Reaction Videos: A Renaissance for Vintage Music

The Internet has completely changed music, as I’ve mentioned previously. But not only has it changed music in terms of composition and production, it’s also altered the cultural importance we place upon it. This is not to say that people no longer value or care about music, it’s just to point out that music’s role in society has evolved with the World Wide Web. Although there’s always been a choice of styles for people to choose from – to some degree – in the past, there was nowhere near the abundance existent today, and people are no longer reading from the same hymn sheet.

Music does not have the same meaning to someone in 2023 that it did to someone in 1990, let alone 1960. However, the music of the past – from a time when people were united in appreciation of artists such Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Diana Ross or Dolly Parton – has managed to retain its potency in the current cultural. Fuelled by nostalgia, music pre-Internet is unequivocally and objectively ‘good.’

Those born at the turn of the millennium, who have little to no knowledge of the popular music released prior to the Internet age, what do we make of them? They may have been told by their parents of the merits of the music they, themselves, enjoyed and grew up listening to, but it’s often a different thing to experience second-hand. And since when do rebellious teens consult their parents when it comes to matters of taste? Not often. There is an emergent phenomenon, though, starting to appear online: that is, introducing younger people to older music and discovering it on their own terms. I’m talking about YouTube ‘reaction videos’. A YouTuber films themselves listening to a piece of music they’ve never heard before, and pauses intermittently to share their thoughts on it. The popularity of these videos is due to the viewer’s enjoyment of watching somebody else experience listening to their favourite music for the first time. Who would have thought this concept would have such a broad appeal? Some of these channels are incredibly successful, and foster considerable numbers of viewers and subscribers. If done well, it’s also a very clever business model.

Let’s say, you search for ‘Jean Genie’ by David Bowie, it is likely to include a reaction video to the song amongst the numerous search hits. At the same time, due to the content creator regularly pausing the track, they create a new video that will not infringe upon copyright, as YouTube will consider the video to be separate content. Understandably, many of these different channels vary in terms of interest or engagement, but you really get the sense that listening to these old songs has been an education in musical history.

My favourite example of this is Rob Squad Reactions. A husband-and-wife duo who post reactions to multiple songs throughout the week, they listen to a variety of different styles from the 1950s up until the early 2000s. The enthusiasm and open-mindedness to which they approach this music – music that they say they’ve never before been exposed to before – is immediately infectious. I’ve been a keen viewer of this channel for many months now, and it’s thrilling to observe them talk about which artists or styles they have taken a liking to. You can see so clearly that this music has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on their lives. One of my particular favourites is their reaction to Meatloaf singing ‘Paradise By The Dashboard Light’, live on the 1970s UK music show ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’. This really demonstrated a difference in perspective for the two people reacting, particularly when the song proved to be more than just the romantic head-banger they were anticipating. The humour of that realisation is endearing, and to see them getting caught up in the theatricality of the performance is gratifying.

Reaction videos are also instrumental in furthering musical education for many people of different ages, but I am particularly excited at the prospect of younger generations using them as a gateway to discover past music for themselves. I believe that in order for interesting music to be composed, written and produced in the future (a future that is dogged with the implications of AI), a vast repertoire of styles can only be an advantage, especially from a time when music was produced solely by human beings. It is in the listening that a number of musical skills can be acquired and deserve to be retained, in spite of the fact that machines can render them obsolete. Training your ear to distinguish different sounds, being able to know for yourself whether you are singing in tune, or in the correct key; these are fundamental to being a competent musician. I’m convinced that reaction video content creators like Rob Squad Reactions are having a more important impact than they might know, themselves.

Image credit: Doug Hoke for The Okhlahoman

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