The following article is adapted from the recent episode of Decoder Ring.
The day that everything changed for Rebecca Black was a Friday. On March 11, 2011, the then-13-year-old got an unexpected notification about a YouTube comment. The commenter had seen the video for her then-unknown song “Friday,” on a popular blog and felt compelled to write. “The song sucks, but they said the song is going to be big,” Black recalls. “And I was just like, ‘What?’ ” As soon as I got home, I ran to my computer, and I scrolled down to the comments, and that was immediately when I was like, ‘Oh, no, oh, no, no, no, no, no, this is not happening.’ ”
Black was seeing the first of what would eventually be millions of comments slagging the video. “Friday” was on its way to becoming one of the biggest viral phenomena of the 2000s. Over the next three months, the song would be viewed 167 million times, making it the most-watched YouTube video of that year. But people weren’t watching because they loved it so much. Instead they were baffled, bemused, disdainful, confounded, and, in some cases, horrified. The song was dubbed “the worst video ever made” and became the most disliked song, to that point, in YouTube’s history. The entire internet seemed to unite in making fun of it and the then-13-year-old who sang it, whose whole life would be upended by its notoriety.
Just a few months before “Friday” took off, Black was a regular middle schooler living in Anaheim, California, a self-described theater kid with aspirations to go to New York University or Berklee College of Music and train to become a performer. Like lots of middle-class, college-bound kids, she knew getting into these schools would be hard, and she was always looking for anything that might boost her chances. Over the summer, one of Rebecca’s classmates did something that sounded perfect: She starred in a music video. “It sounded cool, and I wanted to try it out for myself. At that point we’re not gunning to be America’s next pop star,” she says. “We’re trying to just feel like we’re doing what we can in our own little charter school.”
Black was told to check out a company called Ark Music Factory, which was founded in 2010 by Patrice Wilson. Wilson’s father is Nigerian, and his mother is Irish, and he had a musical childhood growing up in Nigeria, but he got into music professionally only by happenstance. He was going to school in Bratislava, Slovakia, in the 1990s, when Ibrahim Maiga, a singer from Mali who was popular in Slovakia, spotted him on the street.
“There were not many black people in Bratislava,” Wilson says. “So I’m walking on the streets one day coming back from grocery shopping, and he pulled over. He stopped by, and he said, ‘Hey, you’re a black dude.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m a black dude.’ ‘So you must do music?’ I’m like, ‘Sure, I do.’ ” He ended up going on tour rapping at concerts until around 2000, when he decided to try to make it in America. He enrolled in a Bible school in Minnesota but left for New York, hoping to break into the entertainment industry, but it didn’t work out. Eventually he moved to L.A. and decided to get back into music. “I listened to a song by Ludacris, and he said, ‘If you want to make it in music, open up your own label, sign yourself to yourself,’ ” Wilson says.
Ark Music Factory was not a typical record label. Wilson couldn’t afford to put up the money to sign artists in the typical way. Instead, the artists would pay him, using Ark Music like a one-stop shop. For a couple thousand dollars, Ark Music would write a song, get a studio, produce the song, take photos, record a video, and even submit all of that to more legitimate record labels. “Somebody has to do the investment in the music, the videos—while it could be the artists, they can invest, they can own the rights,” Wilson says.
Initially Wilson and his producing partner hoped to develop a variety of talent, but from the very first audition it became clear that their company really only appealed to one demographic: teenagers and their parents—the only people who could afford to put up the money. “The first audition was more like, ‘What the heck is going on? These are all kids,’ ” Wilson recalls. “We tried to go with being selective, but when you’re also starting a business, we can’t be too selective.”
At the time Ark Music was starting, YouTube was the hub of internet virality. It was possible to strike viral gold from just one YouTube video. All of Ark Music’s songs were posted there, in the hopes that this would happen, but more practically, Wilson relied on YouTube to share the videos with parents, his actual customers, and to get the videos passed around among friends, frenemies, and schoolmates, creating the word-of-mouth network that fed his business.
