After surviving the trauma of going viral at 13, Rebecca Black underwent an immense personal journey to return as pop's most unlikely prodigy.
Ten years ago, Rebecca Black starred in a YouTube video that would irrevocably alter the course of her life.
The now infamous “Friday” proved to be one of music’s more surreal viral moments. A cultural phenomenon, it was pop-turned-meme that captured the world’s attention and disdain with garish autotune and joyfully delirious lyrics.
The ensuing online savagery revealed the darker side of the internet—a place in which, emboldened by anonymity, the collective ire of a global online audience laser-focussed its ridicule onto a single teenage girl who simply wanted to sing.
Through the warm glow of nostalgia, it’s easy to gloss over this moment in time as just another footnote in the history of modern pop. A silly chapter in the ever-changing millennial zeitgeist.
Yet, a decade on, what does the virality of “Friday” and the unlikely renaissance of Rebecca Black teach us about life in the internet age? To figure this out, it’s best to start from the beginning.
Black grew up among the highways and palm trees of Irvine, California—often regarded as the safest city in the US. She lived what could ultimately be described as a typical, middle-class American life. Her parents were both veterinarians. She was enamoured with musical theatre. In the spare room of her house, she would loop a CD copy of Britney Spears’ 2003 album In The Zone and dance to the point of exhaustion. From a young age, she dreamed of performing on stage.
“That was the first album I ever had,” says Black via a Zoom call. “I would blast it, dance to nobody and feel this pure joy. The joy to move, regardless of what I looked like. My entire childhood was basically me chasing the feeling that performing gave me.”
What happened when Black followed through on these feelings for the first time has become the stuff of internet folklore. The abridged version goes something like this. For the price of $4,000, Black’s parents paid a company called ARK Music Factory for a song and music video production package. It was never intended to be a serious foray into the music industry. Rather, it was something fun for their extroverted daughter to do over winter break; a chance to see the inner workings of a recording studio while casting her friends and family as extras in a film clip.
She was given the lyrics to “Friday” and ushered into the recording booth. It was hoped that the experience would allow the budding performer to live out her pop star fantasies for a day. Perhaps, it would inspire her to continue singing. At the end of the process, Black would even have her very own music video to show for it—uploaded to YouTube to share and enjoy.
Of course, the fallout from “Friday” all but eradicated Black’s childhood joy for music. What was intended as nothing more than an entertaining project for a young kid who loved to sing, snowballed into the most ‘disliked’ song in the history of YouTube.
It garnered millions of views, attracted news stories from around the globe, mockery from the Late Night circuit, and was called the “worst song ever” and “mind-meltingly horrific” by a popular music blog at the time. From the age of 13, Black suffered years of online abuse that took a heavy toll on her mental health. The trauma of it all left her with a deeply seeded anxiety.
“I really struggled after my teenage years,” says Black. “I was so afraid all of the time. I remember having this distinct bodily reaction every time I would go on stage. That was something I’d never experienced before. I just felt so embarrassed. I felt this level of shame around [the song] that if anybody ever brought it up I would feel disgusting.”
The journey towards healing began when Rebecca walked out of her former life in Orange County at the first chance she could. The move was the first step on a path towards finding herself—and ultimately becoming the artist she is today.
“When I moved to LA, I was 18. I was so incredibly clueless and lost about where I wanted to go. I was lucky enough to meet some incredibly supportive people and professionals that I dedicated four or five years of my time working almost every day with, trying to unpack what had caused my experience.
“Going through such an intense experience as a child will only leave you with really extreme emotional consequences.”
“People have seen me in a state that, as honest as I like to be with my mental health, I wouldn’t wish on anyone because it’s incredibly vulnerable and painful. But that was really important to getting anywhere, because the more I tried to ignore that I was actually feeling certain things—the more intense the pain got.
“Going through such an intense experience as a child will only leave you with really extreme emotional consequences. Nobody wants to be that person. But accepting how severely I had been affected by my experience was the biggest step in [healing]. As much as people can try to help you get there, the only person that can get you there is yourself.”
Ten years on, Rebecca Black’s story is about reclaiming her narrative, creating on her own terms, and reconnecting with how all this started in the first place—her deeply entrenched love of pop.
“I think that’s the most ironic thing about what happened with ‘Friday’. Music was the thing that ultimately got me through that time of loneliness. It was the only thing I felt was there for me, for a long time.
“I feel now like I’ve never been closer to the person that I was as a child. I’ve done a lot of work on myself over these past five years to get back to that. To heal some of the teenage trauma that we’ve all been through.”
This transformation is foundational to Rebecca Black Was Here, a focused EP that dabbles in hyper-pop, sweeping synth ballads, and impeccable vocal performances. Black may have been thrust into the world as a viral phenomenon, forced to shoulder the weight of online cruelty. However, the masterfully produced EP stakes her claim as a captivating artist with bold vision; a narrative that arcs towards one of the most interesting perspectives in modern pop.
Case in point, the airtight track “Personal”. The addictive, heart-wrenching single encapsulates her growth, complete with pitch-shifted melodies and a chorus designed for spilt tears on the dance floor.
“I remember the day we wrote it, feeling the exact same way that I feel about the song now: like I had finally seen a part of myself that I was searching for,” recalls Black. “I feel such a close relationship to that song and I think I always will.”
For Rebecca—who came out publicly as queer last year—her turning point came with a watershed performance at NYC Pride. As she grounded herself behind the microphone, the performance anxiety that dogged her for years had finally relented. She had found community, joy and acceptance all at once.
“It was one of the best days of my life,” she says. “I’ve been searching for that for so long and it’s taken a lot of work. I had always been so afraid of that over the past 10 years. I finally felt like I was in my element again.”
What happened to Black when she was barely a teenager seems absurd. Imagine waking up to the scrutiny of the entire globe, powered by the binary engine of the attention economy—desperate for clicks at the expense of compassion or context. One night, Black went to sleep a typical Britney Spears fan. The next morning, she awoke as fodder for the digital machine.
Under the surface, however, is something far more universal. Black’s experience is emblematic of life in the online age. As we live our lives through the spectre of the internet, all of us will experience judgement and criticism at some point. Whether directed like knives, or felt through the dull barrage of thinly-veiled cynicism that tactically drives our cultural discourse.
“On one hand, you could look at my experience as being incredibly unique. But I really don’t know if it is,” says Black. “It might’ve been on a more intense scale but we’re all putting ourselves out there. I’m on Twitter all the fucking time. I see the way that people talk to each other. It doesn’t matter whether you have millions of people telling you how great or terrible you are or you have one small community or group—it feels pretty much the same. I hope that our younger generations and that we as a whole are learning how to be more empathetic and cognisant of the words that we choose and especially the way that we talk to each other.
“I do see progress. I’ve had a lot of people come out of the woods to tell me they apologise for the way they treated me back in the day, or any other person in their lives. That’s hopeful for a better future, but I think there’s so much work to go. I hope that on the day I decide to bring people into this world or have kids of my own that I can feel more comfortable giving them access to the internet. But I just don’t know. It’s too early. I think we all have a big responsibility to build the internet that we want to see.”
The potential for the internet and social media to redeem themselves as forces for good in society’s future remains to be seen.
The future for Rebeca Black has never looked brighter.
Rebecca Black’s Rebecca Black Was Here is out now via RB Records.