Seven years ago, a little girl with a dream, Rebecca Black, made a little music video called “Friday” — and her life became a nightmare. To be honest, the calendar-reciting, breakfast cereal-championing, carseat-selecting novelty song (written and produced by the Ark Music Factory) wasn’t very good. But that was hardly the naive Rebecca’s fault. She was only 13. Still, poor Rebecca was the one who paid the price, and she became a victim of online bullying for years.
So this week, at almost 21, Rebecca bravely placed herself back in the spotlight and attempted to redeem herself … by auditioning on the Season 2 premiere of the Fox talent show The Four.
“There is something so brutal when you’re 13 about people telling you that you don’t belong here,” Rebecca confessed on Thursday’s episode. “There was definitely a moment where I got really close to giving up on my music. I am ready to show everyone who has doubted me, who has left all those comments, that I do deserve to be here.”
Judge Meghan Trainor was already on board, recognizing the former YouTube star immediately, “fangirling so hard,” and telling the poised and all-grown-up Rebecca, “I feel like you overcame the ultimate cyberbullying, and now you’re just, like, this beautiful goddess out here.” Fellow judge Diddy was skeptical about Rebecca’s chances of going very far in the competition but encouraged her by saying, “When you’re following your dream, there’s a journey that you have to go through. Everybody’s journey is different. I remember Muhammad Ali said, ‘Knock me down seven times, I’ll get up eight.’ … Don’t never stop, don’t never stop.”
Rebecca proceeded to dedicate a competent rendition of NSync’s kiss-off classic “Bye Bye Bye” to her legions of haters. It wasn’t exactly the sort of stellar vocal that could “secure the bag” (she had a pretty tone but a limited range), but it was certainly stronger than that “Friday” debacle. It was fun fun fun fun, and it was enough to advance her to the challenging stage.
Unfortunately, when Rebecca challenged incumbent contestant James Graham, an X Factor U.K. alumnus, she faltered. His passionate rendition of Donny Hathaway’s “A Song for You” garnered more studio audience votes than her tepid, tentative cover of Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn.” But even though Rebecca ended up going home, she had accomplished what she set out to do. So she had already won.
“I never thought I would be able to be here,” she declared through happy tears. “It means so much. I’d felt like there was a 13-year-old little girl stuck, so trapped, for so long, thinking that no one else would ever be able to look at her differently.” Rebecca even earned Diddy’s grudging respect, as he told her: “For you to get up from something like that in this day and age where everybody’s so into social media, and you pulled that strength within yourself to come out here, and then even after James did that, you still gave it your best? My hat goes off to you.”
Of course, the irony wasn’t lost on me that someone who first gained fame on YouTube — arguably the fast-tracking starmaker platform that has replaced TV talent shows like American Idol — felt the need to go on network television to reboot her career. Even more ironic was the fact that a bullying victim like Rebecca went on The Four, a mean-spirited show that encourages its contestants to smack-talk each other like WWE wrestlers and whose nasty judges all seem to be angling to be the next Simon Cowell.
To that last point, The Four hadn’t really fixed the problems that plagued its maiden season, other than getting rid of disgraced original judge Charlie Walk. Along with the program’s general bad vibes and odd food metaphors, its weird revolving-seat format does nothing to foster contestant loyalty among viewers. I mean, at least Rebecca is a recognizable pop culture figure. That’s more than can be said for The Four, who are chosen by some mysterious, never adequately explained casting process to warm the show’s four neon-backlit chairs.
James Graham, a former member of the actually terrible X Factor U.K. boy band Stereo Kicks (who, contrary to James’s claim, were never on track to be “the next One Direction”) survived Thursday, as did Guatemalan pop singer Stephanie Zelaya. But rapper/cancer survivor Sharaya J, serving modern-day Grace Jones realness in a Loverboy-red leather snood, didn’t perform at all Thursday. And the foolhardy and overconfident R&B diva Carvena Jones was already dunzo by the first challenge, about 15 minutes into the episode. It is likely that James, Stephanie, and Sharaya won’t survive another week, but let’s face it, Rebecca and “Friday” will be remembered for years to come.
These were the other performances and challenges of the night:
The 24-year-old Puerto Rican father of two boldly covered Four judge DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts” (“the biggest record in the world” according to, um, DJ Khaled), but he came across as a low-energy Michael Jackson impersonator. Even Khaled wasn’t impressed. Chris failed to get the requisite unanimous vote from the judges to make it to the challenging stage.
The 21-year-old daughter of controversial evangelist Carlton Pearson executed some bizarro musical theater version of Adele’s “Someone Like You” that was so radically rearranged I barely recognized it. And yet, despite that risk and her intriguingly goofy ‘90s sitcom-star vibe, Majeste was “not interesting,” according to Carvena (and according to, well, me).
Majeste somehow made it to the next round, however, and challenged the smug Carvena. This would have been Carvena’s competition to lose, especially after all of her bragging and swagging, but her flat, forgettable cover of Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” didn’t live up to Carvena’s own hype. Majeste’s cheesy, bug-eyed, jazzy-handsy rendition of Sia’s “Chandelier” was a mess but at least had some energy and oomph.
Diddy hated both performances (in what is sure to be one of the more astute comments of Season 2, he called this showdown a “yelling match”), but the audience voted for Majeste. Thus, Carvena was the first original Four member to be unseated.
This saucy, sassy Australian pop starlet, a sort of wannabe Kylie, gave off a Cher Lloyd/Charli XCX/Girls Aloud vibe on her upbeat cover of Ariana Grande’s “Side to Side.” But her performance didn’t feel at all genuine. Christina was trying so hard to please, with all her coquettish mincing and posturing, that she ended up pleasing no one. She received three red-ringed “no” votes from the judges. “That was brutal,” she admitted.
When this affable 17-year-old sneaker salesman sang Usher’s “U Got It Bad,” the show finally got good. He oozed natural charisma, and he was effortless where the previous contestants had been annoyingly effortfull. “You’re so confident, it scares me. You’re amazing,” Meghan raved.
Quinton then challenged Stephanie, who performed what was basically a goaty-throated Shakira impersonation on J. Balvin’s “Mi Gente.” As was the case with Majeste and Christina, Stephanie’s performance felt very dated, very Star Search. But she still won, because Quinton’s second number, Ne-Yo’s “So Sick,” wasn’t nearly as sick as his first. That was a shame. Quinton was the one contestant of the evening who had actually given me hope for Season 2.
And there you have it. The Four is off to a slow start, but maybe next week Tay “Chocolate Rain” Zonday, Dramatic Chipmunk, Chris Crocker, David After Dentist, or PSY can audition to pep things up. Watch this space.
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