Moments before he began filming his reaction to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” Tim Williams had the same thought that he has before he records every video for Twins the New Trend, the YouTube channel he runs with his brother, Fred.
“I always think, when we do a video, that it could be that person’s favorite song that we’re reacting to,” Tim Williams, 22, says. “You know, if you have a favorite song and you’re seeing somebody reacting to it, you’re going to watch it.” Tim and Fred rarely think twice about any of their videos after they’re filmed, and “In the Air Tonight” was no different. “We do so many videos, we forget about them,” says Tim. “We just run through the videos not thinking they’re going to blow up.”
But by the morning after they posted their Phil Collins reaction in late July, the Williams twins could already tell that it was different than the nearly 1,000 other videos they’ve uploaded to their channel during the past few years. In the weeks after it was posted, the twins’ response to the 1981 Top 20 hit went mega-viral, sparking a 1,100 percent spike in sales of Collins’ original, garnering reactions from congressional candidates and A-list Hollywood directors, inspiring think pieces and interview opportunities, and earning more than 6 million views (more than several of Taylor Swift’s new songs released the same week).
In an interview two weeks after posting the video, the Williams brothers told Rolling Stone that they’ve already begun informal conversations with a major label and received sponsorship deals from clothing companies, corporate opportunities from Beats by Dre, and television pitches.
The twins’ “In the Air Tonight” may have registered as a one-off moment of feel-good virality. But in reality, it was merely the first genuine moment of mainstream exposure for a rapidly growing subset of YouTube music-reaction videos that have proliferated during the past few years, in which mostly young, mostly black YouTubers react to a cross-genre mix of new and older music, with a particular focus on metal, country, and classic rock.
YouTube music-reaction videos have sprung up in an environment where voyeuristic unboxing videos have long been one of the service’s most popular formats, TikTok reactions to up-and-coming pop singles have become one of the music industry’s primary marketing tools, and where platforms like Twitch feature millions of users watching strangers play video games for hours at a time. These days, dozens upon dozens of reaction videos spring up within days of a major pop song’s release.
Channels like PinkMetalHead, Lost in Vegas, Jamel_AKA_Jamal, and Twins the New Trend launched around 2016 and 2017. In an attempt to differentiate themselves from the larger economy of YouTuber reaction videos, where most users focused on current mainstream hits and one type of music, they zeroed in on less-traditional reaction-video source material: Nineties alternative, Seventies classic rock, Eighties hip-hop, or contemporary country.
“I realized there was a market for it,” says Mona Platt, who posts reactions at Pink Metal Head. “I was already a big fan of metal, and there weren’t a lot of people doing that.”
“People were staying in their comfort zones, says George Baker, one half of the team behind influential Las Vegas-based channel Lost in Vegas. “Everyone was in their own genre. For rap people, there was just rap, and there was rock, but I didn’t see a mixture of both. I was like, ‘Well, why does it have to just be this one thing?’”
Over time, this once-niche offshoot of reaction channels has quickly become a self-sustaining digital ecosystem, with established format conventions (homespun backdrop, a few minutes of banter before playing a song), trademark reactions (Tim Williams’ face squints up in excitement, Platt raises her eyebrows), and even its very own canon of reaction-video standards, a kind of Great American Vlogger Songbook: “Tennessee Whiskey” by Chris Stapleton, “Bulls on Parade” by Rage Against the Machine, and “Time” by Pink Floyd, songs with musical sharp turns that also play on misguided genre assumptions, are all mainstays of the format.
Long before Tim and Fred Williams’ ‘In the Air Tonight” video, these channels had been regularly amassing millions of views, earning hundreds of thousands of subscribers and sustaining, at minimum, some form of part-time employment through a mixture of Patreon funding, merchandise sales, and YouTube monetization.
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.
