The History of Dialogue: Black Friday

If intellectualizing Rebecca Black’s mysteriously bad single “Friday” is wrong, TNI editors Rob Horning and Malcolm Harris don’t want to be right. (See Know Your Meme if you need to be caught up).

Rob: I say the video is a parable of the attention economy. The literalism of the video is a sign that the song’s lyrics and imagery consist of residual content — of placeholders, the necessary boilerplate to get the meme off the factory floor and onto the internet. Rebecca Black doesn’t seem conscious that she is in the midst of making a meme, yet at the same time she must know — at least that is the fantasy. She is aspiring to go through the motions of celebrity without there being anything about her to celebrate. Hence “Thursday is the day before Friday.”

Mal: It’s in some ways a Ke$ha parody. “Friday” makes explicit reference to “Tik Tok” while pointing out how inextricable her fame is from its own ridicule. At the same time, the song is undeniably catchy. A flat-out bad song doesn’t get nearly this much attention; “Friday” succeeds in ways I find very uncomfortable. I think at least some of the impulse to ridicule is a defensive tool we use to distance ourselves from the kind of people the song is designed for, the kind of people we secretly know ourselves to be. It’s like the closet-case snapping his towel extra hard in the boys locker room. The meme principally, whether we want to admit it or not, allows us to listen to the song.

Rob: I like the song too, but I don’t find that embarrassing. It feels like a confirmation of the suspicion that the best pop music must aspire to a formal purity that comes at the expense of content. The best pop songs are the emptiest. At that point, pop music has nothing to do with subjectivity or identity construction: You don’t become empty when you hear it; instead you have your own fullness confirmed.

Mal: Does that mean we’ve been celebrating the wrong people this whole time? If Rebecca Black (whose central talent, as far as I can tell, is being born to parents both wealthy and tacky) can be a pop star, what’s the point of pop stars? And Black isn’t exceptional: Being born the daughter of the rich and tacky seems to be the easiest path to pop-stardom (the Kardashians, Paris Hilton, et al.). We’re talking about spokesmodels, sure. But spokesmodels for what?

Rob: Rebecca Black is sort of the quintessence of Kardashianism — without even a D-list justification. She’s earned our attention, weirdly enough, by being perfectly absent. I think Black is a spokesmodel for the concept that we needn’t envy the wealthy, since they are far more culturally clueless than we could have suspected. But that of course justifies our quiescence — no need to agitate for redistribution if we already have more “cultural capital” than the wealthy Black family. (She’s not related to Conrad Black by any chance?) Also, is it possible that this video reflects bottom-up influence rather than top-down — is it the culmination of the punk rock dream of the DIY ethic going mainstream?

Mal: No, vanity projects are not especially novel, but the widespread availability of this sort of dangerously catchy production technology is a disturbing development.

That’s what My Supersweet 16, one of my favorite shows, was about as well. Watching nouveau-riche wish-fulfillment fantasies (the only days that exist are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; everyone at the party is waiting for you; the convertible is there to pick you up) is so dull and undesirable that the viewer is meant to laugh at the rich for being so rich and frivolous. But for the joke to work, the rich have to stay the rich. If we can’t openly identify with pop stars any more for fear of not being sufficiently detached, it helps to have them be ultrarich.

Rob: The accessibilizing of celebrity — celebrities who tweet, etc. — has opened a void where the truly inaccessible icon should be. That’s where the ultrarich come into play. Their place is retroactively legitimized at the level of culture as they fill that void. In order to capture in cultural terms that point of the income distribution where the curve goes vertiginously and incomprehensibly steep, perhaps something like this song becomes necessary — something radically uninterpretable because it is so disarmingly literal. The absurdity of the existence of ultrarich people is justified in this process, made a stubborn fact. This is the Love Song of J. Alfred Moneybags. Or something like that.

