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Rebecca Black and the Story Problem
By Steve McPherson April 4, 2011

At this point—well into the old age of Rebecca Black’s video “Friday” as an internet meme—it seems simply cruel to pile on for any of the obvious reasons. Its chief crime against any reasonable listener’s ears is simple and obvious: despite being a manufactured-for-the-charts single, it lacks anything resembling a melody, and repeated exposure (which you’ve no doubt already experienced) will fail utterly to lodge it in your brain. It’s one thing to dress up a 13-year-old girl and push her as a pop superstar; it’s entirely another to do it and have no idea what constitutes a great pop song.  And never mind the completely ludicrous rap verse and the yawningly mundane video.

In fact, let’s leave aside all concerns that have to do with Rebecca Black herself because she’s as much a victim here as any of us. We’re all the victims of Clarence Jay and Patrice Wilson (who supplies the obligatory yet superfluous rap in the song), the lazy, awful songwriters at Ark Music Factory. And here’s why: From a lyrical perspective, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making a pop song with fluffy or inconsequential lyrics. It happens every day. But what “Friday” lacks is, in a word, stakes. At least, that’s what we call them in fiction and, in my experience as both an editorial board member and now assistant fiction editor of a literary journal, I can tell you a lack of stakes seems to be what sinks most short stories.

Narrative thrives on tension, and the bulk of unpublished stories hoping to make it into journals simply lack it because there’s either nothing at stake or whatever is at stake is not sufficient to carry the weight of the story. There are perfectly wonderful pieces that lack tension, but these are usually vignettes or character sketches. Rarely do they rise to the level of real storytelling. George Saunders, in an essay about Donald Barthelme’s short story “The School,” likened the process of guiding the reader through a story to one of those toy racetracks you race Matchbox cars on, the ones with the little garages that catapult the car faster every time it goes through. “A story can be thought of as a series of these little gas stations,” he writes. “The main point is to get the reader around the track; that is, to the end of the story … if the writer can put together enough gas stations, of sufficient power, distributed at just the right places around the track, he wins: the reader works his way through the full execution of the pattern, and is ready to receive the end of the story.” Boiling it down to its finest essence, Saunders hits upon what really matters to pop: “[T]he pattern is just an excuse for the real work of the story, which is to give the reader a series of pleasure-bursts.” What is a good pop song if not a series of pleasure-bursts?

Pop songs, though, don’t necessarily require an ever-rising narrative to keep us engaged, although there are many that do. A good example is “Brick” by Ben Folds Five. There’s scene setting (“Six a.m., day after Christmas / I throw some clothes on in the dark / smell of cold / car seat is freezing”), initial tension (“Her mom and dad went down to Charlotte / they’re not home to find us out”), plot development that increases tension (“They call her name at 7:30 / I pace around the parking lot / Then I walk down to buy her flowers / and sell some gifts that I got”), climax (“They told me, ‘Son it’s time / to tell the truth,’ / and she broke down / and I broke down”) and resolution (“She’s alone / I’m alone / Now I know it”). There’s also an impressive amount of restraint, with nothing directly tying the story of the song to what’s really happening: an abortion. This kind of elliptical, allusion-based songwriting has worked for other songs as well (“Jeremy” by Pearl Jam, for example). In many ways, “Brick” compares favorably with one of the most revered short stories of all time, “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway, another story of abortion.

But “Brick” is a real work of songcraft in the singer/songwriter tradition, not a pop jam. For a radio ready pop hit, it’s often enough to imply a story or even sketch a situation and then rely on the push-pull of the verse/chorus to engage the listener. “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson (well, really by Max Martin and Lukasz Gottwald, but you know what I mean*) also begins by setting the scene and establishing tension: “Here’s the thing: we started out friends / it was cool but it was all pretend.” Right there, in the first two lines of the song, we know that something has gone wrong with this relationship and we’re being told it as a story. The casualness of that “it was cool” and how it’s juxtaposed against the earned knowledge of the fakeness of the relationship raises the stakes immediately. The tension (which is in this case both lyrical and musical) is required for the chorus to explode the way it does and bam: you’ve got a pop gem.

Short stories thrive on this stuff, on the ways that subtle linguistic choices can establish an unstable situation. Take the first line of Miranda July’s short story, “The Swim Team”: “This is the story I wouldn’t tell you when I was your girlfriend.” Again, as in the Clarkson song, the telling itself is made to be part of the story, and we can already see that this story is going to reveal something secret. It also establishes that the story is being addressed to an ex. Boom: tension.

