(Yes, this is tongue-in-cheek, except for the exploitation parts.)
Most of you have probably heard by now about Rebecca Black, her video, how it went viral, how it got negative YouTube comments, and how she got a lot more attention--in national media, even--for doing it wrong than for doing it right. I don’t know all of the details, because I didn’t care to follow all of the story, but I’m struck by how much of Black’s experience parallels bad publishing experiences and bad literature. I could springboard from this post by editor Cheryl Klein about Taylor Swift’s songs as musical versions of YA lit, and from my grudging respect for Swift, who I think is a pretty good songwriter.
So, Rebecca Black made a video that has been referred to as a “vanity video”; she paid somewhere in the range of $20,000 to have “Friday” written and produced by a company called Ark Music Factory. The idea, I think, is that young singers think they need to have a video so that they can attract attention, maybe get a recording contract or work acting. Sort of like models having a portfolio, I guess, and probably building on (rare) successes like Justin Bieber being discovered on YouTube.
But let’s back up for a minute. The cost of this video was $20,000.
Let me total it up. I had maybe two total years’ worth of piano lessons as a little kid, as your parents encourage you to do when you have access to a piano. And let’s say that you’d pay small-town rates for basic lessons and musicianship for two years, at a rate of $40/month. That’s $960 to learn an instrument that requires one to grasp universal concepts of music like beat, rhythm, tempo, style, and reading and writing the language. Or, how about this: you put your child in band, choir, and/or general music at school, for at least six years, and you might have expenses of nothing to perhaps $500 a year, if you have to buy uniforms or rent/buy an instrument. Schools may not be particularly forthcoming about funds, but there’s nearly always money available for kids who simply cannot pay for class materials.
Okay. Then, I had maybe two years of voice lessons in high school. Let’s say that was another $960; on the high end, in a larger city, with a very experienced and educated and professionally trained teacher, I could have paid $2400 over two years, maybe.
I always maxed out voice lessons in college when I could, but I didn’t take them all five years I was at a top five music school. But let’s pretend I did, and let’s imagine that I spent $700 a semester, and spent another $500 for summer lessons.
Even estimating high, I come out with a cost of about half of what it cost for Rebecca Black’s video. That’s nine years worth of music and voice lessons; she might have split those funds between voice lessons (the basics, music, and performance) and vocal coaching (teachers who help you work up specific songs for performance). And you know, I don’t have any quibbles with a music video costing $20,000 to make, but for $20,000, I’d want a BETTER music video.
This is vanity publishing. It’s the predatory publishing that happens when you’re told that you can get a “reasonable publishing package” to publish, and that there’s nothing for you in the traditional publishing world, because those big meanies just don’t know your talent--and they’re not telling you hey, you need to write another draft, spend more time editing, go deeper into your story. And then it should take you just another $10,000 or so to get your book out into an adoring world! My biggest beef with self publishing is just that, that it’s so often a way to exploit people. (I’ve done some micropublishing, and editing and book design and formatting, and buying ISBNs and stuff all takes money, but not THAT much money.)
So, let me analyze the video.
First, even though I’m not particularly good at hearing it--and I don’t always care about it if I can--it’s obvious that the producers used a lot of a program called Autotune. You’ve heard it in action in Cher’s “Believe” and Jamie Foxx/T-Pain’s “Blame It,” likely all of Britney Spears’s albums, and most episodes of Glee. This is meant to tweak vocals and instrumentals to get them right on pitch. Even though you can keep recording a line over and over in the studio and patch together a perfect performance, I have to say that I can understand why someone might say look, I can’t quite hit that note today, or that take was perfect, but we muffed that one note, or we’re expected to turn out a perfect album for that no-talent pop star or we won’t get paid, and we don’t have time to just let that star get better, so let’s just fix it with Autotune and move on. That doesn’t mean that I necessarily respect it, mind you, but that’s a whole other post. This is ghost writing when you use it all the way through. It’s telling you that you’re a fantastic author, even though you’re not doing any actual refining of that story you have to tell.
It’s hard to tell where Rebecca Black’s pitch ends and Autotune begins, and it’s hard to tell what she’d sound like without it, but perhaps she could have made some singing progress with vocal coaching. Not everyone can sing well, but most people can sing with decent pitch and tone if they have normal hearing (a big component in learning to sing) and if they are exposed to music from a young age, particularly if they get to sing along. Most of us will never have that extra spark of charisma that makes us superstars, but singing for fun is nothing to sniff at. A vocal coach could have worked on tone--the way the singing sounds--or suggested changing the key. I would have taken the whole thing a little bit higher; most women are sopranos, even if they don’t want to be, and the song seems to lie in a bad place for Black, one which is comfortable for teen girls, but not always their best sound, or their best choice for every song, or even well-developed (I think that that she’s forcing her voice down, and adapting by making it pretty bright and nasal, and it doesn’t sound relaxed or fun). Like boys, girls are going through voice changes, just more subtly, and the producers should have had an idea of what vocal range looks like for the typical teenager. It’s not usually an adult’s range of highs and lows. Also, a vocal coach would work on breath control and volume for this song; the whole thing is about the same volume throughout, and it’s choppy, and then breath control helps with pitch. Finally, a vocal coach would also work on pronunciation, because there’s a difference between saying a word and singing it so that it sounds good.
This is a first draft, not a final.
But all of that aside, while the song “Friday” has some catchy bits, admittedly, it’s also a first draft of a YA novel written by people who are supposed to be professionals. Let’s break it down.
