The compelling awfulness of the YouTube Reaction Video.
There’s some curious, innate part of the human psyche that draws us to the unspeakably repulsive – the morbid curiosity involved in watching scenes of grotesque horror that makes people gather around the scenes of car crashes or crime scenes, somehow drawn to see the disaster unfolding, revolted yet intrigued and glad that it wasn’t them involved. I suppose this is the thing that draws me to watch reaction videos on YouTube.
Now, before I go any further, a few explanations about what I’m not talking about. There are a lot of retrospective film histories on YouTube, and some of these are excellent – better than anything you’ll find on official Blu-ray releases a lot of the time. And there are movie reviewers and critics who are also very good – well informed, witty, provocative and intriguing (of course, there are far more who are bleedin’ awful, but that’s the same in the written domain, right?). This is not about any of those people. Rather, I’m talking here about ‘reaction videos’ where people pass instant on-screen commentary while watching or listening to something for (supposedly) the first time.
Now, there are some good reaction videos out there – people who seem to actually have an appreciation for what they are watching or hearing, who pick out interesting and unexpected things to explore – people who actually seem to have an interest in film or music and are curiously exploring it. These people are few and far between. For the most part, it’s just a rampant display of narcissism.
These reactions are the ugly sister of the DVD/Blu-ray commentary track. While commentaries emphasise the ‘expert’ aspect, reaction videos seem to revel in their ignorance. For some reason – let’s call it ego, shall we? – YouTube seems to attract some of the most stupid, vacuous people that you might ever hope to come across to sit and watch classic films or listen to classic songs ‘for the first time’, talking through them with all the critical understanding and comprehension of a six-year-old. Of course, it’s a pretty easy way to build content – while you still have to edit, there’s no prep involved whatsoever. The less you know, the better it apparently is.
The reactions often seem exaggerated and fraudulent – admittedly not as stage-managed and rehearsed as those on the lamentable Gogglebox, which is, of course, the same thing with even more awful people. The responses to anything ‘difficult’ like a nude scene (especially a male nude scene like the one in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a popular choice for reactions) are often embarrassed hysteria, and it’s depressing to watch as films and songs that are really not that complicated frequently go over the heads of the reactor as if anything vaguely complex or challenging or nuanced is just too difficult. We’re not just talking about the ambiguities of 2001: A Space Odyssey (a favourite for reacting to) here – even Starship Troopers often tends to be taken at face value, with the fascist allegories lost on the viewer.
There’s also a fraudulent nature to the reaction scene. In a world where there are more movies and songs to choose from than any one person could ever consume in a lifetime, the same handful of titles crop up again and again, often in clusters. Clearly, these people are seeing what other people are reacting to and cynically jumping on board. Yet we are supposed to believe that they have never seen the film, watched the video or heard the song before as if they hadn’t actually watched the reactions of their rivals. This frankly stretches credulity, especially with rock songs. We know that this is happening because there will often be an upping of the ante – if one person is deeply moved by Pink Floyd‘s Time (even though few seem to understand what the song is actually saying about growing old and seeing life slipping by), then the next will be in tears and the person after that weeping profusely. Every reaction has to be more dramatic than what came before, even if the viewer can’t actually articulate just why they found it so moving.
The art of oneupmanship is rampant across this scene because it’s ultimately all about racking up the views and hopefully making money – most of these videos are monetised and people will often complain about being made to remove videos because of copyright strikes, though in fact these days most YouTube videos that have such strikes against them (and yes, many copyright claims are dubious as hell, but that’s another story) simply hand the advertising revenue to the legal owner rather than require deletion. If you are running your reaction channel as a business, however, that’s no good for you – but frankly, if your video consists of you simply listening to a song and then saying what you think of it at the end, I’m not sure that you should have the right to make money from that. Of course, a lot of them now have Patreon channels to help bypass YouTube advertising restrictions.
Obviously, we can’t exactly expect insight or understanding from people who are so vacuous that they can’t even think of something to react to unless other people have already done it. But the way even simple concepts seem to fly over the heads of some of them is extraordinary. It is, of course, what makes them strangely compulsive viewing because feel drawn into seeing just what level of pig-ignorant bullshit, incomprehension and hyper-exaggerated gurning and shape-throwing will accompany a viewing of Airplane! or Planet of the Apes (a film where the ending is known to everyone in the world except the people doing these reactions, it seems).
Obviously, in the grand scheme of things, movie reaction videos are not the most awful thing on social media. Even in terms of minor irritations, they probably come a distant second to Instagram influencers. It does, however, feel like a depressing representation of both a narcissistic culture and an extraordinary lack of imagination, both in terms of the things they cover and their understanding of them. Whatever positives that we might take from twenty-somethings exploring culture from the 1960s, 70s and 80s are outweighed by the conservative, narrow thinking at work in the constantly repeated choices. In the end, for all the self-importance on display, there’s something lazy, unadventurous, closed-minded and depressing about the whole thing, and in that, it feels like a depressing display of society in microcosm.
I really wish I could stop watching them.
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