Or for a slightly different way to establish tension, consider the opening of Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”: “Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper.”

Despite the relative mundanity of the situation, Wolff charges the narrative by careful use of language. Words like “endless,” “stuck,” “loud,” “stupid,” and “murderous” give the scene specificity and make Anders’ frustration real and felt, even if it’s petty. Likewise, the title itself charges the telling. You can’t title a story “Bullet in the Brain” and then drop the word “murderous” in the first line without raising some alarms. Pop songs have achieved similar effects—look at “Janie’s Got A Gun” by Aerosmith. It matters little in the Wolff story that Anders is ultimately the victim and not the perpetrator of a crime. Wolff escalates the tension and stakes in the story brilliantly, beginning at the level of word choice in that first sentence.

Another thing these examples demonstrate is that the stakes in a story (or song) don’t have to be life and death to be sufficiently high to keep us engaged as an audience. They need only be high in relation to the narrator’s understanding of the world. Hit single after hit single has shown us that a break-up is a serious enough situation to keep us engaged, but what about other scenarios, such as the straight party jam?

This brings us into the orbit of Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” and a few examples of other hit weekend anthems should suffice to demonstrate its major shortcomings. Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” is another paean to sloughing off the chains of the everyday, another exhortation to forget all your troubles and get down. But it is, of course, much more dangerous than “Friday.” “I’ve had a little bit too much,” it begins, and the entire first verse is dedicated to showing the risky place the narrator (again, not Gaga) has put herself in: she’s lost her keys, her phone, and she can’t see straight anymore. But, the chorus assures us, it’s “gonna be okay” if she just dances. Like the Clarkson tune, there’s no narrative arc per se, just the back and forth between the desperation of the verses and the giving-in of the chorus. And it works brilliantly.

But maybe Gaga is a stretch here when compared to the relative vanillaness of “Friday.” What about another song dedicated to the joy of the weekend? Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” still gets a lot of play, especially at sporting events, so it’s easy to lose sight of the subtext of the song. Like Black, Jordan sets the scene on the cusp of the weekend: “It’s Friday night, and I feel all right / the party’s here on the West Side.” So far, so innocuous (callout to Los Angeles’ gang-related West Side notwithstanding), and the first verse continues in that vein, up until Jordan notes that “All the gang bangers forgot about the drive-by.” That one line reveals a lot about what goes unsaid in the song. The narrator (again, so we don’t get it twisted with the song’s writers or performers) wants to cut loose and have a good time on Friday night because things are so bad where he’s from.

There’s actually a tapestry of specific detail woven throughout the first verse that establishes the credibility of the narrator in this way: he reaches for a 40, hits the shore because he’s faded, and all the honeys in the street are saying, “Yo, we made it!” The actual authenticity of such language can be called into question (I doubt anyone is mistaking Montell Jordan in this song for Ice Cube in “Today Was A Good Day”), but such debate has little to do with its success as a pop song. The lyrics have the markers of credibility, and this makes the fantasy of the good time all the more satisfying. The songwriters are canny enough not to simply make a party jam, but to lace it with some escapism. A similar undercurrent flows through “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas, much as I hate to admit it. That tonight is going to be a good night is only possible because so many other nights have been so shitty. That much is clear in the melancholy that the chorus is shot through with.

Which brings us, at last, to Rebecca Black and “Friday.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with how it begins: “Seven a.m. waking up in the morning / gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs.” That is, almost literally, the same way “Brick” began, although without the benefit of Folds’ ear for sensory detail and the inherent emotional baggage of the day after Christmas. That difference between the two songs is an effective illustration of mistaking the bland for the universal. “Brick” is hauntingly specific, and thus universal, whereas “Friday” strives for common experience but ends up simply common.

Quickly, it gets worse. “Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal” are the next two mandates delivered to us. What could be more mind-numbingly picayune than eating breakfast? One of the absolute musts in fiction (and one of the best ways to create tension in a story) is to make sure that any detail is doing work on multiple levels, that it reveals something about the observer of the detail and advances the story’s plot or its theme. Compare the cereal in “Friday” to that in “Bad Diary Days” by Pedro the Lion, a song about the end of a relationship following the discovery of infidelity: “The breakfast cereal talked more than we did all day long.” The cereal in “Friday” is just sitting there, getting soggy, and doing nothing for the listener.

