Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ And The Death-Drive For Factory-Made Pop
Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!
– Allen Ginsberg, Howl
So. Thirteen-year-old Rebecca Black and her lounge-room hairbrush routine-turned-actual iTunes moneyspinner ‘Friday’, made for US$2,000 by vanity pop producers the Ark Music Factory. Let’s watch it again!
It’s actually not nearly as bad a song as the entire internet seems to think. Black’s AutoTuned intonation (“Fraaa-ee-day, Fraaa-ee-day… I see my franz…”) is no more perverse than the flatulent post-grunge of Eddie Vedder and Ed Kowalczyk, the mewlings of Joanna Newsom or the truly peculiar enunciation of last year’s Eurovision winner, Lena Meyer-Landrut.
Perhaps the source of most mirth is the awkward, even autistic text created by Ark producers Clarence Jey and Patrice Wilson. For me, it doesn’t demonstrate the mastery over form you’d expect from either a parody or a cynical assemblage of pop’s clichés. Rather, it actually disregards many conventional aspects of song structure and is full of jarring thematic hook-turns and lyrical nonsequiturs.
It’s almost an abstraction of pop music, layering on broad-brush ideas about fun (“you know what it is”) to the point of meaninglessness in the same way that averaging every Playboy centrefold produces a ghost of a woman. And Wilson’s all-cruisin’, all-rappin’ guest appearance in the video, leading wags to dub him “the fat Usher”, surely must be the only rap verse, ever, that doesn’t rhyme at all.
Indeed, it’s a curiously quirky product to have emerged from a self-proclaimed ‘factory’. But it’s the very ‘factoryness’ of ‘Friday’ that drew the internet ire. Black, her mother Georgina Kelly, and other youngsters in the Ark stable have been painted as exploited victims or foolhardy famewhores, with the producers as cynical money-grubbers. Here are a couple of representative opinions:
“What Ark Music Factory seem to be doing is selling these children a dream and associating them with a poorly written, fast-tracked pop song which will most likely result in them being treated as a joke,” wrote Chris Singh in The AU Review. “These guys will be responsible for when these young kids’ dreams aren’t realised.”
Meanwhile, Ned Hepburn at Death & Taxes wrote furiously about “other teen girl pop singers that are seemingly being farmed out of a place with the word ‘factory’ in its name”.
For Hepburn the Ark Music Factory, rather than the life-preserving mothership implied by its name, is “a Rube Goldberg machine of desire: the machine constantly fed by the mere attraction inherent in its existence, that you too, may one day be famous.”
We decry these things so harshly because we do not want to become the third point on this unholy triangle: the idiot consumers who lap up venal pap. But the thing is: we have! And now we’re trying to be the good guys, to tell Black she’s a genius who shouldn’t listen to haters, but rather whip her hair and just shake them off. (Cleverly, Willow Smith’s ‘Whip My Hair’ pre-emptively rebuts criticism.)
There is nothing new or particularly scandalous about pop Fordism, from the Monkees and Archies to yé-yé, from the anonymous studio gangs behind Stars on 45 and Jive Bunny to the boy- and girl-band heyday of the ’90s… But still the twin myths of authenticity and transcendent personal stardom persist like gods to help us ward off a terrible truth: that pop is phony, anonymous and screeching toward oblivion… and so are we.
Everybody dance now!
C+C Music Factory was the brainchild of producers Robert Clivillés and David Cole. Working in that wonderful turn-of-the-’90s sweet spot between pop, house, hip-hop and Latin freestyle, they operated in a similarly grey area when it came to crediting their assembly-line vocalists. Martha Wash provided the iconic screech in ‘Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)’, but Zelma Davis lip-synced it in the video, and Deborah Cooper sang on C+C’s U2 cover, ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’.
This kind of switcheroo wasn’t – and still isn’t – at all unusual. Model Katrin Quinol had been the face of Italian house outfit Black Box while Martha Wash provided the actual vocals – well, except for their massive hit ‘Ride On Time’, which heavily sampled Loleatta Holloway’s 1980 disco song ‘Love Sensation’.
Honestly, when you look at the video you wonder how anyone ever bought the deception.
I’ve already waxed lyrical about Turbo B, the guy from Snap who so convincingly sold such preposterous lines as “I’m serious as cancer when I say rhythm is a dancer”. But whither Freedom Williams of C+C Music Factory, who once said, “It’s your world and I’m just a squirrel/Trying to get a nut to move your butt/to the dance floor”? His MySpace offers few answers. And whatever happened to the menacing Euro-rapper from the Real McCoy?
We willingly sacrifice children to the Moloch of pop. They go gladly, joyfully, hoping for fame. Some survive as Justin Timberlakes or Cathy Dennises. Others turn their descent into spectacles of abjection. Comparing the plump, polite Victoria Adams in the Spice Girls documentary Raw Spice with the terrifying WAG she became is like looking at Faces of Meth.
Rihanna’s ‘S&M’ video is more depraved in its overdetermined silliness than in the sexual practices it references. It’s depressing that anyone would consider it transgressive. Besides, Christina Aguilera went there first. By contrast, Ke$ha’s drunken antics are prim and wholesome.
Self-conscious monstrosity is everywhere in pop; Lady Gaga has made it her key motif. But juxtapose, if you will, the Backstreet Boys’ transformation into touchingly innocent horror-movie creatures with the eroticisation of horror and death in Kanye West’s ‘Monster’.
Poor Miley Cyrus, innocently launching her career by turning up the radio when a Jay-Z song comes on. One look at the dour Bluebeard in the ‘Monster’ video should make her ask, “What happened to his previous wife?” Because yes, its metaphor is grotesque and misogynist, yet ‘Monster’ is actually kind of honest. Pop kills. It kills its participants, who largely vanish unmourned into cultural oblivion.
Pop also kills its consumers, whose joy in simple rhythms and melodies deforms into an addiction to spectacle and mediation. When I say ‘mediation’ I don’t want to imply that we’re somehow distanced from pop. Rebecca Black has shown us that we can’t simply let pop happen to us; we must rush out to greet it, let Kanye see our fucking hands grasping hungrily for it. The internet made Rebecca Black; Twitter and Facebook were a whetstone on which we could sharpen our contempt, and in attacking her, we reincarnated her as a bona fide pop star.
The internet also revived Rick Astley, a minor product of the 1980s Stock Aitken Waterman factory whose song ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ was actually quite charming and adorable, and turned him into a punchline. Astley must now join in the joke, laughing at his own immolation. As the Greek historian Cleitarchus described a sacrifice to Moloch in Carthage:
When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing until the contracted body slips quietly into the brazier. Thus it is that the ‘grin’ is known as ‘sardonic laughter,’ since they die laughing.