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Are YouTube music reaction videos a rejection of identity politics?



Andrew Breitbart used to say that “politics is downstream of culture.” I had a professor once who taught that “cult is culture.” The idea behind both sayings is that the things any large enough group of people like and believe put off bits of culture (music, art, architecture, etc) that form culture and politics is like a lagging indicator of those impulses.

Because of this, you can sometimes see things happening in culture which seem to be not exactly political but maybe pre-political. Recently I think I’ve seen a little bit of that in something that is currently popular on YouTube: Music reaction videos.

If you’re not familiar with this particular genre of YouTube clips the idea is pretty simple. People film themselves listening to a song for the first time and giving their reactions in real time. Maybe that sounds boring or odd but it’s actually been getting some significant attention lately.

Remember Nathan Apodaca, the random guy who filmed himself on TikTok drinking juice as he listened to Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams? That video was viewed millions of times and got reactions from at least 3 of the band members. Nathan now has an agent plus a free car and year’s supply of juice.

Technically that video wasn’t a reaction video but it does demonstrate how watching someone reacting to music can attract a lot of eyeballs. There’s something about seeing other people feel the same way you feel about a great song that is appealing.

Here’s another recent example. A channel called TwinstheNewTrend did a reaction video to Phil Collins In the Air Tonight. Twin brothers Tim and Fred Williams had done lots of reaction videos just like it before but for some reason this particular video went viral. It has been viewed nearly 8 million times.

The Williams brothers are black and it turns out that may play a role in what appeals to some viewers about reaction videos. Sometimes people are just curious what someone of a different race will think about a song that probably isn’t the genre they know or listen to. An important part of this YouTube genre is that someone is listening to a song, usually recommended by subscribers, that they’ve never heard before. It’s meant to provide a pure reaction to something unfamiliar.

And the Williams brothers aren’t alone in making this type of video a success. Rolling Stone recently wrote about some other music reaction channels and the way that race seems to play at least a part in their appeal:

As Tim Williams and other music reactors know well, there is a magnetic, possibly neurological appeal to watching, in real time, as someone else discovers an iconic song. Viewers flock to these videos to relive the joy of Mavis Staples’ verse in the Last Waltz version of “The Weight,” Steven Tyler’s screaming coda at the end of “Dream On,” Johnny Cash’s broken baritone in “Hurt,” or Lars Ulrich’s explosive drumming in “Master of Puppets.” Watching such videos can feel like playing a favorite song for a friend who’s never heard it before, minus the inevitable embarrassment that comes when that friend doesn’t end up liking the song as much as you’d hoped…

Channels like Twins the New Trend and Lost in Vegas tend to downplay any larger cultural statements they might, however unintentionally, be making. Tim and Fred see their young age as their biggest allure, while Baker and Tolliver have grown their own devoted fan base drawn to the channel’s particularly in-depth musical and lyrical analysis…

[Mona] Platt, who goes by PinkMetalHead, does see her identity as a black woman as a large factor in her videos’ appeal. “I saw a lot of comments when I first started, saying, ‘Honestly, I clicked because I saw Metallica and I saw your thumbnail, and I really wanted to know what this person thinks about this type of music.’” (For this very reason, Baker and Tolliver don’t put pictures of themselves in their Lost in Vegas YouTube thumbnail image.)

Platt is also black which is why that commenter what curious what she might think of Metallica. Her most watched video to date is her reaction to Pink Floyd’s Time (1.3 million views). What did she think? It nearly brought her to tears. “That was like a beautiful masterpiece. I’ve never heard anything like that in my life,” she said.

One of the first music reaction videos I remember seeing was for an 80s metal guitarist that I like. I pulled up a video and noticed there was a reaction video by a channel called Jamal_AKA_Jamal. Jamal is one of the market leaders in this type of reaction videos. He appears to do one video a day and has done videos for over 1,00o songs at this point. Just like the commenter above, when I saw his video I was curious what he would think of this very particular sub-genre of metal (Yngwie Malmsteen) and in particular what he would think of one of my favorite songs. Would he be wowed by the playing or would he find it off-putting? I wanted to know.

Recently, Jamal did a roundup of his favorite 20 songs he’s heard as a result of his channel. Jamal’s top 10 included everything from Gordon Lightfoot to Brooks and Dunn. In each case he talked about how the songs made him feel or what it make him think about.

Without really trying to make a point (it’s pre-politics, remember) there was a subtle message in Jamal’s list about music’s ability to transcend identity by communicating that some experiences are universal. I don’t think that’s intentional. To be clear, I’m sure Jamal and other creators are aware their videos do better when they praise the songs they are asked to react to. But however you look at it, there’s an effort from creators and viewers to bridge a perceived cultural gap.

Personally, I think what these black content creators are doing speaks to the fundamental idea that people are individuals first and not racial or cultural identities. That idea has fallen very much out of fashion with people on the woke left who have embraced a kind of identity politics which says almost the opposite, i.e. racial and cultural identity are primary. But what’s happening on YouTube shows the opposite idea is still out there in the broader culture, shaping things and bring people together in spite of their superficial differences.