Trigger warnings for suicide, self-harm, cyberbullying, sexual/physical harassment
“It’s definitely one of the most meaningful things I’ve written for myself. As I’ve grown up, I’ve realized there are certain people I’ve let into in my life that aren’t healthy for me. This song is about letting those people go and feeling power in knowing that’s the best decision for you.” – Rebecca Black in Entertainment Weekly on her new single “The Great Divide”
I remember when Rebecca Black’s “Friday” went viral. It was during the week of my 20th birthday, which I spent with my family at the beach (although it was too cold to do much other than peel shrimp indoors). Nearing midnight on March 11, 2011, I was on Facebook waiting for my first couple of birthday wishes to popup in my notifications (because I love feeling loved), and suddenly posts related to the tsunami that had just decimated Fukushima began to appear in the form of #japan, #fukushima, #tsunami and #PrayForJapan. And as I tried to shuffle through the “Happy Birthday!”’s and 「大丈夫？」’s on my Facebook feed over the next few days, it wasn’t too long before there was another “birthday present” trending. My page was flooded with #friday, #RebeccaBlack, and #WorstSongEver, and, almost instantly, the discussion about Japan disappeared from the Western-hemisphere-side of Facebook, teleporting me into an virtual whirlpool of contradictions and counter-arguments. In terms of polarizing tensions (that only social media can deliver), I was struck by the fact that not only is a catastrophe capable of harming so many, but so many people are capable of causing a catastrophe. How could people post messages of compassion and love with one status update and then post comments of vitriol and hatred on a YouTube video in the next stroke of the keyboard?
The complete disconnect (and disregard) between the relationship of these two globally-circulated events and how they revealed the hypocrisies within our own culture really challenged my own conception of just how easily public opinion can be manipulated by The Media™. At the time, though, I was just a young, recently-turned twenty-something in my first ever media arts class (having just recently switched majors that semester) and didn’t quite have the language to describe my thoughts and feelings about these events. Five years, however, can make quite a difference. With the recent release of Black’s new single “The Great Divide,” I think I have finally (in her words) “found my voice” when it comes to matters of youth advocacy and empowerment, especially as it pertains to labors of love created by young artists, and why, even after all this time, experiencing that sudden shift on my Facebook lingers with me.
“It’s Friday. Friday. Gotta-crush-young-girls on Friday.”
Rebecca Black, a young girl of Mexican-descent (13-years-old at the release of “Friday”), was insulted, threatened, exoticized, sexualized, objectified, and even the target of anti-Semitic hate speech for her perceived Jewish heritage, due to rumors circulating blogs about “Friday” being a bat mitzvah gift in the early days of its virality. Ultimately, all of these comments and death threats led to Black being traumatized by strangers on the Internet who felt empowered by their anonymity to be as cruel as they desired. When reading the comments, it quickly becomes evident that people are not only insulting Black for her video but for the girlhood she represents–specifically, a girlhood constructed through her own lens rather than a corporate entity trying to sell a product.
We cannot reduce the online criticism of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” to an objective analysis of its musical quality, but must instead understand it as a subjective response to a young girl enjoying herself and having fun. This, by extension, highlights our culture’s foundational value of misogyny that dicates young girls can only express themselves in a way that does not annoy others. THOUSANDS of young people create video content on YouTube (the vast majority of whom are boys) who never garnered this much attention, even when shared on platforms like Tosh.0. There are even other music videos made by Ark Music Factory, the company that produced “Friday,” that feature other young people performing “lackluster” lyrics and never received the amount of attention and vitriol hatred that Rebecca Black received. And in fact, the only serious problem I have with “Friday” how Patrice Wilson and his company targeted young girls (often sexualzing their images) and essentially scammed their families. (But it’s cool, Black eventually took them to court, and later won a legal battle against her corrupt manager as well.)
My own sister and I used to make little music videos and weird news programs that we never even uploaded to YouTube, out of fear that someone might find them and make fun of them. When I see “Friday,” I see a young girl belting out song lyrics while surrounded by friends and family dancing their hearts out. Does her voice crack? Does she miss a couple of notes? Does the chord progression get stuck in your head for weeks on end? Absolutely—and all of those reasons are what make “Friday” and Rebecca Black so important and so unapologetically youthful. While I might not have any of those earlier videos made with my little sister anymore, in the spirit of unapologetic youth, I will share my own “bad green screen” video from my teen years.
“Welcome to jolly good ole England!”
Although “Vacation.com” might not have the Auto-Tuned melodies and production value of “Friday,” there is no denying our shared aesthetics of teen awkwardness, our desire to make something funny (that is most certainly not funny in the ways that we intended), and most notably our mistakes. What I love about Friday is that it’s campy, that it’s funny (in all the “wrong” ways), and that it is undeniably youthful. The major difference is that when I posted my video on YouTube it was never intended to be shared with anyone besides my friends and families (very similar to Rebecca Black’s motivations), but I cannot imagine someone finding this video and dubbing it as the #WorstCommercialEver or tearing its technical and performative elements to shreds. I would have probably never picked up a camera again. I would have never pursued an education in media arts. And I most definitely would not be studying youth media culture and working towards my Ph.D in Art Education.
And so when Poelano Malema exclaims, “Forget ‘Friday’, Rebecca Black’s new song is lit!” I have to disagree. Not to say that “The Great Divide” isn’t a powerful performance, but rather that we must remember “Friday” and not erase Black’s experience, story, or resilience. It is CRUCIAL to understand both of her texts in conversation with one another. To understand the trauma of being harassed and threatened for creating art at such a young age, and how she overcame this toxicity to continue following her passion. To see her learn and grow and ultimately educate us on the violence of our own culture that somehow allows strangers (many of whom were middle-aged men) feel entitled to tell a young girl to take her own life because they found her song annoying… I just..
