Rebecca Black says it’s difficult to relive moments like an interview she gave at the YouTube headquarters in 2011.
It was eight months after her “Friday” music video had gone viral — a whirlwind that included Lady Gaga labeling her a “genius,” Katy Perry asking her to appear in a music video and an overseas trip to perform in Australia. Black was sitting next to Kevin Allocca, the head of culture and trends at YouTube, for a Q&A.
As she answered a question about the cyberbullying she experienced over the song, Allocca interjected with an observation. “It’s amazing that you’re laughing about this right now,” he said. “There are other people who would be very concerned.”
“You just kind of have to endure it and be strong,” Black said partway through her interview with Allocca. It was a response that had become a common one for Black at that point in her life.
It didn’t reflect reality.
“I was really struggling, and I felt like if I showed any of that, it would only invite more people to laugh at me,” says Black, now 23. “But what it did was dehumanize me even more into some version of a spectacle because none of that is real. It’s not normal for a person — for a kid, especially — to have the entire world make fun of them and then just laugh along with it.”
As of this week, Black has had exactly a decade since the release of “Friday” to sit with it and reorient her life in the aftermath. She says the past year has been a particularly important one for her: In April, she came out as queer. She has also released a pair of new songs in the past few weeks, including a “Friday” remix that would have long seemed almost as unlikely as her going viral in the first place.
Ten years later, Black says she feels empowered to be open about what happened: “Friday” led to depression, loneliness — and a years-long recovery.
Black grew up in a “tiny bubble” in Irvine, Calif., attending a private school with just 30 kids in her sixth-grade class. Although her parents were divorced, her family was tightknit, Black says, and she craved a space she could call her own. She found it in performing.
Black’s parents, both veterinarians, enrolled her in dance class when she was 3, then musical theater, then vocal lessons. She started a YouTube channel and posted her first video — “Fred’s Kitten Gets Attacked,” which she made with her dad — when she was 10.
When Black switched to a much larger school after sixth grade, in part because of bullying, musical theater eased her transition, she says. She obsessed over the TV show “Glee” and would get on the stage at lunchtime to do cartwheels and sing songs by Perry or 3OH!3. “I would’ve turned out very differently if I wasn’t in this musical theater program, because on the first day, you were welcomed into this huge family of kids that were just like you and that were so open, so talkative, so fun to be around,” Black said in a 2013 video. “I really felt accepted for the first time in my life.”
The summer before eighth grade, a company called Ark Music Factory produced a video for one of Black’s friends. A few months later, when Black asked her mom, Georgina Marquez, whether she could do the same, she was shocked when her mother agreed.
Her mom, Black says, viewed it as akin to putting her brother in club soccer. It seemed like both a fun learning experience and a potential résumé-booster for college, so after meeting with Ark, they paid the company $2,000 to make the music video and another $2,000 to own the master copy, the New York Times reported in 2011. Black says the company mentioned she could make money if the video surpassed 100,000 views, but such a seemingly far-fetched scenario barely registered.
The first song Ark sent to Black was called “Superwoman.” Black had just broken up with her first boyfriend — of three days — because she was too afraid to talk to him, so singing about being a boy’s superwoman felt weird, she says. After she rejected the song, Ark emailed her another: “It’s Friday.” The thought of saying no again made Black feel uneasy, she says. Besides, for a 13-year-old, looking forward to the weekend was much more relatable.
It took two hours to record the song over Christmas break, and a few weeks later, Ark filmed the video at Black’s father’s house. The 12-hour shoot was a fun day with a dozen or so friends, Black says, but it wasn’t glamorous: They used leaf blowers in place of a wind machine, and Black’s dad had to buy green cardboard paper to be used as a green screen.
Afterward, Black largely forgot about it. Ark posted “Friday” on YouTube on Feb. 10, and she was neither thrilled with it nor disappointed. She was mostly just self-conscious about the pimple on her cheek.
