I am sitting on the edge of the booth trying to interview Rebecca Black, but Rebecca Black is not looking at me. We’re in a trendy West Hollywood café, and she is sitting with her forehead pressed to the table, her long charcoal hair obscuring her face. She lets out a sigh and, without lifting her head, turns her face toward the cell phone clutched in her hand and begins to scroll through text messages. She’s flanked by her mother, a polite woman in her late forties with the same charcoal hair as her daughter, and her manager, Debra Baum, who has also worked with Paula Abdul.
I had just accompanied Black and her team to a morning-show interview where the 14-year-old discussed the launch of her video “My Moment,” her intended musical victory lap around her naysayers (“Haters, said I’ll see you later / Can’t talk to you right now / I’m getting my paper”). In the cramped greenroom, Black was behaving the way most teenagers do—giggling and excitedly talking to her makeup artist, holding her hand even though the woman was twice her age. “I think I want a bob cut, but I’ll wait till next year,” Black told her. Her makeup artist agreed that the change would be too radical, too soon. Then Black walked onto the set to record her eight-minute interview, sitting behind a morning-show table, excitedly twisting back and forth in her swivel chair enough times that Baum, standing off to the side, kept mumbling to herself, “Stop, stop.”
But sitting here at brunch, Black seems completely deflated. She lifts her head, and when her big brown eyes finally focus on me, I ask what it feels like to have 6 million people watch her newest single in less than three days. She responds, slightly annoyed, “I’m exhausted.” Catching herself coming off as perhaps a little petulant, she sits straighter, snaps on a small smile, and says, “But I’m really excited for everyone to hear what I really sound like. Everyone knew me as the Auto-Tuned girl that couldn’t sing in ‘Friday,’ and now it’s like, this is what I actually sound like. There’s barely any Auto-Tune in this, so it’s, like, a fresh start.”
About a year ago, as an elaborate gift, Black’s mother paid Ark Music Factory $4,000 to make a music video for her then-13-year-old daughter. At the time, Ark was a one-man, fee-for-service operation run by Patrice Wilson, who, along with another composer, Clarence Jey (whom Wilson found through a Craigslist ad), wrote the song “Friday” in a single afternoon. Wilson then shot the video in the backyard of Black’s father’s house, populated by a collection of her young friends doubling as video extras.
Days later, Wilson posted the finished product on Ark’s YouTube page as an advertisement for the company’s services. The video stayed up for a month and went relatively unnoted, with only about 3,000 views. That is, until Tosh.0, the half-hour clip show on Comedy Central dedicated to mercilessly making fun of YouTube videos, uploaded the video to its blog. Within two weeks, it received 50 million views (it went on to get over 100 million views, a milestone Black’s parents commemorated by getting their daughter a digital billboard ad in Hollywood).
The buzz culminated in Black’s performing an acoustic version of “Friday” on Good Morning America with Jey at the piano. She reached No. 9 on a Billboard Social 50 chart (which measures an artist’s popularity on social-networking sites) and entered the cultural ether so quickly that many heard about “Friday” before they had a chance to actually listen to it. The overly simplistic lyrics (“Gotta go downstairs / Gotta have my bowl / Gotta have cereal”) soon became easy punch lines for online commenters and late-night talk-show hosts. Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon famously duetted the ditty on Late Night.
In late March, after the video went viral, estimates of Black’s profits began to emerge; namely, that she had already pocketed $20,000 to $40,000 from iTunes downloads and Google ads that ran on “Friday” ’s YouTube page. The song also made its way onto episodes of Glee, cast members from Dancing With the Stars performed a rendition online, and, to date, it has received twice the number of views as Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” Katy Perry, Black’s admitted personal hero, did a cover of “Friday” during her world tour and featured Black in the video for “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.).” Black was also recently voted best “Web Star” at the Teen Choice Awards, and performed a mash-up of “Friday” and “My Moment” on America’s Got Talent.
Now, like a seasoned industry vet, Black has a lot of irons in the fire. She will be releasing another single in October, there are rumors that she might be signing a record contract imminently, and she recently settled legal disputes with Ark—disputes that both parties remain tight-lipped about—to “the mutual satisfaction” of everyone involved, according to her publicist.
“Not to speak for Rebecca,” Baum says at brunch, “but it was really important for me to have five singles ready for her.” She then adds, with a little tension in her voice, “I instinctively feel that Rebecca has great songwriting capabilities, but we didn’t have time for her to work with writers, so it was important to find songs that she could have penned herself.”
I ask Black if she’s tried songwriting. “It’s so hard … It’s like … ” There’s a long pause, and then Black says, “You’re vibrating.”
She’s referring to her manager’s cell phone, which is now jittering across the table. Black, fully distracted again, resumes twiddling with her phone, ending the line of questioning.
Baum eventually pokes Black in the ribs to get her to face my way and takes the opportunity to snatch the phone away from her. I ask Black what she has done to invest in herself as an artist, now that the world is watching. More singing lessons? Dance training? She tells me that she’s been watching a lot of celebrity interviews. “I grew up being the girl who would always tune in to watch famous people talk about their careers, how they handled scandals and megafame. I’m trying to pick up tips,” she says without a trace of irony.
“You can imagine how many people are asking for interviews and how limited we are about it—that’s intentional,” Baum says. “Rebecca’s work speaks for itself, and nowadays you don’t have to do every interview, so this is special.”
Black is now tackling a new task before her: siphoning strawfuls of her iced tea into her glass of water, giving the beverage a sewage hue. “Rebecca is pioneering the way to do this,” Baum continues after taking one of the straws away. “She owns her own assets. As I believe you know, it would take artists twenty years to circle that material.” She’s right. Black has attained both cultural relevance and ownership over her work, a feat that usually takes other artists decades to achieve. She grabs a new straw and begins to pour liquid from her glass into Baum’s. When I ask her if there’s a specific sound or artist she’s emulating, Black repeats her undying devotion to Katy Perry, who is “not like those Disney kids. They are so in-the-box.” (A few days earlier, her publicist had rejected my request to take Black to the local record store, saying, “I don’t think that would work. She’s not that into music.”)
It occurs to me that Black may just be sick of talking about “Friday” or her nascent-yet-possibly-over-maybe-never-was singing career. Sitting at this table, she’s making it perfectly clear that she’d rather not have her day consumed by the adults around her, the way any kid her age would feel. Or perhaps what Ark Music Factory and Black’s parents, publicist, and manager have unwittingly created is a much savvier player than they could have imagined. Black seems to have fully internalized, probably subconsciously, a reality that may elude other recording artists: This interview will have no impact on her career. She doesn’t need this, or any other traditional outlets, for that matter, to get people’s attention.
When I asked her what she thinks of signing to a label, she cocks her head and says, “I am my label.”