To make this easier, I’m going to use “B” for the heroine of the video. I don’t think Rebecca Black had a lot of control over the outcome and I don’t think it’s “her” product, so I’d like to add a layer of separation, however small, between her the person and her the product of the video.
The first bits of the video aren’t the worst thing ever. I don’t like the sketchlike animation of B (there’s a word for that in Photoshop, but I can’t remember what it is), and I don’t entirely understand why we’re going with a school theme if we’re not going to make a bigger contrast between the weekdays spent in school and the weekend spent out of it; I think there should be more school or no school at all. Focus on one idea! In addition, the planner notes are pretty cliched. I do like the upbeat nature of the beginning and the “yeah yeah” part, before the real lyrics start.
At the beginning of the video, “B” is just waking up. In a YA novel, this is a cardinal sin! Heck, in a lot of novels, cutting out that part where someone wakes up in the morning and gets ready for the day is a major improvement. There’s also use of B holding relatively still while everyone around her moves quickly (and I don’t know the term for that, either). That effect never comes back again. (Also, I am somewhat disappointed that they straighten her glorious curly hair after she gets out of bed.) The narration of waking up is not insightful, different, catchy, or particularly suited to the music, and I can’t help thinking that someone is wedging pre-written words to a different pre-written tune.
Already, I’m stuck on a major issue that I have with the melody. If it were more graceful, it would be recitative, a convention from opera where the singer’s melody is a lot more like speech, often with a lot of repeated notes in a row and then a rising or falling line as the words indicate. But here, it sounds robotic and dull, and that’s the problem with a lot of repeated notes in a melody--the music isn’t going anywhere. Your only option is to get louder or softer, and that’s not happening.
Next, B sings about going to the bus stop, while standing in front of a sign that says BUS STOP. Have you ever seen a sign that says BUS STOP? Because I haven’t. I’d love to see her moving, hurrying down the street, anything that matches the lyrics about people rushing around.
Then, her friends appear in a convertible. She seemed to be planning to take the bus to school, but then the car comes; are they picking her up because they feel sorry for her? (The actors show some initial enthusiasm that seems almost sarcastic, like “come over here and we’ll drive away,” before switching to a more bored, less interactive demeanor.) Just how good of friends with B are these kids? Does she need FOUR of them? Could several friends be combined into one or two?
B asks, “Which seat can I take?” Given that there are already four people in the car--actually, I’m not sure if she’s asking if she can get someone to move so that she can take shotgun, but if she wants an empty seat, it’s the middle in the back, and as the back seat riders don’t move over to let her in--she ends up in the middle--it’s clear that she’s not valued by her peers, as she gets the least comfortable spot.
The narrative jumps, very suddenly, and we change to a not-very-well-developed scene of B, in a convertible, with different friends, cruising in front of a static backdrop of the moon. What happened to Friday? We’ve fast forwarded past what makes it such a contrast from the weekend. The friends are wearing party dresses, but B seems to be wearing a suit, again indicating that she doesn’t fit in so well. And, while it’s a typical music video trope, the back seat of kids is sitting on top of the seat, which concerns me as--and this bit isn’t a joke--I’ve known kids who died falling out of and off vehicles. Seatbelts on, please, especially if you’re on the highway, as B sings.
There’s a big authorial cheat here. B sings, “Fun, fun, think about fun, you know what it is.” I can’t figure out what that’s a reference to, though I’ll admit that the lyricist may have been trying to be inclusive regarding all of the forms of fun.
B again returns to her friends, singing that she’s got her friend on the right, continuing the theme of not being sure if she has friends, or a friend, or many. We see a literal representation of kicking in the front and back seat, and B asks again: Which seat can I take? She puts her arms around the girls in the back seat, indicating another shift in friend relationships.
The Final Act
At last the “fun” is revealed: a house party for teens! Everyone is dressed up, and B has arrived.
The narrative jumps in time again, as B ruminates on the days of the week. It was Thursday, now it is Friday. It will be Saturday and then Sunday, and no one wants the weekend to end. There’s nothing particularly surprising about this interpretation, but I do wish again that we’d had more conflict between the weekday and the weekend. (Personally, I find that Monday mornings are a cause for copious swearing.) We return to the opening scenes, looking at B’s calendar, which keeps a school theme, and the lyrics provide just a bit of contrast at last: the lyrics to go with Thursday and Friday are grammatically correct, but once we reach the weekend (Friday night, one presumes), “we so excited” and need not include a verb. This illustrates B's freedom from the structures and strictures imposed by the school system, and by adults.
I that there is a major structural error here--or perhaps a stroke of genius. An employee of Ark Music Factory appears in this video (and others by the company) to feature a rap which, even though it makes no sense, particularly when the man raps about seeing a school bus during what is clearly Friday night, far outshines B’s performance. The man’s charisma and ease in front of the camera makes B’s performance seem worse in comparison; it’s as if a first-grader wrote a chapter book, but chapter six is written by Neil Gaiman. At the same time, it’s the emotional climax of the story--B has hit rock bottom. Can she overcome the final obstacle and have a happy ending? There is only a minute left!
B is now at the party, on some sort of raised area, singing to the other partygoers. The man in the car reappears, and it seems he is now grooving to B’s sound. The chorus is the strongest writing and singing, and it just might work out for B. The partygoers all say “yeah,” accepting and encouraging her--and by the end of the song, they’re clapping for her. She’s saved the day. Or, at least, the Friday.