23 March, 2011

Rebecca Black - Friday

Today I will delve into how this video gets viewed over 36 million times from various sources.  This may take a while, so only read the first paragraph if you want my review of the track itself. 

Why do we live on a planet where 36 million YouTube hits is not enough to fully experience Rebecca Black’s video and song “Friday?”  As I type this, it’s partly on a Friday evening, and close to the 7:45 mark that she describes in her work.  I’ve had the song on repeat to try and understand the appeal of this song.   I don’t feel like getting in a car with my friends and “cruising so fast, I want time to fly.”  So far all it has done is given me a headache and made me wish for death by fire.  Some have called it the “worst song ever recorded,” and while I don’t think I can go that far, I will say that the prospect of ever hearing this song after having written this post does not make me happy.

But even if I don’t enjoy this song, one song doesn’t reach this level of mass exposure without a few people liking it.  In this case, how does the song reach number 31 on the Apple iTunes digital charts without any record company backing or radio play?  Today she is surely going to be on the Billboard Heatseekers chart.  Whether you like the song or try to set yourself on fire when it comes on, one cannot deny that she has accomplished something most “real” artists would kill to have happen over the past two weeks. 

Now, I fully admit that this is a capricious article to be writing in the wake of her success because this is likely to be a phenomenon linked to a specific place and time.  However, I don’t think it is that simple as a trend of popular music.  Songs such as “Friday” make me stand back and question why they reach levels of saturation that simply should not be, and yet the pop music landscape has reached a point where a 13 year-old girl can sing songs about how the days occur and it becomes a mainstream point of discussion.  Black only exists because there is a certain point that has been reached within popular music where none of the things that used to matter within culture industries are necessarily relevant anymore.  This is the world of American Idol, where anybody can be a star, and the Black Eyed Peas, where the party doesn’t have to stop and mean anything anymore because tonight’s going to be a good good night, so that's it.  The songs of pop music these days don’t need to be sung about anything in particular because nothing really matters anymore beyond the sensation that we enjoy, which is simulated anyways until they are recreated.  In a way, music such as this is a perfect example of the simulacrum of pop music, which has masked, reflected, and perverted the pop landscape until it revealed that there was nothing there in the first place. 

We let Rebecca Black’s music infiltrate our world because pop means nothing to us anymore.  Pop can be anything, so it means nothing at all now.   By empowering the artists that we have to encode any meaning within these songs, they have ultimately revealed that they mean nothing at all now. 

The term “pop music” is derived from the phrase “popular music.”  If all we are taking into account is Ms. Black’s visibility as indicative of her popularity, then we can say that she is pop music.  However, there have been artists that redefine what we think of as pop music over the years.  Ray Charles, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Parliament/Funkadelic, Pink Floyd, the Ramones, Madonna, Michael Jackson, My Bloody Valentine, Nirvana, and Radiohead immediately spring to mind.  Nobody can deny that they too were popular, but there was something visceral and immediate about their music too, although they all approached it from different ways with varying levels of popularity.  Just because the Ronettes sang songs about falling in love doesn’t mean that the Pixies didn’t do it equally well, but their audiences were different in terms of numbers, personalities, and time.  We live in a world where even Metallica and Enya can occupy the pop charts at the same time, and on some radio stations they follow each other in rotation. 

So why does Black’s presence disturb many people?  Who says that it does?  Matthew Perpetua of Rolling Stone makes a good point about its “subpar production” and “grating hooks,” while Rob Sheffield claims that the song is good in spite of itself.  Yes, the production is poor, and while the hook is grating I can understand how it can be considered catchy.  Elsewhere, Simon Cowell commented on the song while he promoted his new show The X Factor, claiming that it was brilliant to get all these people angry about this fallacy of a single. 

“I’ve never seen anything cause so much controversy. I think it’s genius. The fact that everyone’s getting upset about it is hysterical. Any song to do with the weekend annoys you. It reminds me of ‘Saturday Night,’ do you remember that [1994] song by Whigfield? It’s what we call a ‘hair-dryer song,’ a song (that) girls sing into their hair dryers as they’re getting ready to go out. But the fact that it’s making people so angry is brilliant.”

