Rebecca Black: Phenomenon?

Courtesy of ARK Music Factory

An atomic bomb named Rebecca Black dropped from the sky this month. Millions have been struck by awe, disgust, anxiety and fascination; some gaze lovingly at the ruins, others run for shelter, most revolt in agony. I’ve calmly tried to observe the nuclear chemistry and the effect of the radiation. In the course of doing so, I have realized that most of our cultural commentators are poor scientists.

There are three must-knows about “Friday”:

1. Popularity: The meteoric rise of “Friday” is authentic; it had no ads. I will not comment on the statistics of “Friday” because by the time this is published the numbers will be way off the mark. That fact speaks for itself.

2. Partisanship: The atmosphere surrounding “Friday” is unusually divided, with most against it, some for, others ambiguous but it is the supreme intensity of each faction’s self-righteousness that is disturbing, reminiscent of 4chan’s random (/b/) board. If there was an “emotion meter” for YouTube videos, “Friday” would probably generate more extreme responses on that metric than any other music video since time immemorial.

3. Incoherence: Critics have trouble articulating its distinction from regular pop music (see Salon’s “Five beloved pop songs with lyrics more derivative than ‘Friday’”), yet Time magazine declares it the “Worst Song Ever.” Simon Cowell called her a genius, and record deals are lining up. Salon explains why: “The song is apparently very catchy, which is the Holy Grail anymore (sic) in pop songwriting … Syllable for syllable, it fits the arrangement exceptionally well.”

The public’s reception of “Friday” is striking. The YouTube comments show anything but tolerance: there are insults of every substance and form. The music itself has been equated with physical torture and mutilation of every type and degree, and Black has been cited as proof that “talent is gone on this earth.” The insults are horrifyingly creative and are transparently sincere. The keystone remark: “Obviously, she’s the kind of person Hitler had in mind.” The genocidal overture would not be so disturbing if I had found a twinge of irony within the hundreds of comments I parsed.

There is a disjuncture: the public claims to be tolerant – we all “know” that taste in music is subjective. If I say that Beethoven is better than Tupac, people will roll their eyes, and an intelligent person might try to explain to me the virtues of relativism.

My friend asserted that the reverse was true – but the “Friday” haters appear to be the most vicious bunch of elitists I have ever seen. What happened to taste being relative?

After my 20th watch of “Friday,” I realized its true hallmark was its low production value; it was produced on an anorexic budget, and it shows. Simply put, all the nice camera work, and cool but distracting objects universal to commercial music videos are missing here. “Friday” reverses that function; the video is too literal, the distractions nonexistent.

But, the music being objectively the worst does not explain it; I know 10 songs that are more cringe-worthy. It does not set a new bar for what is low. Time Magazine is wrong.

Even relatively incisive attempts to explain her popularity do not work: “Please stop thinking we hate you because you’re popular. You’re popular because we hate you.” This sounds nice as a clever aphorism, but it is not completely true. The hate and popularity feeds itself; if “Friday” had only had a stable 200,000 views, no one would care. The logic is circular: hate feeds popularity, popularity feeds hate. The circle cannot be broken into a line.

“Thoughtful Observer,” an Internet commentator, declared her music video a “work of unparalleled genius,” elucidating frame by frame how “Friday” deconstructs modern culture. The analysis is cutting edge, but it does not explain “Friday”’s reception.

Most people remain aloof, treating “Friday” as another instance of the 15-minutes-of-fame phenomenon, but no other celebrity has evoked this much rage, this much fury, with so little effort. She is not an attention-whore.

“Friday” defies all explanation. The perfect adjective for it is “uncanny.” In the jargon of Lacan’s Psychoanalytic Theory, it belongs under the category of the Real. “The Real is undifferentiated from itself – it is its own category. It cannot be put in language because it cannot be described by anything but itself. Outside of language, impervious to description, the Real is in some sense incomprehensible. Lacan often aligned the Real with anxiety, trauma, and hallucinations.”

Eli Schmitt was using this concept as a metaphor for the realm in which crazed inebriation occurs, akin to, poetically speaking, the experience of “a steel shaft penetrate your torso” and leaving you in “uncontrollable infatuation.” Practically speaking, he set the drunken Dionysian revelry as an ideal by which we measure our casual drinking parties. He was making an argument for authentic erotics, a way to genuinely have fun in the modern age.

What is uncanny is that a sober view of a four-minute music video, the actual substance of which is all too simple and all too intelligible can produce such a frenzy. “The devotees of Bacchus were famous for frenzies where, in altered states of consciousness, they took to the forests and tore animals limb from limb.” Eli’s example was a hyperbolic metaphor for the “Dionysian experience par excellence,” but in a way “Friday,” too, is Dionysian.

If you replace “devotees of Bacchus” with “Rebecca Black’s Haters” and “animals” with “people who actually enjoy ‘Friday,’” the sentence would almost make sense. If not for the system of laws, the bourgeois lethargy of our generation, the remnants of Christian morals pervasive in even the most secular corners of California, and the general triviality surrounding this controversy, I would fear for her life. Perhaps we should try to understand “Friday” in light of the Greeks.

In Plato’s Symposium, the highest form of longing is shown to be lover of wisdom, the philosopher. But modern philosophers, tenured in their tower, pay no attention to “Friday.” Perhaps we should be more humble and start at the bottom of the ladder of love, with Phaedrus. The longing and loving of our generation matches well his description of the god Eros. We love and hate intensely, and act out of pride and shame; the chain of patrimonial authority has been cut, and we believe our Eros to be plenary, parentless.

Phaedrus is an underrated character. I believe the public revolt to be well justified, no, it is more primordial than reason; it is the finest example of authentic erotics. Eli encourages one to drink with friends to consummate man’s experience of the ineffable. I think that’s a great idea, but for everyone under 21, I encourage a sober viewing and reviewing of “Friday.” You know you want to.

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