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Nothing could have prepared 13-year-old Rebecca Black for the pandemonium that erupted when her infamous single “Friday” went viral back in 2011. YouTube and social media were still in their infancy, and back then, the concept of “going viral” wasn’t even a thing, really. “I thought, ‘This is just something that 30 people are going to see,’” she tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume with a wry chuckle. “And sure enough, I was very wrong.”
As of 2019, the unironically and tirelessly cheerful, unnervingly earwormy “Friday” has racked up more than 137 million YouTube views. It has also racked up 3.5 million thumbs-down (compared to its 1 million thumbs-up) — which reflects its reception eight years ago, when many critics declared “Friday” the worst song and video of all time and the tween even received death threats online. Black put on a brave face at the time and laughed off the haters, even capitalizing on her newfound fame with the follow-up single “My Moment” and multiple TV appearances. But she was actually struggling mentally and emotionally due to all the cyberbullying, and she confesses that had to undergo “a lot of therapy.”
“I've gone back and asked so many times, why did I do that?” she admits now, referring to the way she remained in the public eye while “Friday” was blowing up. “Every now and again… I will end up in a deep dive of those old interviews or videos, and it's really weird for me to watch, because I was just lying to myself. I was out there on some of the biggest things in the world and biggest platforms, being like, ‘I'm fine, I'm strong, I'm cool. It doesn't bother me!’ And I really believed that at the time, but as I grew up and started to actually make music, or try to, I was so unbelievably insecure.”
Growing up in Southern California, Black was just a regular kid who loved theater and dance classes and was “never really cool. I was definitely not an outcast, but I was never the one with my Hollister get-up, or Abercrombie & Fitch, or whatever was popular at the time. So when I would get onstage, I knew that I could kind of create whatever I wanted. I don't know what was in my blood when I was a kid, but I was just so driven, because I just really loved it and I really enjoyed performing.”
It was Black who found the now-defunct ARK Music Factory and convinced her parents to pay the company $4,000 to provide her with a pre-written original song (co-penned by ARK co-founder Patrice Wilson) and a laughably lo-fi music video. “I actually have some pictures [from the video shoot] that I found the other day. I mean, this was no big-budget production,” she laughs. “We used leaf-blowers as wind machines that my dad had, and a green-screen made of cardboard from Staples. It was fun, and it was silly, and it was just one day. And honestly for me, by the time I had done the experience, I was kind of done with it in my world. … I honestly kind of forgot about the song. It wasn't anything that I was like, ‘I'm ready to launch my career!’”
But that is just what happened, for better and worse. The “Friday” video hit YouTube to little fanfare in February 2011 (it accrued fewer than 5,000 views in its first month), but in March, a snarky tweet by Rifftrax comedian Michael J. Nelson's tweet and a Tosh.0 blog post titled “Songwriting Isn't for Everyone” caused its traffic – and its negative comments — to spike by several million over the course of just one weekend.
“It was bizarre and it was just shocking,” Black recalls. “From the very first day when things started to blow up, immediately that company [ARK] called my mom and was like, ‘We can take the video down, and we can pretend like this never happened.’ She asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I just had this pit in my stomach of: ‘I cannot take this down, because then I would just be completely doing myself a disservice.’ I don't think I really knew how to describe that back then. But that is something that I've learned about myself: There is this resilience that sticks with me, for better or for worse. I just can't stop, because I think about the girl who has loved this her whole life.”
While the video was pulled from YouTube for a few months in 2011 due to legal dispute between Black’s family and ARK, it was restored on Black’s channel by September of that year and continued to accrue millions of views. Black realizes now that reading the comments on YouTube, or nasty messages on Twitter, was a terrible idea. “I know that it affects everyone in different ways, but I didn't have a massive team of people that were protecting me or helping me. I had my parents, who were veterinarians, so they knew nothing [about show business]. And I had a couple people of who I was working with that honestly just didn't even have my best interests at heart. So I would sit in my room and be on my phone or whatever, and I would read the comments. But it wasn't even about reading the comments on ‘Friday’ or Googling my name. It was any time I tweeted something or anytime I posted anything.
