Two Great Songs,
Neither Of Which
Is By Rebecca Black

commentary by
Rory Marinich

I think it's safe to say that nothing more important happened in March 2011 than the release by the ARK Music Factory of 13-year-old Rebecca Black's first single, Friday. I might be forgetting some horrible disaster in Japan or protest in Wisconsin, but I don't think that I am.
The friend who first sent me the link presented it as a trainwreck of a song, called it "hilarious", and told me I would love it. She was about half right. I do love Friday, which dominated both my week and weekend, and it's unintentionally [?] funny in a lot of ways. I just don't know if I would call it a trainwreck.
declaration of admiration
People seem to hate it for a few basic reasons, though this is by no means an exhaustive list:
  • It sounds annoyingly like Justin Bieber's hit single "Baby": its hook opens with the exact same rhythm and melody, it's a corp-pop song glorifying teenage life fronted by a young autotuned singer, and it has an unrelated rap bridge.
  • Some of its lyrics are wonderfully awkward. (See especially "Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs / Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal", "Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday / Today it is Friday, Friday / We we we so excited", and "Tomorrow is Saturday / And Sunday comes afterwards", which is my personal favorite.)
  • The hooks are all simple to the point of hilarity.
  • The music video appropriates the glossy polished format of the modern nonGaga pop video, but not perfectly; there are some glitchy, ugly animations, and everything looks just a little too glossy.
  • To some, a thirteen-year-old girl singing about the need to "get down" and "party" on the weekend reflects the soullessness and shallowdom of modern American society.
refutation of critics I
This last point is a variant on a larger common criticism of pop music. Critics, particularly critics who are frequently forced to listen to pop hits, often point to a song's simplicity or subject matter or stupidity or undepth as signs that our culture is hollow, rotten, and doomed. I've heard this used as a criticism of many artists, including but not limited to Beyonce, Britney Spears, Owl City, Coldplay, Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, Chumbawamba, Daft Punk, Mozart, Philip Glass, and the Beatles.
digression re: pop philosophy
I can sympathize with this impulse, especially if I'm working at a summer camp and the dance DJ insists on playing every Katy Perry hit every week, but I don't think it makes sense to judge a culture by its popular music. By its nature it's a reflection of our lowest common denominator interest in music. Some people don't like jazz. Some people don't like twee folk-pop. My flatmate doesn't like Japanese polka sea shanties, because he is an idiot. What we have in common is pretty generic: we like catchy melodies, driving rhythms, things we can sing along to, and lyrics which reflect our shared experiences, which pretty much just means love, heartbreak, and high school.

Would it be great if our shared interests were more diverse and complex? Sure. But as our culture goes increasingly global and open, it becomes harder and harder for us to agree on just which complex interests we should all share. The most interesting cultures tend to be communities that have developed unique traits and customs; we're not going to get those in an enormous society unless they're being forced on us at birth. Instead our society is divided and subdivided; instead of one interesting culture we have thousands of them, with one generic central culture that changes slowly and laboriously.

Which isn't a problem unless you assume that the central culture is necessarily the most important culture just because it's the largest. Ironically, the people who are the most loudly critical of pop culture are frequently also the people most obsessed with it. (But only so they can understand just how fucked we are, presumably.)
minor pop thesis
If your criticism of Rebecca Black is that she's being forced on you by your peers, you've got a valid reason to complain. If your criticism is that Black is indicative of the lowness of our culture, well, I think you need to examine our culture a little bit more, because you're wrong. But if your criticism is of the song itself, then let me refute my own critical bullet points from earlier:
  • Maybe Justin Bieber's songwriters are offended that Friday lifts a melody from Baby, but I'm not going to get offended for them. A hook is a hook. In some sense I consider it a pop mash-up of the original, or even a deconstruction. (More on that later.)
  • I'm saddened, though not surprised, that people see the lyrics' badness as a reason to be mean and vicious. I unabashedly love bad things, especially if they're unintentionally so. I love White Castle, The Room, Mark Gormley, and the second season of Twin Peaks. I think it's a mark of empathy to be able to laugh with things rather than at them, especially when the "thing" in question is a girl who's not even old enough to be considered "not an adult".
  • If I'm singing in a car with friends, I don't care how simple the hooks are. Complexity of composition is not what makes Friday the best pop song of all time, okay?
  • The music video's polishedness is a part of the format. The music video's glitches are annoying, but they also humanize, for me, the people who made this song. (More on that later also.) But certainly I don't think a bad music video is worth more than either laughter or gentle criticism. Somebody made something imperfect. And?
Generally speaking, the only reason to be an asshole about something that isn't actively killing people, destroying the planet, or spreading misinformation is that you are an asshole. Which is okay (see "empathy for imperfection" above), but it's something that I feel you ought to try not to be.
refutation of critics II
But simply not-hating something isn't a good reason for loving it. What really hooked me on Friday wasn't the song itself. It was my discovery of the ARK Music Factory, the vanity pop press responsible for Rebecca Black and a slew of other young female artists. ARK writes and produces music for girls aged 13 to 17, and all of the songs follow a similar "Baby ripoff" formula. It's hard to differentiate between Rebecca Black's Friday, Alana Lee's Butterflies, Sarah Maugaotega's Take it Easy, or jolie (sic?) Adamson's Armour.