I still think there is a DIY element here that is also worth celebrating, though — the viral success of this will make more teens make music instead of consume it, even if what they make is terrible. Perhaps they will be able to imagine the utopia in Rebecca Black’s notoriety. But it is also a reflection of the “social factory” aspect of contemporary subjectivity. You are no longer allowed to be an unproductive consumer. It’s not enough to spend your leisure in leisure; you must always be feeding more and more novel entertainments of your own devising into the voracious content machine…

Mal: Okay, I’ll bite. Have we entered rhizomatic pop production? One or many Ke$has? But this sort of production-in-common takes a lot of different forms — as in the Bob Dylan cover someone already imagined for “Friday.” The parody songs (I’m imagining the deadly “Monday Monday Monday!”) are surely on their way. The Frankfurt School model of the culture industry has always been top-down, with media corporations tricking us into liking things we don’t like so they can sell us products we don’t need. With production and distribution costs approaching zero, this is going to be a tougher and tougher model to defend empirically. The meme can be a form of  subversive production: look at Odd Future Wolf Gang or Lil B The Based God and the whole worlds of meaning they’ve created with their fans. Pop-stars (and their managers) may be increasingly required to relinquish their claims ownership over their own meanings: even the Westboro Baptist Church did a Lady Gaga cover.

Rob: I agree. To shift the terminology, I think we’ve been in post-Fordist relations of pop-culture production for some time now, with consumers driving the innovations in meaning that culture-industry firms then harvest and exploit. They increasingly supply the playground itself rather than the specific jungle gyms. No one owns the malleable, mutable meanings of pop culture, but the process and the medium for those transmutations is definitely owned. This is the essence of what Jodi Dean calls communicative capitalism.

A whole wave of cultural studies scholars enthused about this development in the 1980s and 1990s, regarding it as indicative of consumer empowerment and a broader scope for liberating self-actualization. But the evolution of the internet in its Web 2.0 phase, I think, has exposed this pseudo liberation as a new form exploitable labor — what Nicholas Carr described as “digital sharecropping.” Rebecca Black pays to make this video, and then it’s viral popularity glues a vast audience to the internet, where they can be marketed to and where their subsequent gestures can be harvested and repurposed.

Of course this all goes down easier than Fordist-era labor, since we’re not forced to drudge away at some piece of personally meaningless, bureaucratic work. Pleasure and narcissism drive the engine of innovation and engagement. And yes, some collectivity as well, though these communities seem internal to the pop-culture media and the various cults of personality which organize them. Such communities come preneutered of subversive potential because their ersatz subversion — look they have done something new that the Man didn’t expect them to with that culture product! — is foregrounded and seems sufficient. Participants consume their own rebelliousness rather than instrumentalize it.

This analysis was already implicit in the Frankfurt school approach to culture, in Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance” and Horkheimer and Adorno’s dialectic of enlightenment. The “mass deception” is that we can pursue identity individually as a kind of mediatized commodity, as a form of broadcasting for an audience. Rebecca Black’s video is the reductio ad absurdum of that sort of identity — participating in a medium as a mode of “really being” according to the terms given by social relations. The liberation turns out to be a contraction of what registers to us as subjectivity. Black’s video suggests it is approaching some kind of pure vacuum, something vaguely robotic — think of all the Autotuning, the bizarre simulated affect, the inability to convey irony or communicate in any sort of dialogic register. She could be a premonition of what true cyborg singularity would be like — and our laughter at her is an expression of our nervous fear of that dismal future approaching.

Mal: Yes, digital sharecropping is the present reality. We should all be getting checks from Facebook and Twitter. We pay rent on the playground to AT&T or Microsoft or whoever. But I guess I find this situation equally full of potential and horror. On the one hand, we can hardly talk to our friends without paying rent on our mouth and ears, but on the other, capital has done such a great job building up these networks such that owners might profit, that they’re in danger of spinning out of control. The Fordist factory sought to make a brilliantly effective machine out of its workers, but it also created the basis for a union that could always sabotage or shut down the plant. We’re at the point where we can see the old model falling apart (collective bargaining that can’t protect itself in Wisconsin) but also something rising up in its stead (such as the increasingly geopolitically ambitious non-group Anonymous). Maybe for the multitude, the weekend is just beginning.