That’s how Rebecca heard about Ark Music: One of her schoolmates had worked with them. She saw the video and immediately asked her mom if she could make one herself—even though it cost $4,000. “My mom comes from the Hispanic world of mothers, who really would die for their kids and would do anything for their kids to have any sort of opportunity, because it’s something that she had to fight so, so hard for,” Black says. “So when I said, ‘Hey, there’s this thing that we can do, and I don’t really know anything about it.’ I kind of said it thinking, like, there’s no way. And she was like, ‘Yeah, let’s send them an email. Let’s try it out, sure.’ ”
They met, and Wilson wrote Black a song called “Super Woman,” a love song. When Black first heard it, she balked. “Within the span of two weeks, I had broken up with my first-ever boyfriend because I was too afraid to talk to him at school. So my whole first relationship lasted about three days. So I really was like, I can’t sing this,” she says.
In turning “Super Woman” down, Black put Wilson, who was churning out material for all his clients, on a pretty tight deadline to write a new song for Black. “So it’s about 1 a.m., and I decided I’m going to call it a night, but I’m like, wait a second, then just one more time,” Wilson recalls. “So I play a beat and I make up a song, ‘Friday, Friday.’ And I’m like, well, because it is Friday.”
In the morning, the song still sounded pretty good to him. He sent it to Black, who liked it better than the first song. “This works, this is true,” she recalls. “I like to hang out with my friends on the weekends, and I go to school. I really didn’t think that much about it because, again, like, nobody’s going to see it.”
As with everything else about Ark Music, the process of making the video for “Friday” was both way more professional than it could have been and also kind of shoestring. They used a green screen, but the video was shot at Black’s dad’s house. They wanted a school bus, but they could only afford a convertible. In the video, those are Black’s real friends, and that’s Wilson in the video performing the rap verse. On Feb. 10, 2011, Ark Music uploaded the finished video to YouTube and sent it to Black, who watched it for the first time. “Oh, my God, I am so awkward,” Black recalls thinking.
The video exists in this strange netherworld between amateur and professional. At first glance, the video sounds and looks passably polished, but then you start to notice all sorts of weird things about it. The robotic, monotone affect to Black’s voice, the rap verse that comes in just when you think the song is winding down, the way everyone in the video is trying unnaturally hard to have fun, and, most of all, the extremely basic lyrics, which include:
Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday
Today it is Friday, Friday
Tomorrow is Saturday
And Sunday comes afterwards
I don’t want this weekend to end.
Taken all together, it’s mystifying: You can’t tell if it’s a joke or not.
But for a while, it seemed like no one was going to see it. The video just sat on YouTube with a few thousand views and a few comments and seemed like it really was going to be what it was intended to be: a learning experience Black had in middle school. And then, almost exactly a month after the video was posted, the comments started flooding in.
First, a post appeared on the blog for the TV show Tosh.0. The post was titled “Songwriting Isn’t for Everyone,” and it embedded “Friday,” which it aggregated from a popular meme site called the Daily What. The song was also getting attention on Twitter, making the rounds with a viral tweet describing it as the worst music video ever made. Black was horrified by what she was seeing. She cried and spoke with her mom, who got on the phone with Wilson and Ark Music. Ark was willing to take the music video down and asked Black if that’s what she wanted to do.
“God knows why, but I said no,” she says. “And I think something told me, ‘Ugh, if you do that, then everybody else wins, and you’ve just immediately given up any sort of little bit of power you had.’ ”
The video was left online, and Black became famous overnight. She would go on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and appear in a Katy Perry video. “Friday” would be performed on Glee. But if this sounds good, it wasn’t. In 2011, we were pretty much nowhere when it comes to an awareness of online bullying. It Gets Better, the LGBTQ anti-bullying campaign, had started some months before, but the general conversation around these issues was relatively rudimentary. The concerns that are so pervasive now just were not then. And a 13-year-old girl was deemed fair game by just about everyone. When Black went on Good Morning America, the interviewer, Andrea Canning, read mean comments to Black’s face, looking for a reaction. At one point she asks Rebecca to recall the comment that hurt her the most, and Black tells her about the comment that said, “I hope you cut yourself, and I hope you get an eating disorder, so you’ll look pretty. I hope you go cut and die.”
