Over 30 34 million people have now watched Rebecca Black’s “Friday” music video. It has trended more heavily than the earthquake/tsunami in Japan on Twitter, prompting an ex-YouTube crossover into traditional media including an interview on Good Morning America. Having done my share to spread it around (including this blog post, of course), I think it would be informative and useful to understand why it has caught on to the degree it has, how “Friday” has become the latest YouTube sensation.
The song and video are terrible in a variety of ways, and it’s easy to dismiss them as having no excuse for going viral. But the secret to content success is to elicit a large amount and large variety of emotions and thoughts in whoever’s experiencing it. Rebecca Black’s Friday does this to a massive extent. There is so much to think about and discuss with this video, operating on so many levels, that it’s not surprising that this perfect storm has gone as big as it has. Here it is:
Just to get orientated, here’s a quick rundown of all that is bad in this video:
Terrible Lyrics (yes, most of the song)
- “Gotta have my bowl gotta have cereal”
- “Kickin’ in the front seat, sittin’ in the back seat, gotta make my mind up, which seat can I take?”
- “Tomorrow is Saturday, and Sunday comes afterwords”
- “Yesterday is Thursday. Today it is Friday”
- “We we we so excited”
- Everything in the rap portion (the only clear rhyme is between “lane” and “lane”)
- Heavy autotune
- Heavy nasality
- Almost entirely monotone vocal line
Misplaced and Badly Performing Supporting Cast
- Awkward dancing friend in pink to her right in the car
- 13-year-olds driving…?
- Conspicuously older man appearing for lyrically useless rap sequence
Some of the hate has been remarkably directed at the video direction and production value, which is strange. First, this video benefitted tremendously from the fact that everything was so terrible despite the production value actually being good. The audio quality is actually solid, too. Singing aside, the music could have worked just fine for other “legitimate” pop stars. This video would have not gotten anywhere as a homemade video. That’s just it - I don’t think there has ever been an intentionally produced video with this much both done right and done wrong. The contrast is remarkable.
This contrast led me and others to wonder the obvious question: is this a joke? Surely there have to be some people involved in the production of this video that are taking it as one, to some extent. Is making it so bad a ploy to get people talking? Wondering that, of course, gets people talking. With Rebecca Black herself, we have to wonder if she knows how terrible her song is, which feeds into the mystery of whether it’s a joke or not. Can a 13-year-old be in on a joke of this magnitude? There is no doubt that her age adds the kind of authenticity that a YouTube star needs.
YouTube Star Naivety
We like the unintended innocence that the ease of a YouTube upload offers. A person is more special when they don’t realize how special they are. It appeals to our reality TV era sensibilities, but in the most raw sense, without the screened-casted-selected-choreographed-edited nature of most reality TV. We are captivated when we are convinced the person is doing something real and unsanitized. It’s the fact that they don’t know they will be big that makes it fun, which is why it’s so hard for a planned viral marketing campaign to work.
Campaigns can try to gain attention through sheer entertainment, but they’ll never re-create the feeling of discovery that accompanied finding Star Wars Kid, for example. If there was any product in the video, it would be outed. Even if we found out later that it was sponsored, we would feel like we had been deceived. The corporate future I see for this kind of thing is companies being quicker off the blocks to sponsor these people as the video grows. Can’t you picture a world where by day 3 of the video’s existence Pepsi has become an official Rebecca Black sponsor as the Friday drink of choice?
Take the awkward dancing girl in the pink in the back of the car. The moves are strange, resulting in animated gifs, modified animated gifs, a Facebook group, and a YouTube video by her where she fields frequently asked questions. Can’t choreograph moves like those.
We like to laugh at people, to be part of millions of people in on the joke at the expensive of the few. Then it becomes a game of “they’re laughing at me, so I had better laugh too.” This emotional protection is made that much easier when the person is able to profit off the world laughing at them, as Antoine Dodson achieved and (I hope…?) Rebecca Black will. Probably the most interesting direct social media marketing aspect of this is the Friday Rap Remix below. If you can endure it to the end, you will hear lyrics echoing YouTube comment criticism of the fact that the way she says “Friday” sounds like “Fried Eggs”, and that the rap interlude involves a man likened to “fat Usher”.
It’s some impressive quick adaptation with a healthy dose of self-deprecation, potentially handy in addressing some of the song’s criticism. Still, this is hardly a case for any real “damage control”, but more of a way to take the edge off while adding fuel to the fire.
Oh, the HATRED
Nothing brings people together like a good hatefest. There are countless Rebecca Black hate videos. Much of the criticism (typically involving adults calling this 13-year-old a bitch, unclear on both basic decency and the meaning of the word “bitch”) is directed towards some supposed audacity on her part, along the lines of “who cares about this girl and her stupid song? She’s so full of herself!” In this Internet of mundane status updates, there is little as arrogant as some YouTube nobody feeling like their opinion matters to anyone, or should matter.
