Rebecca Black video: Turning 'dislike' into commercial success
- 19 July 2011
- From the section Magazine
Rebecca Black - who achieved online notoriety for the awfulness of her first effort at a music video - has released a second single. But how does critical loathing turn into commercial success?
The outpouring of online odium that followed the posting on YouTube of Rebecca Black's Friday would be enough to make many people faint of heart.
The song was ruthlessly criticised online with harsh complaints about her use of Auto-Tune, a device that corrects pitch, the cloying nature of her video, but most of all, the mindbogglingly banal lyrics.
"Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday. Today is Friday, Friday" are the kind of lyrics that don't exactly sit well with a tough crowd of YouTube followers. Some critics went as far as describing Friday as the worst song ever.
But the song ranked top in global trending topics on Twitter, surpassing the Japanese earthquake crisis.
Despite receiving millions of "dislikes" on YouTube, Black's single has sold well as a download. And she has used her brush with unpopularity to release a new single, My Moment. It addresses the "haters" that have goaded the teenager.
So why do people relish Black's song? "Because it's an easy target, because we're cynical and we can unload all of our malice on its stupidity," says David LaGuardia, author of Trash Culture: Essays in Popular Culture.
The Rebecca Black phenomenon has echoes of the equally ridiculed Florence Foster Jenkins.
This shockingly bad songbird of the early 20th century was adored by crowds despite - or perhaps because of - her utter lack of singing ability. To keep a straight face through the YouTube clip of her mangling of Queen of the Night, from Mozart's Magic Flute, is an achievement.
Jenkins reportedly lived in blissful ignorance, mistaking the audience's laughter for cheers, and as word of her terrible renditions spread, so did her celebrity.
Eventually her fans demanded she take the stage at New York's Carnegie Hall, one that has been graced by superstars from Judy Garland to Billie Holiday.
She finally agreed to perform there in 1944 just before she died - and the tickets sold out in only two weeks.
Jenkins was the viral success of her day. Like Black, her career suggests that critical revulsion can be a help as much as a hindrance when it is raised to epic levels.
There's a long history of "bad" becoming "so bad it's good" and earning a cult following.
"The degree of awfulness is often a cultish badge that attracts people to the media text in question," says Sean Redmond, co-editor of Celebrity Studies.
"Cultish bad texts provide a space for chatter and shared identification with something that isn't mainstream, polished or sterile.
"So the cultish text is often 'oppositional' in some way, it goes against the grain of the mainstream and the predictable."
For some it's the realm of the guilty pleasure, for others it's something to "do" - to talk about at the watercooler and to play to a friend or a colleague.
"Cultish media often involve participation and active celebration," says Redmond.
There's also a fascination on the part of the audience as to why someone would carry on despite a wall of virulent criticism.
Stephen Temperley, who has written a play partially based on Jenkins's life, says her appeal was a "combination of her ambition and her lack of ability to sing".
"She must have had an innocence about her when she performed and it gave her a kind of vulnerability. The crowd was there to cheer her on while also laughing at her," says Temperley.
Her performances provided a thrill that competent opera singers could not always generate.
"It became a big social event in New York. It gave you a certain cachet and people really competed for tickets," he notes.
There are plenty of films that convert disliking into commercial gold.
Birdemic: Shock and Terror is a recent candidate for the worst film ever made, but the self-financed romantic action-adventure of 2008 turned this status into ticket sales.
The story centers around a platoon of eagles and vultures attacking a small town. Many people die. A 3D sequel is due soon.
Another film The Room, which has been called "the Citizen Kane of bad movies", is a staple of late night showings.
The YouTube haters think Black is an acceptable target for an outpouring of vitriol.
"There are simply acceptable targets for the hatred people carry around every day," says Rob Manuel, co-founder of the pop culture website b3ta.com. Unfortunate musicians and pop icons fall into that category.