But it doesn’t stop there. The by-now infamous dilemma presented to the narrator at the end of the first verse practically puts the listener to sleep: “Kicking in the front seat / sitting in the back seat / Gotta make my mind up: / which seat can I take?” Again, it’s not the content of this decision that’s even the problem. Consider the advertising magic that Volkswagen made out of a nighttime drive in a convertible soundtracked by Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon.” Or the brightly dark teen dystopia of Big Star’s “Back of a Car”: “Sitting in the back of a car / music so loud, I can’t tell a thing / Thinking ‘bout what to say / and I can’t find the lines.” The problem is that “Friday” has failed to convince us that this decision matters at all.

Even the shiniest pop songs need darkness, vice, some threat lurking underneath the veneer if they’re to hold our interest. Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” wears that darkness right on its sleeve. Sure, “Hit me baby one more time” can be taken metaphorically, but if you can’t read between the lines, especially when the song is paired with its schoolgirl video, you’re not looking very hard. Even “Dancing Queen” by Abba, which forces an escapist fantasy world down our throats, admits a certain darkness by its very forcefulness.

There are other, more subtle examples of making the boy-girl dynamic thorny in pop. Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” tells the timeless tale of a girl being thrown over for another, but Robyn (who wrote the song with Patrik Berger) uses every trick in the book to make us care about the narrator’s plight, right from the first line. “Somebody said you got a new friend,” sings Robyn, and already she’s introduced rumor, the judgment of the crowd, the feeling of being betrayed and having everyone else know it but you. And then the destructive impulse of investigation creeps in: “I know where you at, I bet she’s around / Yeah, I know it’s stupid / I just gotta see it for myself.” The chorus hammers home the isolation and desperation of the narrator even as the beat pounds relentlessly: “I’m in the corner, watching you kiss her / I’m right over here, why can’t you see me?” “Dancing On My Own” thus pulls off one of the neatest tricks a pop song can: the dark edge of the lyrics both works with and against the music of the chorus. On the one hand, the music supports and strengthens the chorus because it’s so damn anthemic, but it also evokes the overwhelming feeling of being alone in a club where the music makes it hard to think straight. Robyn herself said as much in an interview with Pitchfork. “They go to experience some kind of emotion,” she said, talking about people going clubbing. “But it’s not always about fun. There’s a destructive side to it.”

There’s no such back and forth or multivalence to “Friday.” If the song has practically bored us to tears with the first verse, the chorus is sure to finish us off. The hook itself (“It’s Friday, Friday / Gotta get down on Friday / Everybody’s looking forward to the weekend”) is merely bland, but it’s clear the song has completely run out of gas by the time we get to “Partying, partying (yeah!) / partying, partying (yeah) / Fun, fun, fun, fun.” Those four repeated “funs” are like the tolling of the bells on your last day, the death of everything interesting about pop writing. We don’t even have to look at something as subtle as tension here to see what’s wrong; it’s as simple as showing not telling. Compare the mountain of specific detail we’re shown in “This Is How We Do It” or “Dancing On My Own” to the dull, insistent telling of “Friday.”

All of which brings us back to the original point: don’t pile on Black for this monstrosity. Pile on Jay and Wilson for thinking that all 13-year-old girls have to offer are vapid platitudes about the weekend. At first, “Friday” seems merely boring and airheaded, a pop throwaway. But when you consider what’s possible within the confines of the pop format, and then take into account the way it came into the world—a boilerplate creation sold for $2,000 to the parents of a teen girl—it turns into something much worse, something lazy and cynical that denies the dizzy possibilities of the pop format generally and the feelgood weekend jam specifically.

* Actually, it’s probably worth demarcating some epistemological ground here, since Kelly Clarkson or Rebecca Black or even Ben Folds as the singer of “Brick” are no more the authors of those songs than Holden Caulfield is the author of Catcher in the Rye. When it comes to discussing a song, the songwriter creates a persona who sings the song, who is, in effect, the narrator of the song and shouldn’t be mistaken for either the person who’s singing the song or the person who wrote the song. This happens whether or not the person who wrote the song is the person who’s singing it. We should always be wary of mistaking narrators for authors.

Visit: Rebecca Black | Ark Music Factory