It's Been 10 Years Since Rebecca Black Released "Friday," and the Internet's No Kinder to Young Girls
Ten years after releasing "Friday," the music video about everyone's favorite day of the week, Rebecca Black is thriving.
The now-24-year-old never gave up her pursuit of music, despite the hell she endured as the poster child for viral infamy. This past June, 10 years after "Friday" swept the globe, the singer released her hyperpop EP, Rebecca Black Was Here. Press surrounding the album mentioned "Friday," certainly, but was glowing nonetheless: "A viral star finds her voice," reads a complimentary review by NME. The girl who once reminded us which day comes after Thursday is no longer singing anyone's lyrics but her own.
But back in 2011, when "Friday'' was released by the now-defunct production company ARK Music Factory, it wasn't so clear that things would turn out OK for Black. She's spoken at length about the relentless bullying she endured, dropping out of public school, and the trolls who called her a spoiled rich kid who attempted to pay for fame after she, a musical-theater obsessed 13-year-old who loved Katy Perry, recorded a music video for fun after seeing a classmate do the same. Later, according to a March 2011 report from Good Morning America, 76% of respondents believed that the cyberbullying she experienced was justified.
This was the era before many were even familiar with the term "cyberbullying" — when viral videos were sent via email, and social media, including just-launched Instagram, was still novel and exciting. We were still "poking" people on Facebook and posting pics of badly cooked food, and if we were hurting each other's feelings or harming our own mental health just by being there, well, we had the excuse of not really knowing how much. It wasn't yet a given that for every well-wisher, every person muttering, oh, that poor girl, after seeing the "Friday" vitriol, there were hundreds more telling Black she shouldn't be alive.
Ten years ago, the very concept of internet fame was strange. Talent agencies were not yet clamoring to sign influencers, largely because the internet was still seen as the illegitimate little brother to the more traditional (and gate kept) entrance to stardom: the Hollywood machine. Sure, there were well-known people in specific corners of the internet — Tavi Gevinson's Style Rookie blog made her a fashion world darling, for example — but the masses had yet to move away from individual web pages curated on RSS feeds and funnel into one of the familiar buckets where we now gather online: YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and recently, TikTok. Reality TV was still the closest we ever came to learning about the lives of the rich and famous. Now, we have reality TV shows about people who were internet famous first.
Given that young girls — a historically mistreated and misunderstood demographic — had never been taken seriously in the analog world, it should have been obvious that we weren't prepared to take care of them in the digital future. This misunderstanding isn't just a risk to the mental health and well-being of girls, but to their creativity, too. Black and several of her peers, pre-teens with innocent dreams of pop stardom exemplified by the likes of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, were the pawns of adults seeking easy money and fame with little to no risk.
The very same women we're now re-examining through a post-#MeToo lens were then praised by society as being fun (but still wholesome) and sexy (but not too sexy). They were the kind of attractive we were meant to aspire to, and yet make look effortless — the Hot Girl catch-22.
When, as tweens, these girls had the audacity to chase the pop star ideal, they were ridiculed, unable to shake their internet infamy as they grew up, all while lining the pockets of those who had encouraged them to take the leap to begin with, providing no safety net to catch them when they fell. A decade later, many things about being famous online have changed, but the consequences for young girls, sadly, have not.
When Jenna Rose Swerdlow's "My Jeans" music video first went viral in 2011, the then-10-year-old wasn't old enough to own a computer. So, when cruel comments began rolling in on the video, which took off in the wake of "Friday" due to the similarly over-the-top music video production, emphasis on auto-tuned vocals, and rudimentary lyrics, Swerdlow was largely shielded from the onslaught of vitriol. Her parents, however, were not.
"My parents would get upset about [the comments]," Swerdlow confides to InStyle when we spoke over the phone this summer, "and they would try not to talk about it in front of me." Nonetheless, some of the comments seeped through the cracks. "It was so hard because I was so young," she adds. "I wasn't trying to piss anyone off. It was just doing my own thing."
It was never her intention for the video to blow up in the way that it did. After a talent showcase near her home in New York, where Swerdlow participated in community theater and the local music scene as an amateur, she was approached by the father of another wannabe star, Baby Triggy, who raps on "My Jeans," to collaborate on a song. "We were like, 'We'll send it to grandma. We'll send it to our family and that's it,'" explains Swerdlow of accepting the offer.
Swerdlow's haters, like Black's, called her talentless, an embarrassment, an entitled rich kid. To counter the narrative, she and her parents decided to create a new video. Two years after filming "My Jeans," they teamed with a new production team for "O.M.G.," a provocative pop song that was immediately lambasted for its adult themes. (Swerdlow never worked with ARK, though her work is often mistaken for theirs.) She recalls being "kind of forced into" singing lyrics like, "Just take a picture, baby, look at what I'm wearing/ Just take a picture, baby, no need for staring," when she was just 12 years old.
