Rebecca Black’s “Friday”, Or: Dear Internet, You Should Be Ashamed Of Yourself

So apparently the Meme of the Week (TM) is this music video.

It’s not very good.  But to judge by some of the rhetoric surrounding it, you’d think it had caused the Japanese earthquake.

This is literally the worst thing I have ever heard.

It’s “a whole new level of bad.

It’s “the most epically-awful tune of the year.

It’s “the worst song ever written, composed, sung out loud or turned into a video.

Even Rolling Stone has weighed in, describing the singer’s voice as “pinched and stilted, like an alien attempting to pass an average American girl.” And of course Twitter users are tripping over each other trying to come up with the wittiest put-downs for it.

So if I agree in principle that it’s not a very good song, why am I bothering to mention it here?  Because this whole thing is so perfectly representative of one of the things I hate about the way the Internet has evolved — the way this gloriously diverse global community will occasionally come together to fall collectively like an anvil upon the head of some poor unsuspecting person whose only transgression is to not be hip.

Here’s the backstory on the now-infamous “Friday” video.  The singer is a 13-year-old girl named Rebecca Black.  The song was written and the video shot for her by an outfit called Ark Music Factory. Ark’s Web site isn’t very informative about how they operate, but based on reporting at Gawker, Salon and elsewhere it sounds a bit like a 21st century, digital-economy version of the old Who’s Who scam: Ark sells a kid a dream of stardom, and tells Mom and Dad that the only thing standing between their little darling and the realization of that dream is a beefy check.  Mom and Dad cut the check, Ark spends a bit of the money on a cookie-cutter package of song plus video plus Web site plus Twitter account (none of which cost that much to make these days) and keeps the rest.  It all probably feels pretty glamorous until reality sets back in.

All of which, of course, is worse than the song, in that it involves cynically exploiting the dreams of children (and the love of their parents) for profit.  But almost none of the commentary I’ve seen about “Friday” has been about that.  Instead, it’s been about making sure you understand how horrible Rebecca Black is. She’s a terrible singer!  She looks weird on video!  Her eyebrows are too bushy!  And so forth.

But here’s the thing: even if all of those are true, she’s also a thirteen-year-old kid.

Who among us was suave and sophisticated at thirteen?  Nobody, that’s who.  Thirteen-year-old kids are awkward, sharp-edged things.  They’re at a stage in life where they’re trying new personalities on, and most of them turn out not to fit very well. The only difference between your age-13 experimentation and Rebecca Black’s is that the only people who got to see you embarrass yourself are the people in the town you lived in, while today’s kids have the exciting opportunity to humiliate themselves in front of the entire planet.

Moreover, beyond all that, thirteen-year-old kids are fragile. It doesn’t take much to put a serious dent in the self-esteem of a kid that age. A single zit can do it.  And yet, knowing all that, we, Citizens of the Internet, in our all-knowing hipness, feel it’s all right to pluck a single one of those kids out of obscurity and focus upon them the weight of the entire world’s disapproval? (And not just disapproval of her song, mind you — disapproval of her voice, her face, her self.)

Would you be OK with that if it were your daughter being held up to be laughed at?

And there’s a larger question to be grappled with here.  I kind of expect this level of sophistication from the general run of Internet commenters; anonymity breeds douchebaggery, etc.  But many of the people who are piling on this poor kid aren’t anonymous, random commenters; they’re paid employees of major news publications. Look at those links back at the top of the post. TIME magazine, for Pete’s sake!  Rolling Stone!  Rolling Stone used to be where Hunter S. Thompson would unload on Richard Nixon; now they reserve their scorn for more deserving targets, like thirteen-year-old girls.

When did we reach the point where it became acceptable for professional culture commentators to beat up on children?

Is Rolling Stone going to start reviewing junior high school band concerts next?  I guarantee you there’s plenty of “epically-awful” performances to be found there! A rich vein of snark, just waiting to be mined by our hipster commentariat! Think of the pageviews!

No, of course they’re not going to do that.  But they are going to pile onto this kid, because unlike your junior high school band, she had the misfortune to be a kid and do the sort of thing that kids think would be great in an age where every childhood humiliation has the potential to be Facebooked and YouTubed and Gawkered into the mass consciousness of a billion people; where the most trivial misstep can serve as fodder for a full-scale Media Tornado, ginned up by cheap-shot artists trolling for hits while high-fiving each other about how damned clever they are.

There are a lot of people who should be ashamed of how they behaved in this story.  Rebecca Black is the least of them.

UPDATE (Mar. 17): This may take some of the sting off this whole fiasco for Ms. Black:

Rebecca Black’s widely mocked viral hit “Friday” was released on iTunes only yesterday, but has already cracked the digital retail giant’s Top 100 tracks. The song is currently at Number 69, and has been steadily rising up the chart all day, putting the self-released single in the company of recent major label smashes by Rihanna, the Black Eyed Peas, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and My Chemical Romance.

Ironically, if the memesters hadn’t decided to crucify her, “Friday” would most likely have sunk into obscurity as quickly as Ark Music Factory’s other productions.  But by hyping it up as The Worst Thing Ever, they made it something people had to check out, which turned it into an actual seller.

So apparently it’s true: there really is no such thing as bad publicity.

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