While I don’t agree with Cowell’s discussion of what works in terms of pop dynamics, I’m not going to disagree with a man that’s sired so many pop hits.  He’s right, the fact that Rebecca Black went viral is a hysterical commentary on what we value as audiences for music in the world at this moment, and the current pop landscape is littered with prototypes for Black’s song.  Since I’m positing that pop music is dead, then this is the horrible remains of the afterbirth, a cheap notion that death of meaning is around the corner.  If anybody can make a song about what their day is like, then nothing is special, nothing necessarily is pop music anymore.  We are all in her car in the video, artificial and going nowhere, but still having a good time in spite of ourselves (and by the way, why are they allowing a fourteen year-old to pretend to drive?). 

But let’s not mince words, much of the criticism of her work is going to come from two areas in the song:
1.     The inane lyrics
2.     Her voice

I’m going to debunk the reasons for this criticism now, while pointing to what I’ve feared most about this scene, and both of them come from these two elements, but not in ways that you think.  Both of these criticisms can be answered by looking to the grandfather of modern popular music in America:  Bob Dylan.

Lyrics have been a battling ground in music ever since Dylan began to integrate more descriptive poetry into his music, which came at a point in America’s existence when the youth that were being courted through early rock and roll.  While people sang about cars, girls, love, and rock and roll in general (why is it that during the twentieth century we had to call attention to ourselves actually being in the moment of musical expression?), as soon as Dylan hit the scene around 1962 the lyrical content of popular music began to face analysis that went beyond the mere sonic level of the track.  Not long after he hit the scene, Dylan’s disciples – including Roger McGuinn and the Beatles themselves – began constructing more ambitious lyrics to accompany their music. 

Dylan’s lyrics demanded a level of metaphor and poetry that soon was replicated into popular music, and even a song such as “Like a Rolling Stone” could crack the charts, becoming what Rolling Stone suspiciously claimed to be the greatest rock song ever recorded.  While I disagree with this in some ways, I believe that Dylan presented a turning point for musicians and lyrics in general.  His influence demanded that others create authenticity by infusing mystique and wonder into their work, moving away from the autobiographical into the metaphorical. 

Black is none of these things, not even talking about metaphor in any way.  Her work is painfully literate and attentive to the ways that teenagers these days live, including the descriptions of her daily routine of waking up at 7 to eating cereal.  Her musical conundrum, the drama behind her song?  Figuring out which seat to take in her friend’s car.  This is not the high drama that readily creates the largest fan bases behind pop songs.  Meat Loaf sang lyrics by Jim Steinman that wrapped teenage dreams and lust into a do-or-die operatic splendor; here, Black can barely muster a “Yeah!” chant to go along with her song.  Moreover, the breakdown before the rap section (why?) details the days of the week, stating that yesterday was Thursday, and that tomorrow is Saturday, and Sunday comes afterwards (WHY?). 

What these lyrical banalities reveal is a typical person standing up to be a pop star, but doing so in a way that seems to show her being as painfully young as she really is.  Remember, Dylan redefined what a pop star could be, and the mystery that surrounded him allowed him to craft ever larger personalities for his work, but those could even be linked to a normal human being (at one point, anyways).   Black is a cipher, somebody whose yearning for a good time is so blatantly apparent that it pinpoints her young age even more precisely.  Her lyrics reveal the sensibilities of – SHOCK – a thirteen year-old girl!  Now where is the mystery and wonder in that? 

Her voice is a much more problematic aspect.  Put simply, it sucks, but that’s not a shock given her age.  If anything, she sounds like a thirteen year-old SHOULD sound, and this is problematic for us.  Combined with her lyrics, Black sings from the perspective of a budding teenager, and it captures the actual sound of being a teenager.  Another band that did this was Wheatus in their song “Teenage Dirtbag,” which seemed to encapsulate all that a teenager encountered in their experiences.  But while they were celebrated for singing about being a teenage dirtbag while sounding LIKE a teenager, Black is criticized sharply for singing about being a teenager AS a teenager.  Even with thick layers of Auto-Tune slathered onto this mix, nothing can mask her green vocals as she hits the weirdest flat note in music on the chorus praising the day that begins her weekend. 

But is this a problem?  Should we comment and say that this is her fault for being so young and inexperienced?  If anything, it makes the song more authentic as a blank slate, as somebody looking to come into their own as a person.  Black is a child whose mother paid $2000 for the Ark Music Factory to write her daughter a song and create a video (admittedly low-cost there) where she could break out.  Dylan’s voice is a thin, reedy instrument of expression that would be used to sing about all the ills of the world.  Black’s voice is barely there because she hasn’t even formed into a person yet; someone who sings about these sorts of things is either being paid to sing them, or has a very myopic view of the world.  Both are likely in this particular case. 

