Gotta Get Down: How Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ Accidentally Shaped A Decade
'Friday' walked so 'Old Town Road' could run.
The music industry in 2011 was a very different beast to what it is now. Streaming services were just starting to gain momentum, Pitbull was featured on every major pop track, and we were only just beginning to learn what the term ‘viral’ really meant.
But soon, we would know too well. On February 1, 2011, a a 13-year-old girl named Rebecca Black released a music video for her song ‘Friday’, and promptly broke the internet. The way the song — often dubbed one of the worst songs ever made — took off on social media was, at the time, unprecedented.
It cost Black’s family just USD$4000 to make — they paid production company ARK Music Factory for the song and for the video — and it ultimately set Black up for life. After being picked up by Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the categorically awful Daniel Tosh a month later, the song went from around 3000 views to 30 million views.
Suddenly, ‘Friday’ was spiralling out of Black’s control, on its way to become the most influential accident of the decade.
Simple, Yet Remarkably Effective
‘Friday’ is incredibly formulaic, which is a large part of what makes it so ‘bad’.
It uses the ’50s progression, a tried and true chord progression that started in the 1950s, and can be heard in pop music as recently as Justin Bieber’s ‘Baby’ and Taylor Swift’s ‘ME!’. Cultural critics at the time said that ‘Friday’s chord progression played a huge role in the song’s earworm-iness.
The common thread between all three of those songs, of course, is they are relentlessly catchy — and arguably annoying as all hell. There’s a childlike quality to all three songs that etches the melody in your brain after only a few listens.
On top of basic progression, Black’s vocal in the song — perhaps the most widely panned part of it — doesn’t really shift more than half an octave. While Black has since proven that she actually can sing, and really quite well, ‘Friday’ really doesn’t do her justice: it’s droll, it’s flat, and it’s heavily autotuned.
Autotune is just as valid of an artistic tool as any, with artists like Charli XCX, The 1975, and Kanye West using it to universal acclaim. In ‘Friday’, it was used to make Black’s vocal more friendly to audiences — in effect, making it easy for anyone with a larynx to belt out the words and not worry about how they sounded. Anyone can sing it, at any time, and nail it.
While the bonkers vocal prowess of artists like Mariah Carey and Ariana Grande can make for great entertainment, it doesn’t do much for those wanting to sing along with them. For example, when I try to hit *that* note in Carey’s ‘Emotions’, I sound less like an angel and more like Gilbert Gottfried stepping on a Lego.
But with ‘Friday’? I reckon I sound better than the original, and chances are you do too.
Breaking The Internet, For The First Time
‘Fridays’ reception exposed us to what would become quickly become a core part of internet culture, and the wider music industry, in 2019. That is, just how far one song can go for just being bad?
The original YouTube upload of ‘Friday’ was removed in June 2011 due to legal disputes with Black’s family and ARK Music Factory, and at that point it had over 166 million views. It was then re-uploaded to Black’s personal channel in September 2011, and has 138 million views at the time of writing — who knows how many views it could’ve garnered in that three months absence, and who knows how many times parodies, memes, and other uploads of the songs were viewed?
When I try to hit *that* note in Carey’s ‘Emotions’, I sound less like an angel and more like Gilbert Gottfried stepping on a Lego.
‘Friday’ dropped just as the decade began, just as social media was beginning to take hold of our daily lives. We had rarely seen the phenomenon of a ‘viral song’ before, or even a viral meme; ‘Friday’ effectively created the blueprint for every viral moment for the next nine years.
We’d seen glimpses of virality before: Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies’ was propelled into the stratosphere by everyone desperately trying to copy its choreography. But there was no kitsch element to ‘Friday’. It didn’t have any good choreography — it wasn’t even sung by, let’s say, an ugly animated frog with a disturbingly visible penis. This was just a 13-year-old girl singing a generic pop song about the days of the week. And it took off.
The way the song took off gave us an insight into how pop music, the internet, and virality would all co-exist with one another in the years to come; it’s hard to think of these three things as separate bodies anymore.
If you’re not an already an established artist, your success is anchored in virality — no matter how good you are. Black was a new artist who found international fame literally overnight. There was no time spent growing a fan base and there was no archive of content where fans could see growth, like you’d see in other YouTube-borne superstars like Justin Bieber, Troye Sivan, or Shawn Mendes.
She didn’t have the luxury of a reality show to boost her to fame like One Direction or Fifth Harmony. One day ‘Friday’ wasn’t online, the next day it was, and a few weeks later Rebecca Black was a household name.
One day ‘Friday’ wasn’t online, the next day it was, and a few weeks later Rebecca Black was a household name.
Now, because of ‘Friday’, going viral isn’t something that happens by accident anymore. It’s something to strive for, another prong for record label marketing executives.
A year after ‘Friday’, a K-Pop artist known as Psy would achieve world domination with the lead single of his sixth studio album, titled ‘Gangnam Style’. While there are few stylistic similarities between it and ‘Friday’, and while the influence ‘Gangnam Style’ had on pop music and the skyrocketing popularity of K-Pop now is a totally different article, it’s hard to imagine Gangnam Style’s virality had ‘Friday’ not preceded it.
All the elements are there — it’s easy to sing, the video that is easy to laugh at, and it includes some basic choreography that can be replicated by every relative at a family reunion. Yes, there have been bad songs well before ‘Friday’, but we had yet to see it in the digital age and we had yet to see a bad song grow so fast, so quickly.
So Bad, It’s Exceptionally Good
This idea of ‘music that is so bad it’s good’ that ‘Friday’ pioneered is still being seen and heard today — just look at the runaway success of 2019’s biggest song, ‘Old Town Road’.
Lyrically basic and thematically silly, it can be argued that the song is — on paper, at least — completely terrible. But that doesn’t really matter: the song is a marvellous feat of organised internet marketing. The multiple remixes, the numerous music videos, the aggressive groundswell of TikTok support: ‘Old Town Road’ was built to go viral, copying and expanding on the framework seen in ‘Friday.’
The influence of TikTok on the music industry is only beginning to be felt. Artist and labels are now directly targeting the app, hoping to send their music viral and follow the footsteps of Lil Nas X and Lizzo — whose track ‘Truth Hurts’ become massively popular two years after its release thanks to TikTok’s viral #DNATest challenge. Production teams are now collaborating with TikTok users to create music specifically for the app.
The teens on the platform don’t care if the song is good or not, they care if there’s a dance they can do with it or whether there’s a joke they can latch onto. The songs they utilise garner millions of plays, enter the charts, and spur on thousands of copycat artists to try their hand at viral fame.
For everyone asking why i say this, it’s b/c the younger generation is currently obsessed with it, but not b/c of the actual songs, b/c they can recreate their own dances based on who’s doing what (influencers), so it’s trash music (mainly) that is going viral due to this …
— The Kate (@_killakate_) November 7, 2019
You might not like it. In fact, you might struggle to find someone who really does, but the impact ‘Friday’ had on the music industry is still being realised. Without meaning to, a 13-year-old girl from California accidentally defined a year, and created the blueprint for what it meant for a song to go viral.
And as we prepare to strap ourselves in for the next decade and whatever ridiculous meme-hood the industry is thrust into, we simply have no choice to ask ourselves the same question Rebecca Black posed to us over eight years ago: which seat can we take?
Jackson Langford is a freelance music and culture writer from Newcastle. He tweets at @jacksonlangford.