Just as ironic is the fact that as responders cite “Friday” as some kind of downfall of mankind, she would be nowhere without the response itself. It’s not like she was popular and this is a bad thing (Justin Bieber). She just made a video, and the popularity is little more than the viral response to it, which is perhaps more indicative of such a downfall. We are at the point where virality can go viral. In any case, the responses add to the story, and the hatred becomes a rallying and thus sharing point.
I hate to say it, but I think there’s a lot of jealousy going on here. As this American Idol world continues to exaggerate the everyday normal person’s desire for fame, this kind of manufactured unjustified popularity infuriates the wannabe. Rebecca Black comes off as a relatively untalented rich girl (whose parents paid for the video to be produced) playing a rich girl role in her video in which she and her friends cruise around their neighbourhood in (presumably) daddy’s convertible while waffling about her self-indulgent carefree life. Part of the draw of the video is this “lifestyles of the rich and famous” vibe, as people wonder how come their parents never paid for them to be a pop star.
Rebecca Black is the embodiment of so much about our day and age and our music, integrated with our worries about the current/next generation. Seemingly somewhat spoiled kid. Despite the song being relatively grammatically correct, that the words “We so excited” were sung. R u happy ’bout that lol? That pop music has reached such a low it’s easy to churn out a piece of catchy garbage and achieve success (the company that created it is called the Ark Music Factory - at least they come by it honestly). That pop music has reached such a low that it’s possible (and likely) the song is not a joke, and can succeed despite being so bad. After all, it’ s ballpark at the same level as Hello Good Morning by Diddy. Autotune.
There are just certain chord progressions which always sound good. Complex music can offer a rich aesthetic experience, but there are some relatively simple patterns which, even if we’re a bit bored as the songs evade our higher tastes, inevitably tickle the brain. We’re wired for it, and much as we can rationally hate all that surrounds a poppy catchy progression, we can’t be honest with ourselves and completely deny the catchiness. The chorus chords in “Friday” fit the mold perfectly, conspicuously similar to fellow YouTube-made-star Justin Bieber’s song “Baby”. This does not make it a good song, but it still succeeds in an automatic positive way.
It took less than a day for the first variations to appear - the kinds of variations that only need a little bit of time. The video was sped up to chipmunk speeds and then slowed down for 15 minutes of trippy ambience.
Then, with many levels of quality and styles, the song kept getting covered. Today, more and more versions keep cropping up as people try to feel like part of a trend, scrounge for leech views by posting parasitic videos about trending content, amateur musicians get to perform a learnable song, and more advanced musicians get to showcase their creativity.
Some of these remixes and covers are parodies, some are not. Some, even while not parodies, are done in a joking manner, while some seem relatively serious. Viral content tends to get a big boost when other people can participate, and while remixing and reshaping popular isn’t limited to musical memes, music naturally offers expanded possibilities.
That the video and song are that terrible means that at every rough milestone of YouTube views (50k, 100k, 1 million, 5 million, 10 million, 25 million) the same cycle of thoughts gets refreshed and worth thinking about all over again. Is this video really at X views?! When people share the enjoyment of viral content with someone else, they can rekindle that enjoyment in together following how much the video has grown in popularity. In a case like this where there is a perception that the views are unwarranted, this element is exacerbated.
The Complete Picture
As I said, good content makes you think and feel a variety of things throughout the experience of the content, so here’s a summary of what’s compelling, of what made this video go viral:
- Terrible in an impressive variety of ways, paced throughout the video - Shock
- That it managed to grow despite it being terrible (or because?) - Mystery
- High production value, so potentially a joke, but unclear - Intrigue
- Frustratingly catchy in some ways - “Good”
- Meme-worthy additional characters in the video - Strange
- Rich girl jealousy - Envy
- Discovering that people can just pay for their kids to play pop star - Interesting
- Highly remixable - Interactive
- Contemporary issues about music, youth, pop, standards in general - Current
- Anger reactions - Catharsis
- It’s popular because it’s popular - Trendy
With these kinds of thoughts and emotions, there is a lot to talk about. The problems with the song are so abundant with hater fuel that people can’t resist voicing their opinion. That’s the core of what makes Rebecca Black’s virality unique here. This song is not supposed to be popular, but because it happened within a paradigm of crap music being popular, an entirely new dimension was added which gave a complicating legitimacy to the video.
I credit the early boom to the “is it a joke?” aspect and the contrast between production value and everything else, but the later explosion is partially caused by a misunderstanding of the viewcount as genuine aesthetic appreciation for the song. But then the song gets everywhere and a certain fraction of people actually do like it, so she ends up with more fans through the hate than she ever would have with pure love.
Much as she in many ways carries on a torch of crappy current pop, there will be only one Rebecca Black experience, which will be confirmed when we inevitably hear another music “factory” release of another high quality garbage kid’s song in case this is a trend to capitalize on. (it’ s not) Still, there are some concluding lessons for a marketer to learn from the success of “Friday”:
- The power of hate should not be underestimated
- Mystery and bafflement breed discussion
- There is intrigue in fitting within the spirit of the times - especially the bad parts
- Catchiness will never die
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