"It felt like within a matter of hours, everyone was talking about this song."
Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
In 2010, way before apps like TikTok and Triller -- which have become synonymous with birthing viral hits -- launched, we were just discovering what being an overnight sensation in the social media era even meant.
Enter a 13-year-old Rebecca Black, whose love for dancing and musical theatre led to a classmate informing her about ARK Music Factory -- a local (and now-defunct) indie production company that churned out elementary tunes for young teens curious about singing. Black brought up the idea to her mom, who later paid ARK for studio time that also covered a video’s production.
“It was very exciting to see how it all worked. I didn't write the song, so I prepared for it like I would anything else in my musical theatre class at that time,” Black, now 22, laughingly recalls to Billboard. “I had nothing to compare it to, so it was a big learning experience for me.”
The song in question was “Friday,” solely written and produced by ARK’s co-founders Clarence Jey and Patrice Wilson. It was a heavily-Auto-Tuned, cheesy ditty filled with shallow lyrics that attempted to sound like a teenager’s Facebook status but ended up being more outlandish than authentic: “Kickin' in the front seat/ Sittin' in the back seat/ Gotta make my mind up/ Which seat can I taaaakeee?” The chorus wasn’t any more refined, trying to prove just how “fun, fun, fun, fun” getting down on a Friday actually was.
Black didn’t think anything of the song, but she’d soon find out the rest of the world would have a lot to say. The video was uploaded on YouTube in Feb. 2011 (it now has over 136 million views), and went viral the following month as the platform’s then most-disliked video with 1.17 million thumbs down.
“I remember wondering, is it a parody? Is it real? It felt like within a matter of hours everyone was talking about this song,” recalls Apple Music Chart Show host Brooke Reese. “At the time nothing had really gone this viral this fast. Everyone, I mean everyone, was talking about Rebecca Black.”
The more the star of “Friday” rose, the hotter the vitriol towards Black spewed. From hateful comments on social media and by fellow classmates to the endless parodies, the bullying got so overwhelming to the point where the singer had to be homeschooled. “[The backlash] certainly affected me growing up,” Black reveals. “In positive and negative ways, as to who I am and the insecurities I had as a teenager.”
While the harsh response affected the singer, it was also a testament as to how powerful social media was becoming. “At the time no one had really become Internet famous like Rebecca Black,” says Reese. “You had people like Justin Bieber doing covers and growing his fanbase, but she had an original song that went viral overnight -- it was lighting in a bottle.”
Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr were only a few years old, but the reaction to “Friday” was a looking glass as to how we now understand, and often immediately expect, virality.
“I wish people saw behind all of what it was,” Black says. “Like, what is more important: putting out the funniest reaction or comment about what you think this video is? Or the well-being of the kid that's behind it?”
Now that she’s nearly a decade removed from the song’s release, many are swallowing their previously distasteful words. “I have people that [tell me], ‘Oh my god, I didn't know what I was doing. I'm so sorry I said those things about you because I didn't think about the fact that you were a person,” Black explains. “So it's nice to see so many people recognizing they could've had a more empathetic reaction.”
The tone of social media platforms has progressively gotten lighter in the midst of the self-aware “woke culture.” But the darkness that surrounded “Friday” can still be found in the crevices, as seen in the comments of Logan Paul and Trisha Paytas’ YouTube videos and through the nasty shade-throwing on Twitter and Instagram.
“I noticed something doesn't necessarily have to be good to get a reaction,” Black says of the song’s influence. “Parodies became huge and its own type of song. Artists and regular people took that to their advantage: ‘We can make something that's bad or even offensive popular.’”