Rebecca Black's "Friday": A Libertarian Allegory
The astonishing popularity of Rebecca Black's "Friday" video — which became the YouTube meme of all memes in the course of a wild six weeks — has mystified many critics.
Was it shared and watched so wildly because it was so bad? Certainly the overwhelming judgment on the part of viewers is that it is atrocious — and yet it is hard to know what that means, since 85 million people not only watched the video but also downloaded the song, bought the ring tone, and devoured every available bit of news about the singer and the song.
Using the principle of "demonstrated preference," this music video ranks as the most popular in human history.
Perhaps it is the digital-age version of Mel Brooks's smash Broadway play The Producers, a story about an attempt to write a play so bad that it flops on the first night. But, in Brooks's hilarious telling, the results were the opposite: the play was so bad that it was brilliant, and it became a smash success, however inadvertently.
Lovers of liberty are often drawn to such scenarios because they highlight the unknowability of the future, the unpredictability of human choice, and the way in which the intentions of the planners (in this case, the producers and writers) are easily upended by consumer choice, which is the driving force of economic progress.
The Producers-like irony is deepened in the case of Black's "Friday" video because it was not intended as a parody or an attempt to create a flop. That makes it all the more brilliant as a a piece of viral art. It somehow captured an archetype of bubblegum pop but with innocence and the absence of an edge.
Kids say it is awful and they hate it. They do not, despite what they say. Teens often claim to hate what they really love — as only a passing familiarity with teen romance patterns illustrates. The girl who can't stop talking about the guy she hates is surely protesting too much.
Musically, the song wouldn't seem to offer that much, but I would point out that its word play is not entirely conventional. The repeated placement of a three-syllable word "partying" into a duple metric creates some off-accent downbeats that are not entirely intuitive.
Far more significant is the underlying celebration of liberation that the day Friday represents. The kids featured in the video are of junior-high age, a time when adulthood is beginning to dawn and, with it, the realization of the captive state that the public school represents.
From the time that children are first institutionalized in these tax-funded cement structures, they are told the rules. Show up, obey the rules, accept the grades you are given, and never even think of escaping until you hear the bell. If you do escape, even peacefully of your own choice, you will be declared "truant," which is the intentional and unauthorized absence from compulsory school.
This prison-like environment runs from Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to late afternoon, for at least ten years of every child's life. It's been called the "twelve-year sentence" for good reason. At some point, every kid in public school gains consciousness of the strange reality. You can acquiesce as the civic order demands, or you can protest and be declared a bum and a loser by society.
"Friday" beautifully illustrates the sheer banality of a life spent in this prison-like system, and the prospect of liberation that the weekend means. Partying, in this case, is just another word for freedom from state authority.
The largest segment of the video then deals with what this window of liberty, the weekend, means in the life of someone otherwise ensnared in a thicket of statism. Keep in mind here that the celebration of Friday in this context means more than it would for a worker in a factory, for example: for the worker is free to come and go, to apply for a job or quit, to negotiate terms of a contract, or whatever. All of this is denied to the kid in public school.
In the video, the rush to comply and conform with the system begins with the main character in the morning, when the drill begins with waking up and preparing to go. She eats cereal for breakfast — a bit of trivia that one would hardly expect in a pop song but a first sign that the topic is reality-based and not idyllic or romanticized.
And where is she headed? To catch the official, tax-funded school bus, which, though it is not shown, we know is painted yellow today just as it has been from time immemorial since there is never really progress or change in the state-run system. The tax-fueled machine comes to your door to snatch you away from home, where you are loved and valued, in order to transport you to the cement structure that teaches you about the glory of fitting in and believing what you are supposed to believe.
But then the protagonist experiences a foreshadowing of the liberation at hand. Arriving before the school bus is a car with "my friends." They are smiling and inviting her to join them on the ride. And it is in this context that she confronts that glorious institution that is otherwise denied to her and every student in government school: human choice.
It might as first seem like a trivial choice: whether to sit in the front seat or the back seat. But the point is not the choice set; the point is the opportunity to exercise some degree of human volition, to use one's own brain to control one's own body ("gotta make my mind up") and live with the consequences of that choice. It is a similar situation to anyone who has found himself let out of prison. These people will report the sense of elation that they feel in even the smallest opportunity to make a choice on their own.
At this moment of choice, note that the melody departs from its single-note, drill-like recitation to suddenly rise up a fifth, musical interval that has traditionally been used as a trumpet-like announcement. And once surrounded by friends of her own choosing, the imaginings of Friday's end become more real, and thus does the melody become more complex and celebratory, exploring a great range of musical colors and rhythms.
The protagonist returns, again and again, to the profound meaning behind the seemingly trivial choice to sit in one seat or another. Again, it is not the choice set that matters here but the reality of choice itself that is otherwise denied to her and all her friends in the state-run system.
The remainder of the video features scenes of "partying," which turns out not to be about drugs or drinking but merely hanging around in yards and milling about with friends. There is no attempt here to manufacture a predetermined order, no standing in lines or obeying some central plan. Rather, the beauty is seen in the pure fact of voluntary human association, with kids milling around and joining this group or that, wearing clothes of their own choosing and talking with friends of their own choosing.
Even the recitation of the days of week — a portion of the video that has been most subjected to ridicule — underscores the theme of captivity and liberation. What is there to do in prison but count the days? In story and legend, the prisoner watches the light outside and make tick marks on the wall to mark the passage of time. So it is with this protagonist, who uses calendar pages to do the same.
When she finally announces, elatedly, that "I don't want the weekend to end," she is expressing more than just the desire to be permanently relieved of educational tasks; it is a cry for the civic order to recognize the human right of liberty itself. The video ends with that hope that there will be no return to the twelve-year sentence but rather that "partying" could become a permanent state of being, not just for her but for everyone.
To be sure, I'm not arguing that all of this was overtly intended by the songwriter or the singer. The point, rather, is that the plight, the hopes, and the dreams that are reflected in this video, however inadvertently, tap into a sensibility and a longing of a generation for a certain kind of freedom from a system that has ensnared them against their will. This might be the driving force of its popularity — and precisely why something that people claim not to like is evidently so loved.
A child-like dream of Friday and what it represents for kids trapped in public school, kids who are transported around on tax-funded buses and ordered around by tax-funded propagandists for the state, is a plausible allegory for the plight of all people imprisoned in state-controlled environments.