"The video was something I completely was not comfortable with," she says of dancing in a lace-up white tank top and angel wings á la a Victoria's Secret angel. "I had no say, and that video took off, too." Swerdlow quickly became the target of schoolyard bullies and parenting blogs alike, and none of the feedback was positive. "I was like, 'Can I take it off YouTube?' Every day, I was like, 'Can I please take this off?'" she remembers begging her parents. However, because the song's producers owned the rights, she says, it stayed online.
In a post-"Friday" world, it's difficult to imagine that any producer working with a child would be unaware of the potential to go viral for all the wrong reasons. In fact, while Black never worked with ARK Music Factory again, the company's next few releases seemed to intentionally draw on absurdly elementary themes in an effort to recreate the elements that drew hundreds of millions of people to Black's video. Because of this precedent, Swerdlow went home from school crying "three times a week."
No production company was more prolific in the internet music video business in the early 2010s than ARK Music Factory, founded by songwriter Patrice Wilson and producer Clarence Jey.
Wilson, who did not return a request for comment for this piece, told the L.A. Times in 2011 that he grew up a track star with dreams of competing in the 2000 Olympics for his home country of Nigeria. However, he soon left the sports world for music, moving to Los Angeles after a stint touring as a backup singer for an Eastern European pop star, and attempting to launch a music career of his own. When he failed to make it in the notoriously cutthroat business, he pivoted, launching ARK Music in 2010 with Jey. For between $2,000 to $4,000, depending on the package selected, ARK offered young artists an exclusive, original song, a professional recording session, production and mastering, as well as a music video, which would also be edited, produced, and shared online.
One of the recurring critiques of Wilson is that he and his partner preyed upon wealthy teenagers and their parents in the L.A. area — coercing them out of thousands of dollars for the chance to sing a poorly written song (all of which were written by Wilson, and on which he would inevitably rap) and to film a music video that made them the main character, all while stoking the egos of rich parents who were told their children were gifted. However, many families, including Swerdlow's and Black's, saw costs associated with the videos as an investment in their children's futures.
"My family helped me, obviously, because I didn't have $2,000," says Jolie Adamson, who worked with ARK on the single "Armour," which was released just days after "Friday," but before Black's video took off.
"In this business you have to invest in yourself," she continues. Adamson and her family believed the fee was reasonable given the breadth of services included. If she paid for studio time and hired a producer, not to mention footed the bill for production of an entire music video, she says, "that would cost so much more."
"I think it was worth it still, even though I was embarrassed," says Adamson, whose video amassed 1.2 million views in the wake of "Friday." At the time, she says, "I was really embarrassed, I didn't want to admit that I was a part of it." Now, the 29-year-old theater actor, who recently wrapped a performance gig at Disneyland Hong Kong, says, "I'm fine with it."
Wilson defended his business model in a bizarre faux press conference he self-published in 2011 to address criticism that he exploited children and their parents. "First of all, we don't charge our artists," he says, immediately followed by, "If we are to charge an artist it could range from $2,000 to $4,000. Is that a bad deal?" He goes on to hold up Black as an example of ARK's payoff, referring to her various TV appearances and follow-up deals. "That's a success," he says. Never mind that in one such TV spot, ABC News correspondent Andrea Canning read the following YouTube comment to Black's face: "Her song 'Friday' is the worst song I've ever heard in my life, even deaf people are complaining." To which Black, with a nervous smile, replies, "OK. That doesn't bother me."
Black, Swerdlow, Adamson — all are doing fine now, a decade after their videos became the center of the internet's attention for all the wrong reasons. But looking back, it can be easy to forget just how young they were when they put their trust in "professionals" they were told had their best interests at heart.
The difference that just a few years can make is most evident in Adamson's experience. At 17, she was the oldest of ARK's viral clients, and describes an experience that looked much different than 10-year-old Swerdlow's or 13-year-old Black's.
In the era of Teen Queens like Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and Demi Lovato, musicians like these weren't just pop stars, they had to do it all. And Adamson believed a light, upbeat video — like so many Disney Channel music videos — would be a perfect talent showcase for submissions and castings. A showbiz veteran relative to girls like Black, who learned of ARK through a friend, Adamson approached Wilson and Jey with some hesitancy, which she notes took the duo by surprise. When she told Patrice she would explore her options after he offered her a spot with ARK, she says he was taken aback. "Which kind of made me question, 'God, how easy are people?'" she wonders.