“I just remember this overwhelming feeling of just suck it up, smile, stay strong. Nobody can know that you’re hurting—just laugh with them,” Black says. “And as soon as I started doing that, people saw me as kind of in on it, and that at least felt better than feeling like the butt of a joke. All of the actual pain and embarrassment and shame that came with all of that just kind of got swept under the rug for a good few years.”
And those years were difficult ones—a lot of opportunity, but a lot of isolation. Black’s parents were there for her but also as overwhelmed and confused as she was. She started being home-schooled. The family’s relationship with Ark Music quickly fell apart, and lawsuits started flying. Black got a new agent and manager, and her first single after “Friday” did well enough, but the following ones petered out. In this period, she released one song that charted, peaking at No. 55 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2013. It was called “Saturday.”
It was more sophisticated than “Friday,” but the video referenced all of the “Friday” highlights—the cereal bowl, the house party, riding around with friends in a convertible. She was only 15, and she was already raiding her own viral past.
Wilson, who was mocked and harangued for his role in producing “Friday,” was trying pretty much the same thing, releasing “Happy,” the official sequel to “Friday,” among other songs. Neither this nor any of the other songs stuck. Ark Music Factory went defunct. Wilson started a new label, which tried to do what Ark Music had done inadvertently, creating so-bad-it’s-good viral videos on purpose. He had some success, but the shtick had become really calculating and heartless. And YouTube, which had once been the engine of online virality, was ceding that title to other social media platforms. It got harder and harder to make a living, and that combined with the online backlash took a toll on his mental health. Today, he still makes music and looks back on “Friday” fondly.
“I really liked the song,” he says. “I still listen to the song now to see what I did back then versus what I’m doing now. How did I make such a catchy song? I wasn’t thinking about, ‘Oh, my God, people are going to hate this’ or ‘People going to like it.’ It … just came naturally.”
After a few years, Black decided to put “Friday” behind her. “I just was doing everything based off of what somebody else told me to do, and I was just miserable,” she says. “So there came a point where everybody that I was working with, management, all of that, I let go of all of them, and I just stopped. My parents and I agreed: I’m going to go back to high school.” After she finished high school, she made a deal with her parents that she would try music again.
“This was the one thing that I always wanted to try, and I never got to do it on my own terms. I want to do it in a way that feels good to me and is the way that I would have done it if I would have been able to foresee everything that was going to happen, which is learning how to write music and hopefully write good stuff,” Black says.
She says that for a while, being the “Friday” girl meant people in the industry didn’t want to get in a room with her, but she persevered. And that’s the thing about something like “Friday,” as awful as the experience may have been: It gave her a name. She has over a million Twitter followers. It might not have been worth it, but it was a leg up—a bruised leg up, but a leg up all the same.
In 2019, she released three singles, including a song called “Sweetheart.” In the video, Black takes out her cheating lover with the help of some friends. It’s dark and grown-up and contains no references to “Friday.”
Those references, if they existed, might be more welcome now. In the last nine years, “Friday” ’s reputation has only gone up. It just doesn’t sound as bad or weird as it used to, and there are plenty of people who listen to it on Fridays. “The amount of people that ask me [to] record a video of that song because they play it in their office every Friday, very unironically, is amazing to me,” Black says.
She still performs a version of the song, but it’s different now. “There’s no buzzy auto-tune or anything on it. It’s much more of a ’90s-meets–Courtney Love or Lana Del Rey thing,” she says. She recently played it at a college gig. “They had so much fun with it. They knew every word and screamed so loud at it, like there is now this nostalgic thing about it. And even though it wasn’t a very positive experience for me, I can still look back on it and have fun with it.”
Use the player below to listen to the full episode, including interviews with Nate Sloan of the Switched on Pop podcast and Slate music critic Carl Wilson: