Rebecca Black posted a TikTok in late June, a day after her 23rd birthday. She’s “hungover” in it, her caption says, and she’s dancing irreverently to an electropop-y song called “Sweetheart.”
Turns out it’s her song — and it’s really good. The comments section of this video, unlike the one for "Friday" in 2011 that catapulted her to infamy, is filled with positive feedback and well wishes.
hungover. lol. but i’m 23 woo! i love this dance smmmmm #sweetheart DC: @mercybullen♬ Sweetheart (Dance Yourself Clean Remix) - Rebecca Black
Black has a new haircut, her latest music has a fresh sound, and she’s recently come out as queer. She told me she feels like in some ways she’s doing life backward. Most people experiment with their look, their art, and their identities when they’re adolescents, she’s only recently allowed herself to. It seems to be working out remarkably well. Through posting TikToks during quarantine, Black said she’s been able to have the community and fanbase that she’s always wanted — one that feels safe and finally accepts her for who she is.
“I don’t know if that sounds cheesy, but who I am has been changing a lot over the last few years,” she said. “I was so focused on getting people to like me and not think I was bad or I did something wrong. I think one thing that I’m constantly feeling is ‘I’m just finally getting it,’ so every year has felt like a decade since then.”
As we chatted on the phone earlier this week, Black often referenced “then” or “back then.” She’s talking about the nine years that have passed since her infamous “Friday” music video came out.
In 2011, when she was only 13, Black’s mom, Georgina Marquez, paid a company called ARK Music Factory to give her daughter an experiential gift of recording a song and filming a video. They did not intend for anyone to see it outside of her immediate friends and family circle. Black said she never ever expected it to go online. Instead, ARK posted it to YouTube, and the “Friday” music video spread like wildfire through the internet. Adults had ironic and unironic debates about whether or not it was the “worst song ever,” and Black became a punchline for several media cycles. She was viciously cyberbullied to the point that her mom had to start homeschooling her full-time. At one point, her mom told ABC News, they had to involve the FBI to investigate a string of death threats.
Four years later, in 2015, my former colleague Reggie Ugwu spent time with Black, who was then 18, and wrote about her attempt to live like a normal teenager.
Black now says it’s “crazy” for her to reflect on the interview with Ugwu, because at the time she was not doing well. Despite smiles she flashed for photos and expressing optimism about her future in the interview, Black said she spent a lot of time feeling a lot of “nothing.”
“I’m just so happy I don’t live in the same place I did five years ago where I couldn’t read any comments,” she said. “I couldn’t read any of my comments. I wasn’t taking in anything. I felt the same amount of nothing when I’d read a positive comment as when I’d read some version of a hate comment.”
At the time, she and her family had just fought a legal battle with ARK and its cofounder Patrice Wilson over the rights to “Friday,” and a separate management deal for a real shot at a music career had gone awry. Black and her family were left winded. Black was in therapy, but she seldom felt assured. She wanted to retreat from both the online and physical world and give up on herself.
It wasn’t until recently, she said, that she met a therapist who forced her to process all that had happened.
“And not just with ‘Friday’ — but my entire life,” she said. “With time I began to experience a version of myself I never knew existed.”
First, it was coming to terms with her sexuality, which she called a huge “turning point.”
“It was something I found on my own without anyone telling me what I should be,” she said. “That for me was something I could identify and go, ‘Yup, that is me and that came from me and not anybody else.’ That was a huge moment.”
She’s also cut complete ties with “traditional music industry people” and vowed to figure out this music thing on her own. She wants to be a singer, but more importantly, she wants to become one on her own terms. So years after becoming famous, she has started to develop basic music writing and production skills. She now DMs independent producers whose sound she admires on Instagram or other social media platforms and asks about collaborating. She recently worked with Nathaniel Motte, who was in the band 3OH!3 but now produces full-time, after linking up over Instagram.
She’s put out a few singles independently over the last year that sound more seasoned and personal. There’s “Do You?” — a croony, sad ballad with an aesthetic music video where Black gives an emotional performance through lyrical dance. (The song opens with the lyrics “I need some recovery / Don’t want to make this messy.”) Nine months ago, she released “Sweetheart,” which had gone mostly unnoticed outside of her core fanbase. One of them made TikTok choreography to it, which briefly had a moment.
