Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’ Was Ahead of Its Time

Album art of Rebecca Black with coiffed bangs and green slime coming out of mouth
Jade derosa

Ten years ago, the most Googled name in the world belonged to a wide-smiling 13-year-old girl everyone seemed to be laughing at. She was Rebecca Black of “Friday,” the calendar-themed sing-along that reached megafame by being, in many people’s judgment, the worst song ever. Amid cheesy production by the ARK Music Factory—a now-defunct Southern California firm that Black’s mom had paid $4,000 to make the song—Black’s auto-tuned voice bleated about cereal, front seats, back seats, and “fun, fun, fun.” In the music video, which featured tweens riding around in a convertible, and on talk shows where hosts quizzed Black about why her song was so hated, she never seemed to drop her grin.

Black is now 23, and she’s still smiling. The cover of her new six-song project, Rebecca Black Was Here, would be a glamour shot—coiffed bangs, dangling jewels—if not for the green-black slime smeared on her teeth and chin. Over the past year, Black has been wriggling back into the public’s consciousness as a hip Gen Z avatar—while coming out as queer, making a hilarious remix of “Friday,” and recording adventurous pop singles for a devoted fan base. The sweetness of her teenage persona isn’t gone, but it now comes with a punkish, even gruesome, twist.

“As somebody who had been out of control of the narrative surrounding me as a kid, it’s fun for me to play with perception,” Black told me over Zoom while sporting George Michael–esque cross earrings and a burgundy-tipped bob cut. “There is a very different person there—I would hope that I’m not still acting like a 13-year-old.”

She isn’t—but she is acting like a member of the internet-raised generation for which she became an unintentional mascot. When “Friday” blew up in 2011, Justin Bieber was riding high as the first YouTube-made teen-superstar singer. Entertainers such as Katy Perry could still force sugary pop into ubiquity without having to contend with Spotify. The growing meme ecosystem minted accidental celebrities such as the Double Rainbow guy at a more manageable rate than it does today. It was, in other words, a more earnest time—a time when long-tested playbooks for show-business success seemed likely to still rule social media.

“Friday” now feels like a turning point. It emulated what hit songs were supposed to sound like in 2011, but the attention it received embodied the values that would define popular culture more with every passing year: entropy, cringe, and the ambient blend of pleasure and confusion that’s often described as post-ironic.

Black’s immediate post-“Friday” trajectory demonstrated how those old playbooks were losing their relevance. A young Glee fan who’d always dreamed of performing, she showed a striking amount of poise as she acted in a Perry music video, worked the red carpet at the Kids’ Choice Awards, and gave interviews about cyberbullying on programs such as Good Morning America. As the “Friday” craze faded, Black’s newly hired management team steered her toward recording more teen-pop jingles—but Black wasn’t quite sure that was what she wanted. “As a kid, I was really vulnerable to other people’s ideas,” she told me. “The typical log line of [a] young girl in the industry—everyone wants her to be perfect and strong and emotional and beautiful and thin—is very true.” Her music later in teenagedom also aimed for generic pop success, which at the time meant Chainsmokers-style EDM and music videos that looked curated for Instagram.

As the 2010s wore on, though, oddball superstars such as Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X made it clear that generic doesn’t play so well anymore. Black seems to have realized this. After all, the bizarreness of “Friday” as a song and the poignancy of her teenage experience as a national punch line were what bonded people to her in the first place. Over the years, Black heard from self-identified fans—many of them queer—who said they related to her as an underdog. After Black marked the song’s ninth anniversary on her social-media pages, more listeners reached out to tell her about having blasted her voice every Friday at their office, or about having used the song to power through dreary school days. A palpable sense of nostalgia and affection was accumulating. “The way that people talked about it had changed so much,” Black told me. “I was shocked by how many people [said], ‘This is something we genuinely love.’”

Many of today’s music and meme subcultures, perhaps not coincidentally, love to reclaim bits of entertainment that were once mocked as tacky. Among the fans Black heard from in 2020 was an influential practitioner of such reclamation: Laura Les, one half of the duo 100 Gecs, whose hyperpop sound aims for a “Friday”-style uncanny valley filled with processed vocals and catchy nonsense. Les’s bandmate, Dylan Brady, ended up producing the song’s tenth-anniversary remix to make a delightfully annoying tune even more ridiculous. Featuring the guest singers Dorian Electra, Big Freedia, and 3OH!3, the hallucinatory music video for the new “Friday” has clocked more than 2.8 million views.

“I wanted to be able to push it as far as I could,” Black said of the remix. “‘Friday’ became such a huge meme [by] unintentionally being everything that it ended up being. Bringing that in in an intentional way was fun, and more interesting than trying to make a serious version.”

Black hasn’t gone full hyperpop on her own new songs, but she’s studied that subgenre’s balance of joy and chaos. Rebecca Black Was Here pairs glitchy noise with honest, often-sultry songwriting about a same-sex breakup. Many lyrics portray Black, per the standout track “NGL,” as the “bad guy” in the relationship. The retro-horror visuals of the cover and her music videos play with that theme of villainy while also defacing Black’s onetime guileless image. “The music is very sincere,” she said. “It’s about real experiences I’ve had, and blowing them up into either this big, campy moment or this larger-than-life, fantastical thing.”

Look around TikTok and you’ll find reminders of “Friday” everywhere—starry-eyed kids mugging at the camera, ear-offending musical performances of indeterminate sincerity, mass ridicule of normies who have filmed themselves doing something embarrassing. Most of the teens who blow up on that platform are seeking mass audiences in a way that Black wasn’t quite doing—at 13, she expected “Friday” to just be part of her application to theater school one day—and Black suspects that the pressure created by modern influence culture is greater than what she experienced. But she does relate on a fundamental level to any kid who suddenly finds fame: “It is never easy being a child and having to work your way through everyone else’s opinion of you when you’ve never even established how you feel about yourself.”

Black herself has only very recently begun to answer the question of who she wants to be. “That is a process that is never-ending—trying to understand your own strengths,” she said. “I’ve finally proven to myself, and maybe other people, that I don’t give up very easily.” The new release is titled Rebecca Black Was Here in part because she’s settled on an image—self-aware but not self-mocking, kooky but also earnest—that feels right, for now. “With this project, I finally created a Rebecca Black–shaped stamp of myself,” she said. “This is what I have been searching for for a long time.”

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