A month after the video’s release, Black was riding home from school in her mom’s SUV when she got a notification on her iPhone 4. It was March 11, 2011, and a stranger had commented on Ark’s website. “Daniel Tosh just found your video....not good it’s gunna be tore up,” the user wrote, “but you will be famous!”
Black was confused. She was unaware of the comedian and his Comedy Central show’s blog, which made fun of her song that afternoon in a post titled, “Songwriting Isn’t For Everyone.” That same afternoon, Mashable reported, comedian Michael J. Nelson tweeted to his 19,000 followers that it was the “worst video ever made.” A BuzzFeed headline declared, “This Is Literally The Worst Thing I Have Ever Heard.” Time magazine labeled it “bizarrely bad.”
As soon as she got home, Black went to her room and got on her Mac to make sense of what was happening. She says she felt a slight panic as she visited the “Friday” YouTube page. The first thing she noticed was that the views had quadrupled overnight, but then she scrolled down to the comments and felt a pit in her stomach.
The abuse was relentless. Jessica Vitak, an associate professor in the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies, says the cyberbullying women face is often sexualized with rape threats, which Black received. Vitak also points to the online disinhibition effect, when “people are emboldened to say horrible things because they’re not going to have consequences.”
But what Black most vividly remembers isn’t a particular remark. It’s the pain she felt, having had “problems with bullying growing up” but feeling like she’d recently been “coming out of that.”
Frozen in a state of shock, she did what any 13-year-old would do: She screamed for her mom. Sitting on Marquez’s bed, Black felt embarrassed, but she couldn’t figure out why it was embarrassing, she says now. Then, she just knew it was cruel.
In a phone call with Marquez, Ark offered to take down the video. The company was a small operation trying to quickly churn out content, says co-founder Clarence Jey, and it didn’t anticipate the song’s ubiquity. But that didn’t seem like an option to Black, who thought it would be even more humiliating. Plus, she didn’t want the bullies to win. She was tired of letting people put her down, she says, and she wanted to fight for the passion in which she had found so much solace.
Although refusing to remove the video was an act of control, she couldn’t do much as the attention and cyberbullying escalated over the weekend. In two days, “Friday” went from having 1,000 views to 1 million. In a month, it reached 100 million.
The unwanted attention crept into the real world, too. For the second time in two years, Black left school in part because of bullying.
At the same time, Black enjoyed once-unthinkable opportunities: Between red carpets, TV appearances and celebrities covering her song, she says 2011 was a blur.
In April, Perry asked Black to appear in the “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” music video, which also featured “Glee” actors Darren Criss and Kevin McHale. Perry asked Black to appear at an August concert, too, where they sang “Friday” together. Black says she was struck both times by Perry’s kindness. Before the concert, Black says, Perry spent time with her and offered advice. After that, Black says, singer Demi Lovato did the same, and gave Black her phone number. (Perry and Lovato could not be reached for comment.)
That included her initial team of professional handlers hired by her family, she says. They were more concerned, she claims, with how they could capitalize off “Friday” than how a 13-year-old was coping with it all.
Black’s parents and many of her friends declined or did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.
“When you’re a kid walking into this industry, you’re taught that adults are there to protect you and they’re there to teach you the right way to do it,” Black says, describing the level of involvement her handlers had in her life. “It’s one thing to tell someone they’re wrong in something that is strictly business, but telling me I was wrong in terms of how I was treating my body? In terms of how I was eating?”
Black says she grew disconnected from her friends and expected others to treat her like a joke, fearing “Friday” would forever define her. Battered so often by ruthless remarks, she says, she began to believe them, and they robbed her of her sense of self.
In 2012, as the whirlwind started to slow down, depression settled in. Black was home-schooled and spent most of her time alone on the blog site Tumblr. She says she felt lost and distraught, but the worst was when she felt numb, having internalized the cruel comments so deeply that the kind ones couldn’t reach her.
“As overwhelming as it is to have a viral moment like that,” Black says, “there’s this sudden crash after it of, ‘What now?’”
