Joanna Weiss

The instant fame train wreck, again

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / March 27, 2011

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I’M NOT sure what stage we’ve reached in the Internet ascendancy of 13-year-old Rebecca Black: The backlash to the backlash to the backlash to the backlash?

All I know is that, as an aspiring pop star, Black must be pleased with herself. Yes, her YouTube video “Friday,’’ produced by a for-hire outfit in California, has been mocked and pilloried and parodied nationwide. But she’s also drawn defenses from the likes of Lady Gaga. And by last week, she was cheerily telling Jay Leno how she handles the hateful comments: “Now I don’t even read them, so they don’t bug me.’’ Then she grabbed a microphone and walked across the stage to sing with the “Tonight Show’’ band.

Surely, she’ll be yet another inspiration to a nation of kids obsessed with fame — a generation that has grown up with Facebook, YouTube, and the belief that all publicity is natural and good. I once met a group of Girl Scouts, fresh off a Hannah Montana sing-alike contest, who believed that international superstardom wasn’t just achievable, but likely — and that, like a fictional pop star, they could have fame without consequence.

Alas, the fame machine that fuels “Hannah,’’ “American Idol,’’ and the Justin Bieber story leaves out the fine print: that you’re most likely to rise to the top if you’re very, very good or very, very bad — or some combination of both. “Friday’’ went viral, after all, due to the brilliance of its awfulness. A song written by adults still manages to sound as if it came from the soul of a suburban 13-year-old. (“Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal . . . which seat can I take?’’)

It’s clear that people are buying the song to mock it; at 99 cents on iTunes, smug satisfaction comes cheap. And part of me suspects that the songwriters are laughing, too. “Friday’’ works as a renegade critique of pop music today — vapid lyrics, mindless melodies, Auto-Tune overdependency. The best parody is nearly indistinguishable from its source.

But if “Friday’’ is a joke, then it’s a joke on Black, who comes across as a guileless, decent kid. She’s donating the proceeds of her sales — which quickly reached the tens of thousands — to her school and to disaster relief in Japan. Her crime was buying into the narrative about how to become a star.

Surely, she didn’t anticipate the dark side of online fame, in which anonymity unleashes a special kind of meanness. I wonder how many of the people who mocked Black on Twitter and on comment boards would have said those same things to her face, or teased the kids who overreach at junior high school talent shows.

Alas, the web is cluttered with the residue of people with the tools to get famous, but not the wisdom to self-censor. That’s the story of Alex Wallace, the UCLA student who recently took to her webcam to rant about “these hordes of Asian people’’ who talk on their cellphones in the campus library.

In one sense, the aftermath was glorious proof that free speech vets itself. Wallace was vilified instantly, in part through a string of spot-on YouTube parodies. (My favorite is the Asian woman in a blonde wig, who delivers her faux rant with pictures of Hitler and Charlie Sheen in the background.)

But Wallace’s punishment, amplified online, is likely to outlast her own crime. She’s already announced she’s withdrawing from school. Who knows what will happen when she tries to get a job — after being internationally known for a dumb thing she thought fleetingly in college, and decided to share with the world. I suspect that Black, too, will be mortified at 30, when she looks back on the lyrics of “Friday’’ and the myth of easy stardom.

For now, though, the Internet offers its own protection. In a world where privacy has no value and fame has no obstacles, other people’s opinions have no currency, either. “People just say things to say things, and it doesn’t mean anything,’’ Leno told Black, by way of reassurance.

It may be the truest thing anyone’s said about the Internet age.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at