Nobody had heard of Rebecca Black before this week. Now, she is more Internet-popular than Charlie Sheen. “Friday” has millions of hits on YouTube (perhaps 30 of which are mine). It has been been praised, called “the worst video ever” and inspired a backlash so hard that it stunned almost everyone — including Black herself.
In my opinion, the video is like a car crash (which probably would have happened if that kid in the driver’s seat was actually driving). But it’s not the video itself that creeps me out; it’s the sketchy mechanisms working behind it — a dubious production company and the overbearing parents.
Nobody had heard of ARK Music Factory before this week. It makes shiny dumb music videos starring kids (mostly girls) between the ages of ten and 17, an explicit requirement of the factory’s two male producers. They troll the country for new “talent” and give them a shot at stardom for the small price of a couple of thousand dollars. ARK uses Autotune, a selection of about six words in its lyrics, and the oldest music video tropes in their productions. Enter “Friday.”
Unfortunately, Black is only the tip of the iceberg in badness. Other videos feature half-naked teens singing “You give me butterflies” or a bikini-clad blonde Jolie Adamson, gyrating on the beach to her song “Armour.” All this at a time when there is intense scrutiny about the sexualization of children on the Internet.
In my opinion, all of ARK’s videos are creepy. They capitalize on the “Bieber effect” — that talent is more easily recognized and expanded on the internet. But ARK’s head honchos, Patrice “Pato” Wilson (the rapper in “Friday”) and Clarence Jey, take the effect, sexualize it and coat it with irony. Many of these tweens are too young to understand that irony, but have had the decision essentially made for them by their parents.
See CJ Fam, a ten-year-old girl whose single “Ordinary Pop Star” has over half a million YouTube hits. ARK, in this case, had enough judgment to not put Fam in a bikini, but it’s no less creepy for it.
The song is a postmodern disaster-piece of illogical irony.
Fam, who looks like a Shirley Temple, sings, “I want to be an ordinary pop star, I want to be like those normal girls, I want to have an ordinary life again, like going to school and having good friends.” But while she sings all of this, she is unwittingly starring in an exploitative music video, paid for by her parents, in an attempt to give her exposure for an ethereal future pop career.
“Ordinary Pop Star” is like a pre-teen version of Britney Spears’ self-referential “Piece of Me.” Except Spears released her song many years into her tumultuous career, during divorce, custody battles and a breakdown. “Piece of Me” is a critique of what it is like to be world-renowned pop star in the age of TMZ, 24-hour paparazzi surveillance and camera phones. CJ Fam has not even hit puberty yet and probably doesn’t meet the height requirements for most rollercoasters at Six Flags. She wasn’t even alive when Spears’ album “ … Baby One More Time” (1999) dropped.
What does a ten-year-old actually know about pop, rock, spunk — what she wants to do with her life? What does it mean to say “I’ve always dreamed of being a singer” at age ten? I’ve had shoes that have lasted longer than those desires.
In other words, I wanted to be Lindsay Lohan in “The Parent Trap” when I was ten. But then a week later, I changed my mind and wanted to be a sushi chef. Now, neither of those “dreams” hold much sway. But I’m sure glad my parents didn’t indulge my fleeting desire for fame because, obviously, I had no idea what that meant.
ARK videos symbolize the result of this generation’s pushy parents — the overly zealous soccer mom, the dad that pressures his kids into doing an internship at Goldman Sachs rather than doing community theater (stereotypes, I know). CJ Fam is like Shirley Temple all over again, whose parents pushed her young career in pageantry and acting and stole most of her money. With the sanction of her parents, curly-haired Fam is all over the internet before she can really understand the lifelong ramifications.
Think about Macaulay Culkin and Drew Barrymore, child stars pushed into acting before understanding the repercussions. Their transition from innocence to adulthood, with all the hiccoughs, was public fodder: puberty, drugs, DUIs. They were sacrificial lambs on the altar of stardom and the 24-hour gossip cycle.
I cannot understand why we encourage the pimping of children and teen “talents” on YouTube just so that they may be the next Hannah Montana before fizzing out. Let CJ Fam and Rebecca Black get pimples first — then let them choose to be on Gawker, when they are mature enough that the choice actually means something.
Kathryn Olivarius is a senior in Branford College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.