Then, when the pandemic hit the US in late March, Black started to become more active on TikTok. She had created an account earlier this year but didn’t begin actively posting until April. Like so many other users, she recorded herself dancing and cracking jokes at her own expense. She then began to talk about her mental health in the irreverent way that Gen Z users have normalized on the app. Up until this point, Black had mostly been vlogging on YouTube and, well, stunting on Instagram.
In small, ordinary ways, she started to realize that the less she cared about how her image was going to be received, the more people received this version of herself with more open arms.
“I just felt like I had nothing to lose, and even more than that, when the world shut down all I had was the internet,” she said. “It felt like a new space to do whatever the fuck you wanted to do. I know I’m not the only one who struggles with this, but … I definitely struggled a lot with image portrayal.”
“What I love about TikTok is it can be the antithesis of what Instagram is all about. You don’t have to be cool to be celebrated on TikTok.”
Last week, Black posted a TikTok where she satirized all the questions she gets about her sexuality. “Is she...you know?” she says repeatedly, poking fun of people who are curious if she falls anywhere outside of heterosexuality. She flirts with the question, and an answer by pointing to the rainbow flag on her shirt. The video’s been viewed a million times.
Because of what she endured in 2011 and for years afterward, Black still worries she’ll be ridiculed and mocked if she reveals anything too personal. But she’s gotten better at managing those anxieties, and she feels empowered to, in her own words, do whatever the fuck she wants to do.
“I spent so much time being so afraid of talking about things like that. I had fears people would take it and give the same reactions as they have had when I was first [on] the internet at such a young age. But the only thing I’ve found is the more I tell the truth about what my life is — whether that’s my sexuality or talking about the depression I went through as a teenager — I think what I always thought would further isolate me online has only helped me find a community for myself.”
People still troll her with “Friday” lyrics and memes in the comment sections of her TikToks. The original video on YouTube, that her parents fought to keep online under her own name, has now been viewed 145 million times with 3.7 million dislikes (to a ratio of a little over a million likes). Watching it a decade later, the song and production are still cringey enough to make the body tremble. It’s objectively bad, and ripe for reactions and mockery.
The noticeable difference is how Black deals with the vitriol today.
“I felt I made a lot of progress. I have so far to go, but I’m just learning to trust myself, I think. Maybe I should give myself a little more credit so that I can trust what I think or what I believe.”
Black has received heartfelt apologies from strangers who privately reach out to her and admit to having once harassed her. They sometimes say self-loathing things like “I’m so stupid for how I spoke to you back in the day.”
Black addressed this in another TikTok last week that’s gone viral, saying the “Friday” experience taught her to be kinder to a younger version of herself who could not have predicted that she would be tarred and feathered by the internet.
She told me that while it’s nice to hear apologies and people holding themselves accountable, she’s not delighted to know people are still punishing themselves for their once cruel behavior, either.
“There is so much accountability online now, which is a positive thing. But it’s not just about the way you are teaching other people to be online, but how are you speaking to yourself? It doesn’t help to hear, ‘I can’t believe I did that, I’m so mad at myself,’ like, have that moment. But forgive yourself. And learn from it and make a different choice next time. That’s the part of the conversation that I’m thrilled to be a part of online.”
These days, Black describes her quarantine and hobbies with perhaps a level of normalcy and relatability that her teenage self would have been thrilled about. She finally finished watching The Handmaid’s Tale and MasterChef, and she’s been cooking a lot more. (“But that’s half the world,” she said, laughing.)
Music takes up most of her time — she’s writing music on her own, for herself, for the first time, and deciding who she wants to collaborate with for the first time. I lobbed an idea, half-jokingly, that she could rerecord “Friday” with the alternative pop/dance sound she’s been experimenting with these days. It could be a pretty obvious reclamation of the narrative.
“Oh, it’s been a thought I’ve had. I’ve pinged it out to artists I like. A lot of plans have shifted this year with everything going on…but I don’t know, next year is the 10-year anniversary of ‘Friday’…” her voice trailed off with a wink.