It’s a story as old as the internet: A stranger offers you fame and riches beyond belief and all you have to do is give them a few thousand dollars. Sometimes they’re deposed princes, wealthy orphans, distressed bank managers and, in the case of Patrice Wilson, a singer-songwriter with a start-up music label.
In early 2010, Wilson along with co-founder and producer Clarence Jey sought out young aspiring talent to join their newly created ARK Music Factory label. Their strategy was simple: for a small fee (anywhere from $2,000 -$4,000) ARK would collaborate in writing music for their artists, produce music videos and even provide image consultation. In the end each artist would own the master recording of any song they record and ARK would own publishing and distribution rights.
In 2010 a 12-year-old girl from Anaheim, California armed only with a song in her heart, a love of breakfast cereal and $4,000 from her mother took Wilson up on his offer to become a pop music sensation. Rebecca Black quickly went through the ARK Music Factory production line to debut on YouTube with the video “Friday” in February of 2011. Less than a month later the “Friday” video had gone viral with a million views and Rebecca Black was on her way to becoming an internet meme.
With its Auto-Tune veneer and unappologetically simple lyrics “Friday” made an unintentional comment on pop music and the music industry as a whole by painfully utilizing the formulaic production values established by reigning pop acts over the past decade. Rebecca Black, being only a few years older than a decade, emerged from the primordial pop soup of the aughts fortified by Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Destiny’s Child, Katy Perry and even Ke$ha. ARK had taken these tricks of the pop music trade and projected them through a tween voice, creating something greater than they were capable of managing. After morning talk show interviews, an appearance on the Tonight Show, countless parodies on YouTube and even rumors of a Justin Bieber collaboration, Rebecca Black began the process of breaking free from the ARK. In April of 2011 Black and her mother Georgina Marquez Kelly sent ARK Music Factory a letter claiming ARK had violated their agreement by infringing on her copyright claims and exploiting her image. Rebecca Black eventually left ARK to sign with new management and currently plans to make a full album.
“Friday” and Rebecca Black are ARK Music’s biggest successes with the video collecting over 160 million views (and 3.1 million dislikes) but the countdown clock on Black’s fifteen minutes is flashing 14:59, prompting the internet to turn and ask, “What’s next?” To which ARK Music responds, “Plenty.” Rebecca Black was just the tip of the iceberg and upon further investigation the factory is filled with other stars ready to burn bright and work hard for the fame.
“Friday’s Child is loving and giving, Saturday’s Child works hard for a living…”
With the glamor and pageantry of JonBenét Ramsey combined with the power and stage presence of Sammy Hagar, CJ Fam undoubtedly possesses the most potential in being the next star to come from the ARK Music phenomenon. Whether she’s belting out a tune from Annie in a tattered men’s dress shirt or vamping Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” (complete with Beyoncé rap), CJ exudes an alarming intensity for an 11-year-old. Her ARK Music Factory premiere occurred around the same time as Rebecca Black’s in January of 2011 with the video “Ordinary Pop Star.”
As her sausage curls gently sway in the breeze during a photo shoot, CJ contemplates the pitfalls of fame and in that moment vows to remain “real and so down to earth” ultimately being the world’s first “ordinary pop star.” During the photo shoot we see Patrice Wilson’s first cameo, playing himself he sits behind a monitor nodding his head in approval – he likes what he sees. Patrice plays it cool this time by deciding not to inject his own rap interlude as he did with the “Friday” video which caused the spawning of his nickname “Fat Usher” often used by internet trolls. Off set CJ dismisses wardrobe suggested by a stylist, thus maintaining her self-identity as represented by a sensible track suit with matching sequins. A vision in blue velour, CJ emerges from the photo shoot location to adoring fans who she graciously greets while walking to her waiting limo. Patrice Wilson, now playing the driver, opens the door to her limo and perhaps her future. The world of fame and glamor depicted in the video was something ARK had yet to deliver to CJ and ultimately she left the factory to seek greater opportunities, forcing ARK to focus its energy on a handful of remaining talent which includes Devin Fox and Madison Bray.
ARK’s attempt to tap into Bieber Fever is best represented by Devin Fox, notably the only promoted male act on the label. The 13-year-old California native apes the classic Bieber coif but takes the blonde to Albinic proportions. Fox’s lack of pigmentation pales in comparison to his overall lack of swagger. Bieber he is not and this is best demonstrated in his premiere video “Hooked on You.”
The story is simple: A young boy pines for the affection of a young woman begging that she be his “Barbie girl”. After watching her from a distance, listing her many positive attributes such as “lips so soft, so soft,” he decides to make his move at a party only to be beaten to the punch by a taller, shaggy-haired Alpha male. As the girl of his dreams walks away, Devin quickly grabs her to confess that her lips and and eyes have him “hooked.” In that moment – where a dramatic embrace or kiss would naturally occur – the scene cuts to the dance floor and the party surges. At first glance, “Hooked on You” is seemingly a classic case of tweenage love, but teeming under the surface of his professed need to be with her is his desire to be her. In the video’s last 10 seconds we see Devin singing the song’s hook into the camera while the girl of his dreams bounces to the rhythm of the track behind him and at the very last moment she appears before him as his reflection, the true form he desires to inhabit gazing back at him in the mirror.
With the Bieber trend covered, ARK Music strategically attempts to mimic other tween pop phenoms such as the genetically engineered entity created in the year 2000 through the funding of Scientology known to non-operating Thetans as Willow Smith. ARK’s best competition for the title of 21st Century Girl lies in the vocal talents of 10-year-old Madison Bray. Madison has been schooled in both the worlds of Rock & Roll and classical music, establishing a repertoire that includes Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and Green Day’s “American Idiot.” With such diverse influences, this makes her closer to Lady Gaga than Willow Smith which might explain why ARK has yet to unleash a video for her debut song “Girl Swag On.”
The track kicks off with the sound of wind blowing over the post-apocalyptic landscape promised by the Mayans, quickly followed by the sound of sirens in the distance. Madison’s voice emerges over the beat to state that she “don’t need nobody-body like you, I don’t need no friends,” followed by a chorus chanting, “no more hurting, no more hating,” then later “no more loving, no more hating,” effectively establishing her metaphysical contemplation of a world without humankind or perhaps anyone over the age of 12.
As this century rockets into the middle of its tweendom, ARK Music Factory calls out to the tween nation to “join the movement,” but the movement isn’t something they have control over. The tween pop sensation is a wild pony running free and ARK holds out a sugar cube hoping to capture its attention, even if only for a moment. So far they’ve made their name by unintentionally discovering a web meme, but have yet to produce an act that reaches the notoriety Rebecca Black achieved. Still ARK Music Factory remains optimistic by expanding itself beyond a record label to be online social network for fans, musicians and producers that aims to serve the movement rather than direct it.