By now, over seven million people have watched the video: 22-year-old twins Tim and Fred Williams listening to Phil Collins’ 1981 hit ‘In The Air Tonight’, quietly vibing until the moment when the famous drum break drops and takes them by surprise. The wholesome video went viral after it was posted on Twitter and for many, it was a first—the first time seeing a music reaction video, or the first time hearing Phil Collins’ 1981 hit. Older generations got a kick out of seeing a new generation react to the songs of their youth, and newcomers got a drum kick; sales of the song spiked in the following days.
In primary school, I loved show and tell—so much so that it has taken me decades to temper my impulse to share a current obsession. I love showing and being shown new things, to me there is no sweeter phrase than ‘I think you’d love this’. It wasn’t until 1999 that a friend played Queen’s 1979 hit ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for me, watching for my dawning wonder. My parents were more Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles types; I hadn’t been allowed to watch Wayne’s World, the movie which introduced 90s kids to the song, or to listen to classic rock radio on car trips.
Once you become acquainted with a piece of popular culture, it’s easy to forget what life was like without it, what you didn’t know until you did. I often wonder how I gained what cultural capital I have, what gaps there still are, and why some people miss out on what I consider touchstones. Now, I can go on YouTube (or TikTok) and watch strangers listen—no, really listen—to the songs my parents, my peers and my nephew grew up with.
For all it is criticised for platforming fake news and extremist views, and how its advertising model rewards algorithmically-targeted content above originality, YouTube, with its 5 billion daily views, is much more than its trending homepage. It is the ultimate show and tell site. From expert educational videos to showcasing niche hobbies, from cultural criticism essayists to make-up tutorials, YouTube has come a long way since its obscure DIY beginnings of short, often humorous, sometimes viral videos. Today, the algorithm recommends creators upload videos over ten minutes long and the average viewer is more than happy to consume hours of these a week. While there are many channels with professional sound and light design, all any creator really needs is enough charisma to capture the engagement this much content requires to keep advertisers and the algorithm happy.
I love showing and being shown new things, to me there is no sweeter phrase than ‘I think you’d love this’.
One of the simplest videos for YouTube creators to make is the reaction video. You just need a static camera and a rudimentary knowledge of video editing software. There are reaction videos to almost anything: video gaming, movie trailers, unboxing products, kids playing with slime. Genre-dedicated channels can get hundreds of thousands of subscribers and millions of views per video. Reaction videos have a history in Japanese variety TV shows wherein a celebrity, contestant, or audience member’s face is shown in a small box in the corner of the screen watching the main action. Online, the first viral YouTube reaction videos date back to 2006, focusing on people getting scared, and the disgusted reactions to more ‘adult’ content. Finally, the reaction video found its way into the mainstream consciousness via late night talk shows with videos of viewers reacting to shocking TV episodes, most famously Game of Thrones’ ‘Red Wedding’.
This type of voyeurism scratches an itch, whether it’s a secondhand thrill or embarrassment, or the joy of watching your own emotive response on someone else. Sam Anderson explains that watching experiences by proxy is ‘like Perseus looking at Medusa through the reflection of his shield’. We get to experience the dynamism of the human condition from the comfort of our office chair. The neuroscience behind reaction videos—so-called ‘mirror neurons’ that help us learn through mimicry and empathise with others—has since been exploited by free-to-air television studios with shows like Gogglebox. However, reaction videos on YouTube have the advantage of an open channel between creator and audience, giving them a more organic transference of culture not unlike playing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in the schoolyard. Even though subscribers can form parasocial relationships with their favourite reaction star, there is far more approachability on these channels than on those made with a studio budget.
On music reaction channels, like the aforementioned Williams twins, the comments are filled with recommendations for the next song to react to. Once a reaction to, say, Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’ becomes popular, the trend sweeps across similar channels within a week, with even self-proclaimed ‘Metalheads’ reacting to the golden oldie. Depending on the creator’s schedule, and because the genre takes little time to film, several videos may be uploaded a day. In this way, music reaction channels have more freedom to pursue their followers’ recommendations and not just react to what’s trending: so far, the tension between content and culture for music reaction videos has not tipped towards the former. However, creators must maintain momentum to gratify the algorithm and remain visible on a user’s recommendations page, even as new channels launch every day.
This type of voyeurism scratches an itch, whether it’s a secondhand thrill or embarrassment, or the joy of watching your own emotive response on someone else.
As problematic and consumer-driven as it is, the algorithm has also pushed music reaction channels by Black creators to the fore, making it one of few genres on YouTube where Black creators are favoured. (On TikTok, Black creators’ reactions to cooking are similarly popular, with Kalen Allen notably snatched up by The Ellen Show). This can be attributed to ‘authenticity’: Black youth can discover music that wasn’t necessarily sold to them in the first place, and can break the algorithmic trappings of apps like Spotify that only recommend music within the genre you know already. This authenticity plays into the white gaze, too. There’s something believable, even sublime, about Black twenty-somethings listening to Phil Collins or George Michael ‘for the first time’. Some favourites include India Reacts’ shooketh expression upon hearing Nine Inch Nail’s raunchy lyrics to Closer, Jayvee TV’s comments to ‘Mama / just killed a man’ in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (‘My man just snitched on himself!’), and No Life Shaq’s comments throughout ‘Jolene’ (‘Oh hell no, Dolly… if he talk about her in his sleep, there gotta be more to it! … She said she got auburn hair, her voice is sweet, and she got green eyes?! Oh, you ain’t getting your man back, Dolly.’)
I don’t even have a tweet that could do this video justice. just watch it pic.twitter.com/iyYQ52CjsU
— Tanya Chen (@tanyachen) August 9, 2020
However, authenticity in music reaction videos is stretched with the ‘first time’ claim. Some creators protest too much that this is the ‘very first time’, while others are more upfront that they’ve just never given an artist’s oeuvre their full attention before. Luckily, for the longevity of this reaction genre, there is a lot of music in the world to listen to. Some creators have tapped into non-English markets, realising that there are millions of YouTube views to be gained being an English speaker finally paying attention to another culture’s comprehensive music history ‘for the first time’.
The lo-fi aesthetic of reaction videos makes them as fanzines are to celebrity biographies. Access is just as important as authenticity.
The future of music reaction videos will likely be coopted by streaming services, or online music magazines—sites that can afford licensing or make a deal with record companies to showcase new music. Already, labels are sniffing around channels trying to work out feasible financial endeavours with these semi-professionals. As Jody Rosen argues in his cynical take in the New York Times, the model for success exemplified by the twins’ Phil Collins reaction video could be ‘young Black men pouring out blessings on an old white dude’, targeting a white Boomer/Gen X audience. However, I imagine commodifying and restricting what music creators can react to will be worse than the parameters of YouTube’s algorithm. The lo-fi aesthetic of reaction videos makes them as fanzines are to celebrity biographies. Access is just as important as authenticity.
For now, the reaction video is just today’s method of activating our mirror neurons formerly done after school at your friend’s house. It gives adults, who now understand not everyone cares about their latest passion, a way of sharing in that excitement with others. What used to be limited by licensing and gatekeeping by radio stations and TV channels can now reach anyone with access to YouTube. Generations can share with each other, and individuals have a wider array of ‘friends’ to expose them to new styles and languages they might not have otherwise heard. Reaction videos are a visual tradition we can pass on. Through them there can be a consensus of what cultural touchstones deserve to be celebrated in years to come.