Is this creepy? Yes! Is this awesome? Double yes! If I'm going to listen to formulaic pop music, I don't want something handed down to me by an enormous corporation that wastes millions of dollars on mediocre musicians. I want my pop homegrown by a couple of bright lovable doofuses who occasionally slip up and give me something hilarious. I want performers who aren't good enough to be full of themselves. Ideally, I want pop music from a farmer's market in my hometown, but nobody in my hometown has that much free time on their hands.

Critics are absolutely right that Friday shows, even more than Baby did last year, that the pop formula is crazy easy to emulate, and that literally anybody can write a song that at least sounds like a pop hit. But critics miss the fact that this is incredible. Power to the people! Let everybody write crappy songs with catchy hooks! I hope that ARK Music becomes the Velvet Underground of corp-pop. I want everybody who hears Friday to go out and form their own vanity pop press. This could change the world.
examination of ARK
But as good as Friday was, its "sequel", an anonymously released "new Rebecca Black single" called Prom Night, is even better, kind of. Friday is a blatant abuse of a certain pop formula; Prom Night deconstructs the formula entirely. The result is a song that is bad in all the same ways, but more.
I love this song so much that I don't even know where to start loving. How about the way that the autotuned singer hits the right notes for just the first verse, and then immediately slips and begins hitting flats? Or the way the chorus copies Baby just the way Friday did, and changes it even less? (Well, really it's copying Friday's copy of Baby, but there's still that brief echo of Bieber in there.) How about the second hook, which mimics Friday's "Partying, partying / Yeah!" with an even more monotonous "Dancing dancing dancing dancing dancing dancing dancing / Ey!" Or the opening, that hesitant "RB, Rebecca Black" that sounds simultaneously nervous and smug, with the sound of the crowd cheering in the background.

The lyrics do some clever things to be funny. They rely on a kind of ADD-spoofed enjambment, where a phrase that seems like it's heading towards a payoff instead immediately changes the subject. ("My hair is curled and my perfume smeeeells / good. I like a boy, he's nice." Or, better yet: "We're all dancing in the sky. / His eyes look great cuz they are brown.")

And then there's the rap bridge, which is even funnier if you didn't realize the song was a parody before it began (which is how it happened with me). The rap bridge in Baby was ridiculous to begin with — why is a 32-year-old man trading verses about love with a teenager? (It's still terrific, because it's Ludacris and Ludacris can do anything.) The bridge in Friday was funnier because the rapper wasn't famous, so we could appreciate it properly for its creepiness. Prom Night can't be unintentionally creepy, seeing as it's an intentional spoof, so instead it makes its rap bridge an abrupt shift into profanity, sex, and violence. ("Prom night is the night to fuck! / This guy tried to fight me so I killed him and shit!" Followed by a lot of garbled, undecipherable lyrics, or maybe chanting.) The rest of Prom Night is a fairly subtle spoof, so the shift into the goofy immaturity of the bridge is incredibly satisfying.

Prom Night is by no means the only parody of Friday to have come out this week, but it's easily the best. (Ethan Newberry's Saturday is my runner-up — the video's great, particularly the bridge — but it makes the more obvious jokes. It's a spoof, not a satire.) What I think is remarkable about it is how subtle a joke it is, and how quickly it was made in response to the original. And let's face it, if it was made a week from now nobody would care.
gleeful analysis. gleeful.
The incredible thing about the Internet is that, by letting everybody have a voice, it gives people the freedom to be as obscure or clever as they want. Nobody would have realized they wanted Friday in their lives until they heard it. And fewer people still will want or appreciate Prom Night, but it's there for the small weird audience of people who will appreciate it.

I think the best thing about pop is that because it spreads itself so far and wide, it opens itself up to a lot of subcultures at once, who each respond to it differently. It's a common language that we all speak. In the best cases, it becomes a tool that we use to relate to one another, even to understand each other. Not necessarily because it's good, but because it's there.
conclusion
Technically speaking, Friday was released in February, but nobody noticed it until March, which makes March the month it was released.
footnote I
The fact that my header and title cards were set in Arial Black was deliberate, yes. Thank you for noticing. Thank you for appreciating me.
footnote II
I hope nobody minds that I didn't write about Japan or Wisconsin. I also hope that you weren't mad at my "gotcha!" title. Still: gotcha!
footnote III
For the sake of completion, the third Friday-related song that's been on the driving playlist is the dubstep version, which is more of a joke with an obvious punchline that's followed by a lot of dubby dithering.
footnote IV
One last theory, for the people who love theories: What if the rapper in Prom Night is actually the boy "Rebecca" wants to dance with? "Our hands are touching / I like him a lot" versus "Prom night is the night to fuck" — is there meant to be a connection between these two narratives? Two perspectives on the same event? Was "Rebecca"'s boy the one who got "killed and shit"? Why is one of these characters speaking in the past tense and the other one speaking in the present? Is the final chorus meant to be a tragic piece of dramatic irony? I think I need to sit down.
footnote V
Authored by Rory Marinich. Follow the blog via RSS, Tumblr, or follow Rory on Twitter.

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