Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’: There are a million good reasons you can’t get it out of your head
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When responses such as “abomination” and “worst song ever” are the most printable comments about a hit record like Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” you know it’s fully entered the realm of pop phenomenon.
But for anyone who’s surprised that this simple ditty has connected in a big way — the 13-year-old’s relentlessly chipper YouTube video is about to cross the threshold of 66 million hits — don’t be.
Patrice Wilson, the entrepreneurial musician who wrote and produced Black’s record and created the video that quickly went viral, has been both praised as a pop genius and villified as the worst sort of exploiter of youthful dreams for charging Black and her family $2,000 for the whole package.
But if nothing else, this tune demonstrates unequivocal songwriting savvy: He tapped a song structure that’s embedded in our collective DNA, one that’s been the foundation of dozens, even hundreds of hit records over the last half a century.
“Friday,” you see, is “Heart and Soul” revisited. It uses that fundamental four-chord progression almost anyone who’s ever touched a piano keyboard has learned. It’s the basis of the most-played pop radio hit of all time, the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody.”
It’s the same progression that Sam Cooke used in “You Send Me.” And “Chain Gang.” And “Twistin’ The Night Away.”
It’s also the cornerstone of the Penguins’ “Earth Angel” from 1955, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers’ 1956 classic “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” Skip & Flip’s 1960 hit “Cherry Pie” and countless other doo-wop, R&B, pop and rock hits that surfaced in the 1950s and ‘60s — before a couple of fellows from Liverpool came along and knocked down the fences hemming in pop music’s structural vocabulary. And even the Beatles weren’t immune to its pull: Ringo Starr’s contribution to the “Abbey Road” album, “Octopus’s Garden,” used the same formula.
It’s resurfaced regularly since — sometimes with just the slightest variations — in the chorus to Don McLean’s 1972 anthem “American Pie,” in Alicia Keys’ 2007 megahit “No One,” and we’ve heard it somewhere in nearly every season of “American Idol.”
Wilson surely knows how easy it is to apply the simplest of melodies over that sure-fire progression, and that’s exactly what he did for Black, giving her a lead line that requires the barest minimum of a vocal range to handle. You can sing a single note over this progression — which is what Black does with her limited voice for most of the song — and it still sounds musical.
It spans hardly more than half an octave. Anyone can sing this in the shower — and millions undoubtedly have been of late. It’s also easy to play on any keyboard (here’s an online tutorial some enterprising guy has already posted) or guitar.
Thousands of songs have been written using the basic three-chord blues progression, in musical terms referred to as the I-IV-V progression, based on the spot on the conventional Western musical scale where you’ll find the root notes of each of those chords. The reason it’s so ubiquitous is because of the palpable sense of resolution created when the progression returns to that home chord.
Celebrated country songwriter Harlan Howard famously defined a great country song as one consisting of “three chords and the truth,” a phrase Bono latched onto in one of U2’s most celebrated songs. Howard, the composer of thousands of songs, showed how successful that combination could be on a red, white, blue, yellow or black guitar.
The “Heart and Soul”/“Friday” variation on that progression simply drops a minor chord into the mix after the opening major chord, an addition that creates an extra measure of tension and drama that heightens the rounding-third-and-coming-into-home feeling of satisfaction when the entire I-vi-IV-V chord cycle finishes. The triangle becomes a self-contained, geometrically perfect square.
Lyrically speaking, “Friday” carries the illusion of simplicity in giving voice to one teenager’s big dilemma: whether to kick it with her friends in the front seat or the back seat.
Even those who abhor “Friday” — and there are plenty of them — will probably have to confess that they have a hard time getting it out of their heads. It’s stuck there for good reason.
-- Randy Lewis