the official sequel to Friday. Saturday is more assured than its younger sibling, complete with the odd tongue-in-cheek homage. One shot shows Black eating her cereal from a bowl that reads: ‘GOTTA HAVE MY BOWL.’
It shows an ability to self-parody lacking in most 16 year olds. “I think that I have progressed much quicker in the aftermath of Friday because of the severity of the situation,” she tells me, “Saturday was in that self-aware space to not only being able to have fun with it, but also take it back for myself.”
It was during this time that Black filmed a video with Shane Dawson that recently resurfaced. The video saw Black and Dawson make what many have deemed a tasteless and insensitive joke about the Holocaust during a game of charades. Black apologised in a recent tweet, saying she was “deeply ashamed” of her involvement. Her fans quickly came to her defence, citing her visible discomfort during the interaction, as Shane, attempting to guess the word written on Black’s card, makes a series of sexualised suggestions: “Big vagina. Khloé Kardashian’s vagina”. Black was 16 at the time, Dawson was 25.
Another recording of him referring to Black as the girl “with the huge tits” has also come to light. The two are still friends, but she recognises that Dawson “definitely could have done better. And he should have done better.”
While Black is able to sympathise with “how tough it feels to have people define you by something you did when you were younger”, it’s still an uncomfortable topic for her. She struggles with the comments he made. “I don’t know if there’s a lot I have to say right now,” she admits, “I’m still dealing with it and still trying to understand.”
Nine years after Friday and a lot has changed. Now she bangs, and a career that in no part resembles the one the Internet would have predicted for her in 2011. Her musical persona has shed all traces of her younger self – the self-congratulation of My Moment, the naivety of Person of Interest. Her recent single, Sweetheart, is an edgy, sexy revenge tragedy condensed into four minutes. The song washes over you as you witness Black transform from doting housewife to femme fatale teaming up with her girl gang to murder an adulterous boyfriend.
Part of this musical transformation is down to her self-development, though it’s also due to Black’s more established position in the industry. She struggled to assert her voice in the immediate years after Friday. She recognises that for young women especially “there are still people who are trying to push those voices down.”
“It’s something that I’m still working on. Of course, as a teenager, as a young person, as a young woman, I’ve got taken advantage of, whether people knew what they were doing or not, and that’s alright. Unfortunately it just happens. The best way that I have learned to work through that is to just know my own power and that’s something I didn’t know for a long time. And I probably still have a lot to work on.” Black now enjoys “100% control” of the content she produces.
Her music taps into a zeitgeist I didn’t know existed until I followed her on Spotify, deftly exploring the anxieties and dreams of a generation that’s only just started to carve out a space for itself in the cultural landscape. “I want [my music] to represent the world that we actually live in today as young people, as queer people, as Gen Z, everything happening in our current climate,” she tells me. She credits the honesty of her work to her recent coming-out as queer. Her aim is to provide queer representation that she didn’t have growing up. “I’m really making that a priority with my platform,” she assures me.
After years of being cast aside, Friday has earned its place on Black’s concert setlist. She recalls a recent concert playing at a college to a crowd of her peers. “Every single person knew every single word to that song and they screamed it louder than you ever could have imagined,” she tells me, “it was fun. There was no meanness in it.” For Black, the song’s “innocence has been found again.”
“I had this idea that I had done something so wrong for so long and that was what was hard to forgive myself for but now I have been able to realise that there wasn’t really anything so wrong about it. I see myself as a 13 year old who was just trying to have fun and try something, born out of something that she really, really loved. So in that case there’s not much to forgive myself for – and that is forgiveness itself.”
Black was one of the first, and perhaps the most successful, person to come back from public shaming. Her refusal to fade into the background has meant that we have been forced to acknowledge the way we treated her nine years ago. The same generation that ridiculed her is now asking for her forgiveness. Is she ready to give it? “One hundred percent. I will always accept people reflecting in their own ways, looking back and learning from it, and moving forward in a positive direction.”
As our conversation draws to a close, I ask Black how it feels to know that Friday may always be the first thing that comes up if someone googles her. She pauses for a moment, searching for the right response. “I have made peace with that, and that’s okay.”
And finally – kicking in the front seat, sitting in the back seat- is she happy with her decision? She laughs.
“Always and forever, I never cared.”
Image Credit: Bia Jurema