In need of a reset, Black fired most of the people around her and returned to public school for 11th and 12th grade, only to be targeted worse than before. Classmates took pictures of Black, her friend Ashling Antolin recalls, and spread rumors. They threw food at her and her friends, wrote on her locker, taunted her by yelling, “What day is it?”
Aching to show that she was more than just the “Friday” girl, she started regularly making YouTube videos again. It marked one of the first times she did things fully on her own terms, and she treasured the control, she says. She found a “really, really comforting” community and made friends who cared about her.
But writing songs proved a different challenge.
Forgoing college, Black moved to Los Angeles, about an hour from her hometown, after graduation. She says she kept trying to write authentically and kept finding herself unable. At one point, a mentor heard Black laugh in an interview about her painful post-“Friday” experiences, just as she had with Allocca years earlier. This time, her mentor challenged her to engage with her emotions, and this time, Black says, she actually did.
So started a process of “unwinding” all of the comments she had received from others.
“You have to take everything in your head and put it on paper. That is releasing within itself. Then — it feels unnatural at first — try to speak to yourself and speak to others about yourself in ways you don’t even believe at first,” she says.
Black maintains that it’s a work in progress: “You don’t get to a point where you’re like, ‘I’ve unwound it and now I am ready to be positive!’ It’s all mixed in together.”
In 2016, Black poured herself into her first song in years, “The Great Divide.” In releasing it, she recalls, she was “so terrified I was going to meet the same experience I met with ‘Friday,’” which has been “the crux of all my fear in life.”
She says that one of her favorite lyrics from “The Great Divide”— Good luck when you wake up and realize all that you lost — signified her grabbing power back.
“I have spent so long trying to perfect this and make it absolutely amazing,” a tearful, joyful 19-year-old Black says at the start of the video. “Part of me wanted to do this because I wanted to be like, ‘Ha, this is perfect. Yeah, I can sing. Y’all can’t say anything now.’ And I just wanted to prove everyone wrong. Now that it’s here, I have that within myself. I don’t need that anymore.”
Self-acceptance has become a calling card of Black’s since.
It’s evident before she even starts singing in “Girlfriend,” a song she released last month. Her first track since coming out, it’s about getting back together with someone, and it starts with a voice mail from her ex.
Talking about such an experience “in a very obviously queer way was important to me,” Black says. “It was that kind of music that I listen to from people that I really admire who allowed me to feel more comfortable in myself.”
From an online-trends perspective, “Friday” was a specific brew: a bad video, beset by cyberbullying, proliferated throughout a much less sprawling online ecosystem.
“When you look at what makes things go viral, even to this day, the interaction around the content is actually more important than the content itself,” says YouTube’s Allocca, who interviewed Black 10 years ago. “The most popular things on YouTube are driven by these cultural conversations that were being spawned around them, of which ‘Friday’ really tapped into in a way that is perhaps never going to exist again.”
Today, still in Los Angeles and working primarily on music, Black says she wouldn’t change a thing about “Friday” or what followed. It elevated her empathy, particularly with struggling teenagers. She wants to be, she says, the kind of guide she needed growing up.
“It’s definitely very eye-opening … the pressure we put on kids still, with people like [TikTok star] Charli D’Amelio popping up and all the other hundreds of them that exist now,” Black says.
Black, for her part, says her best years have been the past two. Her biggest goal is to be confident in who she is, which she’s a lot better at now, she says: Black is surer of who she is and forgiving of who she was.
And so she made a remix of “Friday.”
The song, which features Big Freedia, 3OH!3 and Dorian Electra, dropped Wednesday, on the 10th anniversary of the original. Black began thinking about a possible remix a few years ago when, to her surprise, producers and fellow artists told her they were interested in one. As she grew more at ease talking about her experience, the opportunity to revisit the song that started it all — which spiked again on YouTube one recent Friday, as it often does — proved too tempting.
“In the years after ‘Friday,’ I really tried to separate myself from it in a forceful way. And the more I tried to force myself away from ‘Friday,’ the faster the idea of that being the only thing people would recognize me by chased me,” Black says.
“I’m really just having fun with it,” she continues, 10 years on. “And I like living in this version of myself.”