Rebecca Black’s real crime? Childishness
The mad rage against the throwaway ditty ‘Friday’ speaks to a society that can’t just let kids be kids.
At the end of a lesson last week, one of my sixth-form students asked whether I had heard about YouTube phenomenon Rebecca Black and her video for a song called ‘Friday’. ‘You have to see it, sir’, said the student. ‘It is possibly the worst pop song of all time.’ On the titular weekday itself, girls in my Year 10 tutor group asked if they could sing the chorus. At which point one droll boy groaned: ‘Every time I hear it, a part of me dies.’
The playground and classroom have long been arenas for pop wars. Supposedly serious rock and indie fans battling it out with those who listen to manufactured chart pop… it’s all good knockabout fun for uniformed schoolkids. What is truly weird about the ‘Friday’ phenomenon, however, is not that a perfectly normal 13-year-old girl should want to record a song, or that perfectly normal teenagers should later laugh about it at school; rather it is the abnormal backlash that the song has provoked in the adult world.
Black’s parents apparently paid $2,000 for her to record a song (and video) with a vanity pop company called ARK Music Factory, which specialises in tweenie pop for kids. Her song soon became a laughing stock and, following one viral link after another, it clocked up millions of YouTube views. But instead of this episode being treated with a ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of student irony, ‘Friday’ has generated a deranged level of hatred and Twitter rage towards Black. With some bloggers urging her to commit suicide, anyone would think she was part of Colonel Gaddafi’s political clique rather than simply a wannabe teen pop star.
The video for Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’
In truth, ‘Friday’ is no better or worse than the standard auto-tuned pop currently clogging up the charts (and it’s actually more memorable than Radiohead’s latest album). It’s a thinner version of Girls Aloud or Black Eyed Peas, but whereas those acts are made up of fully grown adults, Black at least has the excuse that she is only a 13-year-old girl. Yes, the lyrics to ‘Friday’ are banal, but as far as calendar-reading insights go they aren’t that much different to The Cure’s equally dumb ‘Friday I’m In Love’.
The video for ‘Friday’ has been mocked for showing young teens driving around in a car and partying, when clearly they are not old enough to do either. But that is surely far less weird than the top-shelf-style crotch-grabbing videos beloved of Rihanna and Katy Perry and other pop stars listened to by young people. Today, an unhealthy obsession with the evils of paedophilia seems to go hand-in-hand with an equally unhealthy diet of flesh-baring pop videos for kids. No doubt the rather more innocent video for ‘Friday’ has generated so much venom partly because it doesn’t resemble late-night chat channel Babestation, as so many videos are expected to these days.
Stranger still is the extent to which many adults only seem capable of measuring their adult status by laying into kids like Black or Justin Bieber. It is rather sad when supposedly serious music mags or broadsheet newspapers can only generate a sense of superiority through mocking children. In reference to teenage favourites and alleged virgins the Jonas Brothers, acclaimed rapper Jay-Z exhorted in his song ‘On to the next one’: ‘I’m not a Jonas, I use my cojones.’ To which the only sensible reply is surely: ‘bollocks’. What kind of hardcore rapper can only prove his manliness by mocking guitar-strumming youth?
Measuring your adult worth against childish behaviour is a symptom of the strange topsy-turvy world we live in, where the boundaries between adults and children are increasingly blurred. In the rather more serious world of the law courts and criminality, young children are worryingly judged to be on the same level as grown adults and, in some cases, are punished accordingly. Likewise, youthful delinquency is not seen simply as an expression of immaturity, and therefore something that can be changed, but rather as an indicator of deep-rooted personality traits. Again and again, children are treated merely as little adults or screwed-up adults-in-the-making.
In this sense, the backlash against Black and Bieber and others follows today’s trend for failing to judge the differences between fully fledged adults and teenagers. It would, of course, be ridiculous for the pop fluff of ‘Friday’ to be treated with the same level of seriousness as, say, a Nick Cave album or a Bob Dylan album – and yet in the rush to condemn this lightweight ditty, or, in the case of Lady Gaga, to praise its genius, that is more or less what has happened: a 13-year-old girl’s throwaway song is madly being judged by adult standards.
Leaving aside the actual artistic content of Black’s songs or Bieber’s albums, in many ways their ascendancy is something we should welcome – because it is a kind of antidote to the widespread expectation today that children should act as tiny adults. As personalities, these singers are a reminder that young teenagers are still some distance from having adult status. This isn’t to suggest that teens need to be infantilised and permanently wrapped in cotton wool, but rather that a mature society should recognise what are the boundaries between adults and children. If there is any place to rubbish Rebecca Black’s song, or even to sing along with it, it is surely in the playground rather than the newsroom.
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.