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Letter sent on Aug 17, 2015

The Long Bad Friday

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What happens when the spotlight is gone? And what happens when the spotlight was actually just a shitstorm of epic, bizarre, personality-crushing proportions?

Just ask Rebecca Black. Yes, that Rebecca Black: the teenage pop wannabe whose cringe-inducing private world turned inside out, and made her into an overnight sensation in the worst possible way.

That was four, nearly five years ago. And now Buzzfeed’s Reggie Ugwu is returning to see what life is like, meeting up with Black and basically asking one question—what happens to you after you’ve been a figure of international ridicule?

In general, transferring into junior year of high school as Rebecca Black was about as daunting as you’d imagine. And things did get pretty ugly at first. Beyond the rumors, kids would TP her house frequently, or throw fruit at her at lunch, or pour milk in her locker. Those who weren’t outwardly hostile would cast long glances in the hallway, or act weird when she entered a room.
Ooh, Rebecca Black, they seemed to be saying. I bet you think you’re hot shit.

Not a nice place to be when you’re an early teen. Or any time, really.

There are some parts of the story that feel a little paint by numbers, and perhaps because I’m an old fusty man, I am sort of freaked out by the focus on the dating life of an 18-year-old. But there were other moments that made me think, or see things a little differently.

When “Friday” exploded, the YouTube community was a dubious ally — a source of more snark and vitriol than moral support; but now it’s home. Black’s life revolves around the platform — her entire friend group, amassed online and at annual gatherings like VidCon, consists of fellow YouTube stars, including ThatSoJack (1.2 million subscribers) andJennxPenn (2 million subscribers, a book deal, and a new movie) — where she’s regarded as something of a grizzled veteran.

I think the article’s characterization here is wrong, but for me it is probably the most fascinating moment of the story. Because it is not the YouTube community that is home to Rebecca Black, it is the community of YouTubers who have been through a kind of semi-permanent fame. That feels like a kind of Gibsonian distributed-future moment: an entire class of cultural stars brought together not by their art, but by the way people react to their art. The peculiar transitory obsession that YouTube brings is itself a kind of glue.

It’s not without its problems, but I applaud the story’s attempt to capture an odd, hypermodern kind of moment. Understanding who Rebecca Black is — or perhaps why Rebecca Black is — is about as good a description of the cultural debacle of the 2010s as I can think of right now.