You think being a teenage girl is hard? Try being a teenage meme. Rebecca Black’s love-it-or-loathe-it single ”Friday” racked up 167 million views (and 3.1 million ”dislikes”) on YouTube before it was pulled due to copyright issues in June. Since she’s become Internet famous, the 14-year-old Black has appeared on The Tonight Show, partied with Katy Perry — and broken down crying once or twice. She sobbed when someone online said she should ”get an eating disorder, so you’ll look pretty,” and again when someone called her home and threatened to kill her if she didn’t yank her video from YouTube. But on her new single, ”My Moment,” she’s ready to face the haters. ”Weren’t you the one who said that I would be nothing?” she sings. ”Well, I’m about to prove you wrong.”
”I actually lost my best friend through all of this, which really sucks,” admits Black over the phone. ”I don’t really have any best friends anymore. So ‘My Moment’ is my comeback song. It’s for people who’ve been bullied and want to show everyone how strong they really are.”
Yes, Rebecca Black is having her It Gets Better moment, and she’s not alone. Last September, when Dan Savage launched his online suicide-prevention campaign to help gay teens — a series of YouTube videos that would go on to feature both everyday people and a host of famous names, including President Obama — he couldn’t have imagined that the same message, intended for young people who’ve been mercilessly bullied or mistreated for their sexual orientation, would be co-opted by the popular kids. Joining Black in her self-respect crusade are 18-year-old Demi Lovato, who reemerged after three months in rehab for ”emotional and physical issues” with the you-can’t-tear-me-down ballad ”Skyscraper,” which quickly reached No. 1 on iTunes in mid-July, and Selena Gomez, also 18, whose love-yourself-just-the-way-you-are manifesto ”Who Says” has spent four and a half months on Billboard‘s Hot 100. These days, admitting you’re an outcast isn’t just commendable — it’s positively mainstream.
It may well be that the recent trend of empowerment songs among teens has trickled down from their grown-up pop peers: Lady Gaga’s ”Born This Way,” Katy Perry’s ”Firework,” Pink’s ”Raise Your Glass.” When the It Gets Better campaign started, ”a lot of artists had songs that fit that message,” says Sharon Dastur, a program director at Clear Channel Radio’s New York flagship Z100. ”Now people are trying to create songs that have more social impact, and since Demi Lovato hasn’t had huge commercial success in the past, ‘Skyscraper’ hitting number one really shows what a powerful message can do.”
Is there a disconnect in these musical battle cries coming from the mouths of hot young babes? After all, their looks, wealth, and fame would seem to put them firmly in the alpha-girl camp — not exactly the outsider circle their songs imply they’re in. Dastur says that when she first heard ”Who Says” it was sung by Jordin Sparks, who, with her real-girl curves, fit its ”I’m no beauty queen” message better than the petite, doll-faced Gomez would appear to. But with teens often using Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube as e-platforms for anonymous hazing, many young celebrities face brutal and frequent verbal attacks online. ”People can be so vicious,” says Gomez, the star of Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place, who was savaged when a photo of her kissing then-secret boyfriend Justin Bieber first surfaced earlier this year. ”When they’re hiding behind a screen, people can say anything they want, and half those people would never say those things to your face.”
The problem is, social networking is essential to these girls’ careers: Gomez, for instance, has never had a No. 1 single, yet on the Internet she’s a superstar, with nearly 23 million ”likes” on Facebook and 6.3 million followers on Twitter, where she tweets with fans and celebrity pals alike.
Of course, being adored by countless fans never stopped any singer from waging a me-against-the-world battle. Rock & roll has always been about rejecting the ”normal” crowd, and recently pop has followed suit, with Lady Gaga flying her freak flag the highest and encouraging her Little Monsters to celebrate what makes them unusual. For teenagers, being different has traditionally been a bad thing, and yet it’s something almost everyone relates to. Anti-bullying songs let stars have it both ways: There’s nothing like singing about being ostracized to make middle-school kids embrace you.
”It does add authenticity,” says Ernest ”Ernie D” Martinez, the lead on-air personality and creative director of Radio Disney. ”To me, when you want to relate to an audience, you go through the things they go through on a daily basis. This then comes through in their music.”
As fraught as it may be, there is an upside to all that online accessibility: making young fans feel closer than ever to their idols — and often more invested. Doug Cohn, senior vice president of music and talent at Nickelodeon, remembers the first time he realized musicians were no longer quite as untouchable as they used to be. While working at Atlantic Records, he saw one of the label’s artists hugging kids at a show: ”I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ ” he says. ”In my head, I was thinking, ‘Nobody gets in the dressing room! Nobody touches the fans!’ But then I realized that was an old-school thought.”
And in an era of ”fake friends” and curated Facebook profiles, it’s all the more crucial for stars to come across as real and relatable. This past spring, when Miranda Cosgrove, the 18-year-old pop singer and actress (Nickelodeon’s iCarly), teamed up with the network in a campaign to end bullying, she was careful to point out that she spoke from experience.
”Bullying is something that’s happened to me and my friends, too,” Cosgrove tells EW. ”I’ve always wanted people to feel like they’re going through the same things as me, because I really am just like anyone else.”
So what makes Cosgrove — whose iCarly page on Facebook has some 10.2 million ”likes” — believe she’s the typical teenager? ”Well, I just got my [learner’s] permit,” she says. ”We were doing tour rehearsal right by the DMV, and I actually passed! I was so happy. But then my picture came out really bad, and I felt terrible.”
Proof that everyone needs a self-esteem anthem sometimes — even the very pop stars singing them.
Among aughties tween phenoms, Miley Cyrus, 18, was the queen bee: a Disney-bred supernova whose face (and that of her Hannah Montana alter ego) launched a multimedia empire of TV, movies, music, and merchandise. In 2011, she’s still the highest-grossing teen entertainer in the world, with an estimated net worth of $120 million. But her star has seen some tarnish lately: Her last album, 2010’s Can’t Be Tamed, took a swing at a more adult pop sound — and sold a mere 315,000 copies to her 2008 release Breakout‘s 1.5 million. Though she recently wrapped an overseas concert tour and two films, Cyrus told Ryan Seacrest in June that she plans to ditch acting to focus solely on music. Perhaps her own July 11 tweet captures her feelings best: ”this industry has built it’s self [sic] up on hype and sooner or later it’ll all come tumbling down. #revolution.”