I want that sentence to sit with you for a moment. I want you to understand the depth of the invisible violence that pervades in our culture that Rebecca Black faced as a young woman, and that very few people intervened or spoke on her behalf. Because it was easier to laugh at her singing a song about a day of the week, than it was to engage with the perpetual violence that young people – especially women and gender minorities who are people of color (of which Rebecca Black exists at the intersections) – experience in our culture. Because that means you would have to stop laughing and take something made by a young artist seriously, even if it doesn’t “feel serious.” Whatever the fuck that means.
Please, note I’m not talking about critically analyzing the lyrics or images of “Friday” (Rebecca Black already did that), but I am asking you to critically engage with the culture that enabled the ruthless cyberbullying of a thirteen-year-old girl to reach an international level. And while Rebecca has been able to rely on the support of her loved ones to continue pursuing music, this is NOT how the story ends for most young people. Cyberbullying is deadly, it is real, and it is becoming more sophisticated now more than ever. And it is the whole reason I got into activism. Because of stories like Rebecca Black, Tyler Clementi, Jamey Rodemeyer, Megan Meier, Amanda Todd, and so many others, including my own.
For those of you who do not my own story and history with cyberbullying, let me give you the Sparknotes version of events. I was 16, still identifying as girl and in a secret relationship with a female classmate. I was at a boarding school, and another student began to suspect that something was going on and took it upon herself to record video evidence of us being intimate. This video was subsequently shared over social media with the rest of our student body before a friend notified us. Administration “fixed” the situation by deleting the video and calling it a case of “digital harassment” (colloquial usage of the term cyberbullying didn’t exist yet). No further actions were taken. Even to this day, standing in front of a camera or being filmed without my consent makes me nervous. This certainly creates an interesting tension in my chosen art form, but perhaps also makes sense that I would want to have more control over the technology from behind the lens. An artistic obstacle that I share with Ms. Black, only instead of the camera, it’s the mic.
So if you have not been cyberbullied (which let’s face it, most adults have not), then you cannot possibly understand the depths of paranoia and anxiety that go into everyday interaction with technology. Now, imagine you are not only being locally cyberbullied but globally. Now, imagine that you are determined to use the same medium and format that your abusers rallied around last time. Now, imagine that you crush it – not just for yourself but in the faces of all your haters. Now, you have the anthem that is Rebecca Black’s “The Great Divide.” See, told you that you needed both texts together to really appreciate the labor of love that is Rebecca Black’s post-Friday music.
Circling back to “Friday,” and for those of you still skeptical about the relationship between a tsunami and a thirteen-year-old’s music video going viral, I would like to reveal a little known fact about Rebecca Black. She fully acknowledged her video was diverting attention from disaster relief efforts in Japan and donated many of the earnings from “Friday” to emergency funds for those impacted by the tsunami. She saw a connection between the discussion of the two events and sought to use her platform to have a conversation about it, except no one noticed because what do kids know, right? Oh, and the other part of those initial funds — she donated to her SCHOOL — which she credits with encouraging her to pursue singing and music. Which is more than I can say for the rest of the Internet.
In many ways, it almost seemed like the emotional laboring of caring about another part of the globe, somehow gave many people a “karma cushion” that they could cash out with hate, as if those are reciprocal actions. I remember searching for articles that discussed this tension between “praying for Japan” and “preying on Rebecca Black” but never found anything that really got to the heart of the issue. Instead those articles were often chastised Black’s “selfishness” or “self-centeredness” — for taking attention away from the disaster or that the West was too easily distracted by the next trending topic to care for anyone else other than themselves for too long.
But there’s something deeper at work here, into the way that our mass media conglomerates (Facebook, Twitter, The News, TV, etc.) produce topics for us to discuss and form opinions about (however polarized they might be). So while I cannot really choose to engage with Rebecca Black or not (because even if I choose NOT to engage — that’s still a choice I’m making in response to The Media™’s options presented to me), I can choose how I engage with Rebecca Black. And I choose to make this a teaching moment. I choose to change this conversation. I choose to praise Rebecca Black not despite of “Friday” but because of it. I choose to validate a young artist creating art — whatever its form, its function, or its failure.
“I just had to tell myself, ‘This is going to be okay. I’m okay. I’m good at what I do.’ Who cares if I make a mistake? Who cares if I have a bad day in the studio? That’s all part of my journey, all part of my progress.” – Rebecca Black in Entertainment Weekly
My goal as an art teacher (and now as a teacher of art education) is not only teach the skills and tools that my students need to create works of art, but also to find those moments of potential and spark in their pieces that might even be invisible to them. Art is a labor of love. And if you render that labor invisible, then not only are you exercising your privilege as an adult to not see it but also enacting your power to invalidate their work. And it is absolutely crucial for young people to understand and value their art and, by extension, understand and value themselves. Because Rebecca Black is an exceptional case of youth resilience in the face of extreme adversity, and not someone we should take for granted in this violent culture we perpetuate everyday by rendering stories like hers invisible. So I choose to see Rebecca Black, to listen to her music, to be empowered by her resilience, and to be inspired by her story. Will you?
And while you decide, I’m going to excuse myself and continue listening to “The Great Divide” on repeat until next Friday.