The Hold Steady is a good example of a band whose lyrics are quite circular and fun to sing, but also one set of artists whose lead singer is not considered good by traditional barometers of taste.  But they are often cited as being held within the upper echelons of taste because of the symbolic power accrued by the combination of these two factors.  Lyrics and authenticity are inextricably linked within music, and when one evokes the other it can be a powerful reason why a song or extended work can stand out to listeners.  Yet a common criticism about pop music, as well as a reason why it is celebrated by its followers, is that the lyrics and authenticity are superfluous to the “feeling” or atmosphere of a song.  Neither argument stands out to me since they are subjective and often based on cultural critiques, but what happens with Black is that her lyrics make her out to be an inauthentic person according to several critics.  This isn’t true, she is an actual person, but she is simply boring and evoking only one emotion:  That tonight – Friday night – it’s gonna be a good good night.  

Ultimately, what we learn about ourselves is more important than Rebecca Black’s “Friday.”  She will most likely disappear from the public and no longer follow up with a similar sounding record (although one is purportedly in the works), and hopefully she gets to live the normal life that she envisions for herself on record.  I certainly hope so, because she has enjoyed quite the unimaginable duress of having “the world’s worst song ever recorded” placed onto something that is honestly a throwaway.  While it’s not exactly an honor, it sounds more coherent than much of what I reviewed for last week's Rolling Stones album, Their Satanic Majesties Request, and Black can at least say that she never was a gigantic rock star that made a solo album terrible enough that she immediately tried to put her old band again so she never had to rely on those terrible songs (I’m looking at both of you, Billy Corgan’s The Future Embrace and Chris Cornell’s Scream).  If anything, she can look at this as a starting point, even a terrible one, and create an audience base for herself that coalesces around a brand new sound.  Or she can go on being a thirteen year-old that got very lucky and released something that she was proud of doing, and that allowed her to achieve what most young people only dream of having.  Neither possibility is a bad one for her, but I hope for her sake that she chooses the second option because otherwise she will have a long road ahead of her.  But if she chooses Option One, well, then we we so excited to see what happens with her music.   Just don’t count me among the “royal we” mentioned last sentence. 


Zack Hightower said...

Very well written my friend. I enjoyed it.

W.D. said...

To echo Zach above...Great job, man. Very well written.

Somewhat off topic (but not really), I feel like your role as a teacher in real life has excellently blended into your writing on these blogs. Every review has not only been thorough and thought provoking, but I've actually LEARNED something by reading them. You've delved into an aspect of this painful pop phenomenon that I would have never thought to consider, and I thank you for that.

Now, how about posting some of your music so we can make it into a new YouTube rock phenomenon?

Jake said...

ok, so being in the radio industry i hear a lot of, what i deem, swill on the airwaves. i cannot see the appeal in some (probably read most) of the acts out there right now. i work for a top 40 radio station. our target is 18-34 female, but mostly directed at a 25 year old girl. that being said, you can probably predict where the rest of this comment is going.

your typical 25 year girl is interested in one thing: something to dance to. they don't care about lyrical content, structure, musicianship. all they want to hear is a heavy drumbeat that will hopefully drown out any of the auto-tuned, pitch-corrected, perversion of what we call music these days. to that point, rebecca black is no better (certainly not) and no worse (hard to say) than most pop music out there. the 25 year old girl is why my station will play it as a bed to make jokes about. i have no reason to be believe this song will actually start spinning in rotation, but if the sales keep going as they are, look out. target demo taken care of.

unfortunately (earmuffs) popular music aka pop has now come to a 13 year old girl telling me the fucking days of the week. while most cringe at the noise coming out of her mouth, i just shrug and say, 'that's about right.' there are very few examples of pop music being relatable, thought provoking, good. however, the rest of the music that is, is not considered pop music - by radio standards.

by radio standards, lady gaga can do no wrong, britney spears will never go away, some rock music will seep in but it must be a duplication of said band's first hit (i'm looking at you nickelback). but all in all, the black eyed peas is what we have to look forward to for a very long time.