Unlike many of the other music videos, including "Friday" and even "My Jeans," Adamson's "Armour" did not feature a rap verse. Instead, Adamson chose to write a bridge for the song, which Wilson shrugged off ("Fine, no one really does that, but OK," she says he told her). She also altered some of the "trashy" lyrics that he had written.
Lyrics aside, Adamson notes that the recording session "was all really professional, and they were very respectful and complimentary." Later, a third party hired by ARK filmed her music video, which included a professional actor who played her love interest. "I still think it looks so good," she says. "It still looks very professional."
Adamson's age and experience not only set her up for what is objectively a better music video and song, but the ability to better deal with the criticism. By the time the video blew up, she was in college. It was still hard.
"I definitely cried. I mean, it sucked," she admits of not only the negative comments, but the association with Black and ARK Music Factory. (YouTube featured "Armour" as a suggested video alongside "Friday.") "I don't even know how I kept going in this business, because it's so cutthroat … [but] all the people who knew me in college, they blasted that song. Everyone in my sorority, and all the fraternities, they'd play it, and they were all really supportive and it was really awesome," she says.
In 2013, Black and her family sued ARK Music Factory for the rights to "Friday," and won. Shortly after, Jey left the company and ARK dissolved. But Wilson didn't stop chasing the money — and the limelight.
Wilson monetized ARK's music videos, which together have hundreds of millions of views. According to Business Insider, 1 million views can fetch creators thousands of dollars per year depending on the number of channel subscribers and ad placements.
Following the viral success of "Friday," Wilson also made multiple media appearances, including a guest spot on Good Morning America, where he hosted a "talent competition" seeking the next viral ARK Music Factory star. However, rather than move in the direction of cheesy love songs like "Armour," Wilson produced more viral hits like "It's Thanksgiving" by Nicole Westbrook, and perhaps most infamously, "Chinese Food," by Alison Gold. The songs were so obnoxiously tasteless (pardon the pun) that they verged on camp. They appeared relatively harmless, save for some racist undertones in "Chinese Food," but the girls were nonetheless bullied and parodied online while Wilson reaped the tangential fame and money.
Then came the videos for "Skip Rope" and "Shush Up," performed by Gold, which were eventually banned on YouTube for their thinly veiled adult themes (children addicted to a mysterious white powdered candy, a child in an electric chair) and inappropriate costuming (in "Shush Up," Gold, then 10, wears a two-piece metallic spandex outfit.) Similarly to Swerdlow's "O.M.G.," there were complaints of the overt sexualization of a young girl. Some critics on YouTube went so far as to call out Wilson for themes of pedophilia — especially in the video for "ABCDEFG," in which Wilson, dressed as Mr. Rogers, peers through the window of a dollhouse into what appears to be Gold's bedroom.
The public soon became wise to the common denominator behind these viral videos, and Wilson stopped producing videos with young girls after 2014. These days, he's promoting conspiracy theories about the "deep state" on the website "Christian Transparency."
Though Wilson and the production company behind Swerdlow's "O.M.G." are no longer producing content, the legacy of shame and fear brandished at young girls online is still there. Present day influencers like the D'Amelio sisters have discussed the toll that internet fame has taken, and Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has testified again and again that the algorithms are biased toward "bad actors," in ways that directly harm young people — girls especially — online. Still, no substantive measures have been taken to protect the young people most vulnerable to this harm. Much like in 2011, there's a preoccupation with view counts, which translate to greater payoffs for platform owners and advertisers, and a disregard for the people behind the content, its ethical standing or factual accuracy. And, frankly, that's disturbing.
In the decade since her moment of ARK infamy, Swerdlow says she's even become something of a camp icon among Gen Z. Rebecca Black is attempting a pop relaunch. They are women now and they are resilient, able to move forward and make light of the peril they endured when they were tweens. But they shouldn't have had to, and young people finding followers today certainly should be spared the same trial by fire.
It's difficult to say if the slim number of protections enacted in the last decade have made the internet a safer place for girls. Certainly there's a greater awareness of mental health issues that stem from cyberbullying, but that has done little to curtail the actual abuse still heaped on young young girls online, most of which comes from their peers. If anything, the proliferation of social media has made girls more vulnerable to the pressures to mold themselves into the ideals that grow more impossible with each passing day. But these same tools have taken some of the power away from men like Wilson and Jey and put it in the hands of young girls themselves.
On TikTok especially, earning internet fame is easier than ever. And yet, my For You Page is still flooded with young women — maybe they're comedians, maybe they're singers — reading the debasing comments they receive, mostly from male viewers. Some repeat the comments tearfully, others with disdain, and others still with boredom: That they're being shamed for trying something new, for being "vulnerable on main," or even for simply existing in their bodies, is not new or surprising. It's just the cost of being a girl on the internet.