On February 10, 2010, a teenager from Anaheim named Rebecca Black posted a music video called ‘Friday’ to YouTube. One month later it went ‘viral,’ getting millions of viewers within a matter of days. Today its hit count is at 111 million plus, and counting.
All of this happened only because the video is so bad it’s funny. Black must realize this somewhere in the back of her thirteen-year old teenage head, although she avoids the fact in person (on a rather strange Tonight Show interview Jay Leno asked her how it felt to have so many people make mean comments about the song, and she replied that she “cried” at first, but now she “ignores” them. The audience applauded her. Everyone involved seemed to be politely sidestepping the obvious: the song’s sole reason for being is that it inspires mockery).
Black has at least a little bit of a sense of humor about the whole thing—she’s done a couple of videos for Funny or Die discussing the song lyrics. Or it might be that she just says yes to every opportunity for media exposure. Which I wouldn’t blame her for. Again, we’re talking about a thirteen-year old girl who it appears is thoroughly average in almost every respect—looks, musical talent, the ability to handle ironic situations. In the culture we live in, most of us would probably agree to do anything, within our own moral bounds, which would get us 110 million hits on YouTube.
When I first saw ‘Friday’ I thought it must be a joke. After a bit of research I’m still not completely discounting the possibility that the whole thing was a put-on, but it appears Black and the studio which produced the song, Ark Productions, were being forthright and just putting out a clean, decently produced, bone-jarringly moronic pop song. (Ark is somewhat controversial itself—it is a vanity music studio which charges around $4,000 to produce videos like this for teenagers, leading critics to charge the studio is just taking advantage of gullible well-to-do parents with disposable income. The production values seemed decent on ‘Friday,’ at least for $4,000—and they also threw in some random black dude rapping).
But what if it had been a joke? And even more than that, what if Black were some kind of sarcastic performance artist-slash-attention hound, who decided a putrid, nihilistically bland teen anthem would immediately ‘go viral’ on the internet?
I guess my question is: is it possible to pull that kind of thing off on purpose? Or is there an unmistakable aura of the genuine that comes along with ‘Baby with Funny Laugh,’ ‘Kid Goes Bat-shit after Receiving Super Nintendo,’ ‘Chinese Backstreet Boys,’ etc.?
This question has some philosophical merit in and of itself, because it deals with the way we approach media that has not been packaged professionally for our consumption—which makes up an ever-greater proportion of the media we experience in the YouTube age. But the question is also relevant to artists, who increasingly are turning to the internet, independent of traditional gatekeepers like studios or record producers or publishers, to reach their audience.
I saw a band named Apollo Run live a few months ago. They were playing at the Mercury Lounge in Manhattan—very small bar venue, with a tiny stage and floor space for an audience of maybe 50 people. They were good, if not necessarily ground breaking. A couple of weeks later, shortly after Charlie Sheen had his public melt-down on live radio, I noticed a friend (who is a big fan) had received a link on his Facebook Wall. The link sent me to a YouTube video by this same band. Literally a few hours after Charlie Sheen’s rant went ‘viral,’ the band had taken the entirety of Sheen’s incoherent ramblings and turned it into a song. They set up a camera next to a piano, performed it, and posted it to YouTube (it’s entitled ‘Charlie Sheen has Tiger’s Blood’). It had 500-some hits back then. It has 4,811 now. So it didn’t exactly go viral. But that must have been the intention—these guys, who are undoubtedly talented musicians (the song’s sound is evocative, despite the nonsense lyrics, which maybe was the idea), thought that maybe they could take advantage of our collective attention at that moment to launch themselves nationally.
It didn’t work out that way. I’m sure they knew the odds were against it. But just like Rebecca Black, I don’t blame them a lick for trying. If Black actually has any potential to make real music (unfortunately I highly doubt she does, from the little evidence I’ve seen), she’s going to get a chance to do it, merited only by one three-minute video which was so atrocious you had to show your friends. Apollo Run is competing with thousands of other bands to get a major record deal and some national exposure, in a narrowing market. If a joke song on YouTube is what it takes to get them there, more power to ‘em.
I’m not sure I like the direction all of this seems to be taking us, though. So far, ‘viral-ness’ is not determining which artists make it to center stage. But the continuous growth of avenues through the internet for musicians, filmmakers, writers, and other artists to reach an audience suggests that ‘viral-ness’ is going to play an ever-increasing role in who we pay attention to in the future. The decisions which were once made by professionals like music producers may increasingly end up in the hands of the hit counter on YouTube, or the ‘Likes’ count on Facebook. (MySpace remains a popular site for musicians, although I suspect another platform will emerge more suited to their profession—either that or Mark Zuckerberg will just suck artists up like he’s done to everybody else so far).
Many will look at the reduced presence of gatekeepers like music producers and say good riddance. Why should we need intermediaries? Why can’t we just vote with our clicks? Isn’t that what we’ve been doing on American Idol for the past ten years?
Here’s the rub—American Idol involves gatekeepers up until the very end. If we had to go online and sort through the 40,000 or so hopefuls who would otherwise wait in audition lines at the Superdome, we’d very quickly be overwhelmed. The only people we’d notice would be the William Hungs.
The concept of ‘viral-ness’ is still working itself out, just like the platforms artists use are. So far, the essential quality for being viral is that something amuses. The vast majority of things that go ‘viral’ are funny. There are only a few incidents of things going ‘viral’ simply because they demonstrate ability (I can think of one offhand—Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent). I’d hate to think that, in the future, every single band out there will be wasting time brainstorming ways to turn celebrity rants into songs, just to get our attention. YouTube is not the ideal way for musicians to reach us. We’re just gonna end up with a bunch of Rebecca Blacks. I hope the gatekeepers realize that they can use the internet to find talent, as well as sell music (Usher was wise to this—he found Justin Bieber on YouTube). Unless we both improve our collective taste and broaden our collective appreciation for internet fare beyond piano-playing cats, we will need those gatekeepers to save us from ourselves.