“When you're so young and that's such a tender, scary age because you think that you know everything but in reality, you're just barely scraping the surface of ‘who am I’?” Black continues. “And when you introduce literally hundreds of millions of people into that discussion with yourself at 13, you're going to believe everything that they're saying. So I think every article, every comment had something to do with how I began to feel about myself.”
But Black carried on and began writing her own material, and she says a single she recorded in 2017, “Satellite,” was a turning point for her career. She co-wrote that song with producer Finneas O’Connell, now known for working with his superstar younger sister Billie Eilish, and for the first time, she felt respected in the music business.
“Finneas was one of the first sessions that I feel like I left and was like, ‘I wrote that song. I am a huge part of that song. It's not like I just sat in a room,’” Black explains. “Because in that period of my early songwriting process a few years ago, when I was really trying to learn how to write, one of my huge issues was that I would get into sessions and be like, ‘Why am I here? I shouldn't be here. I am not talented enough. I am nothing to say.’ I would leave sessions and be like, ‘What the heck just happened there?’ … But with ‘Satellite,’ Finneas really felt like not just someone I was working with, but he felt like a friend. And then he became a friend.”
Black’s latest single is a noirish, indie-pop/darkwave collaboration with Cazz Brindis and Paris Carney, “Sweetheart,” which serves as a fierce message to men who didn’t take her seriously in the industry before. “The amount of people who have called me ‘sweetie’ or ‘sweetheart’ or ‘hey, sugar’ or whatever it is, and then just completely treated me garbage right afterwards — it's something I've lived with forever, being a kid and just so easily being taken advantage of in this world,” she says. “It was just something that I wanted to write about for so long. .. And then the music video was just like, we wanted to do something that was really fun, really out-there, and really tell a story. And so we thought, why not murder?”
Black is even applying her new moody aesthetic to, yes, “Friday” — performing what she describes as a “Courtney Love/Hole version” at her live shows. “Every time I got asked to perform somewhere, everyone would be like, ‘OK, but you have to play “Friday.”’ And at first, me and my management and everyone involved were like, ‘Oh God, I don't know.’ Because it's just different, and I don't want to go up there with something that I just didn't have the creative control over. It just felt I was reliving that time over and over again. Something that I wasn't necessarily creatively had a vision for, because I didn't even write the song.”
So, Black’s band set out to switch things up — “How do we play the song without making it weird? How do we play it and make it cool?” — and Black is so thrilled with the results, she says she’d love to rerelease the new “Friday” someday. “It’s re-imagined with me and guitar, and it is so much fun. It makes it more of a slow anthem now. … It's much easier to sing than at whatever, you know, 179,000 BPM it was at before.”
While the “Friday” experience was tough for Black at times, she’s grateful that it gave her the sort of opportunities most 13-year-olds could only dream of, like getting support from Katy Perry (who cast Black in the “T.G.I.F.” music video). “Having people Lady Gaga and Katy Perry when you were 13 just being like, ‘I stick with you,’ that was so powerful for me,” Black marvels. “And also, now I have a community of people who have stuck with me either from the get-go or have come along throughout the years… people who have in their own way had an experience like mine and have felt like they were an underdog or an outcast, and now they're getting the strength to help other people. It's indescribable, the kind of purpose it gives you. So I think that's the best thing.”
Finally, Black elaborates, saying “Friday” has given her “such an intense amount of empathy for other people, and for why they may be doing the things that they're doing or what they might be going through while they're saying they're ‘totally fine.’” When asked for her advice to any young people who may be with dealing with any sort of cyberbullying, she says thoughtfully: “This feels cheesy, but you're not alone. No one is alone in that. And also along those cheesy phrases, I think staying strong is something that is way harder to do than people tell you — and you don't have to be strong all the time. In fact, vulnerability is so much cooler when it's real. So be kind to yourself, and also don't be afraid to reach out to someone you trust, because that will really help.”
The above interview is taken from Rebecca Black’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Audio of this conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.
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