this song is of course atrocious. but how did it get so popular? i'd like to thank daniel tosh for featuring it in his show as something awful to make fun of. then, as usual, it blew up. but not because people were making fun of it, but because people started to like it.

here is where i start to blame children (or spineless parents, tomato to-mah-to). you see, parents have started giving in to their bad ass kids to a startling degree. this is why justin beiber has a career. no one takes this prick seriously except tweens who have no knowledge of good music. so when someone their own age becomes semi-successful, they are the greatest thing ever. so the kids bitch and moan until the parents buy the cds, concert tickets, t-shirts, backpacks, so on and so forth. i would be willing to bet you've seen some sort of justin beiber paraphernalia in the last two days.

sorry, i digress. the song has everything needed to become a hit (i won't get into the technicality of breaking down why this song blows, i have nothing to add to moody's precise analysis). a heavy dance beat? check. girl singing something you could give a shit about? check. rap section? check. boom goes the dynamite, it's a hit. why? because it's a kid talking about kid shit. another kid says to themselves, wow, i can really relate to this girl. i too like fridays. i too like fun, fun, fun, fun. i too have a hard time deciding where to sit. i too - SMACK!! (that was me slapping the shit out of the kid thinking this and handing them morrison hotel for some research.)

so i guess my overall point to this is as follows; does this song suck? in my opinion, like nothing has sucked before. will rebecca black have another song? you better be-fucking-lieve it. will it be as popular? hopefully not, but don't be surprised if it is.

Chris said...

I absolutely loved this Kyle, and I am very jealous of them fancy analytical writing skills you so deftly put on display here. My favorite line has to be: “So far all it has done is given me a headache and made me wish for death by fire”. There were sections in this article that were both equally entertaining and painfully insightful. This is form and content making sweet, sweet love. Lee Marvin love making if you will. You even got existential on our collective asses: “We are all in her car in the video, artificial and going nowhere, but still having a good time in spite of ourselves” And you just summed up everything that is wrong with popular music and popular culture, and by extension our society itself right there. Now, I did find this troubling, and borderline whimsically nihilistic—have things really gotten that bad? No, because as long as there are people out there pointing these things out, thinking about these things, discussing , and dissecting these matters a then there is still a faint glimmer of hope for pop culture. You are the Keanu Reeves of Pop Culture Kyle.

the model said...

My only thought on this song is that so many people talking about it, regardless of the reason, makes me nervous for the future of the human race.

Eric said...

Late to the party... amongst the sea of brilliantly written articles about Kentucky's trip to the final four that I've immersed myself in, I poked my head above water just long enough to find this little gem, which will stand out as the greatest thing I have read this month... and possibly this year.

I need to first apologize for my absence on this blog, while I love your writing, and hold your musical opinions in the highest regard, my knowledge of the majority of the albums you've talked about is minimal to existent, thus I have not had a whole lot to say.

But now, finally, HERE is an area in which I can lend my ill advised contributions!. I too had the initial instinct to set myself ablaze when I first heard this latest episode of "America's Got Nothing", however, upon further reflection, fire acts too quickly. I feel as though methodically sticking a red hot poker inter different orifices would be a more effective approach to wiping any and all memories of this "song" from my mind. I'll start with my tongue, move to the eyes, the ears, and finally I'll shove it right up my own ass, and the cleansing will be complete.

I agree with Jake's break-down of the formulaic nature of current pop music, and for the most part I agree that it is a tragedy, although I don't think that it has to be. I tend to not think of any of this stuff as music anymore, rather, it's just pop corn. You don't really think about it, you just eat it, and it's fun. Pop corn has no nutritional value, and it won't stay with you past the next-day squirts if you load it up with oil. Same goes for the majority (if not all) of pop-music. But I don't get upset when my popcorn sucks, and I don't get excited when it's amazing... it's just pop corn.

Since I lost my iPod connector for the radio in the delivery truck I have been forced to take a gander through some top 40 stations from time to time, and in the interest of full candor, I don't hate it all. I know it's almost all terrible, but there's something to be said for not needing to think about, or experience the music in a meaningful way, just let it happen. Now I'm sure that will cause me to lose man-points, or even cause my existence to be equated with that of Black herself... but I don't care, I like Rhiana, she's hot, and she like's how sex smells, nuff said...

W.D. said...


You're welcome.