When I mention over Zoom to Baker and his Lost in Vegas co-host Ryan Tolliver that watching their reaction to Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing” made me feel like I was hearing the played-to-death classic-rock-radio staple for the very first time, Baker smiles.
“That’s probably the number-one thing people say,” he says. “It’s that, and also probably that [watching our videos makes] people feel that they’re with their friends discussing music. It takes people to that nostalgic point in their lives.”
As they’ve grown in popularity, music-reaction channels have become unlikely, profound new arbiters of cultural authority. Much more than feel-good diversions, these videos often draw out foundational connections between seemingly opposed musical styles, recontextualize older forms of music within a contemporary cultural framework, and toy with larger, loaded assumptions about genre, generation, and race.
Along the way, the videos also provide conversational arts criticism that can feel profound in its brevity: “He’s being extremely petty,” Baker said in a recent Lost in Vegas reaction to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” neatly summing up one of the most overdiscussed songs in pop history.
Everyone from Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine to Jason Isbell and Alicia Keys has praised reaction videos to their own songs in recent years, and larger, even more established hip-hop reaction channels have long maintained partnerships with major labels. Reaction channels like Lost in Vegas and Twins the New Trend are already receiving frequent pitches from publicists and labels, and it’s not hard to imagine that legacy artists and rights-holders of classic catalogs will soon follow suit. Videos like Tim and Fred’s “In the Air Tonight” increasingly serve a similar cultural function to the recent slew of rock biopics like Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody: promotional and marketing tools that help revitalize catalog classics for younger audiences.
Tim and Fred’s “In the Air Tonight” reaction exploded in popularity, not coincidentally, during a moment when the music industry is reckoning, or at least purporting to, with a host of tough questions about race and genre, from the major labels pledging to retire the word “urban” to the increasingly urgent calls for commercial country music to increase visibility for its black artists.
“The internet, particularly YouTube, allows young black folks to rediscover music on their own terms,” says André Brock, a professor at Georgia Tech, whose book Distributed Blackness centers blackness in internet culture. “But it also allows them to rediscover a joy in music that wasn’t necessarily labeled as for them or which they understood to not be for them.”
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.
“We weren’t even aware of what was happening in our channel,” says Baker of Lost in Vegas. “As we were building our following, we didn’t have this awareness of, ‘We’re trying to bring the world together or trying to create this sort of racial kumbaya thing.’ We were just genuinely approaching it like, ‘Hey, this song is actually really good.’ There’s a difference between just being the change you want to see and broadcasting it. Our intention, starting this channel, wasn’t to do that. But we quickly found out that was happening, that we were bringing people together.”
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 also says that her reaction channel has doubled, for both her and her viewers, as an education in popular music history. She points to a YouTube comment she received for her poignant reaction to Pink Floyd’s “Time,” which, at 1.2 million views, is her most-watched reaction.
“The top comment was someone who said, ‘Isn’t it ironic how an English white band influenced by early black musicians is now being appreciated by a young black woman,’” she says. “I get comments that say, ‘Wait a minute, let’s not forget who influenced this band, or who started this genre.’ It made me do my own research into the roots of it all, and it made me realize that one genre isn’t for one race.”
Streaming platforms have long made the techno-optimist argument that their services help break down genre boundaries. But all of the reaction channel personalities interviewed for this piece cited what they felt was an increasingly codified world of genre-bound reaction videos as the main reason for starting their own channels. If the YouTube reactors view anything they do as remotely subversive, it’s their wholesale rejection of genre. “We just allow people of any race to listen to a different type of culture and music,” says Fred Williams. “Letting people know that it’s OK to listen to different types of music.”
For some, that implied genre commentary is as much of a draw as the reactions themselves. “Reaction videos are really interesting to me because they tap into the archival capacity of the internet,” says professor Brock. “When I was growing up in the Seventies, a lot of the songs these kids are hearing now were on black radio. Black radio stations played Steely Dan, Hall and Oates, Fleetwood Mac. We move into the Eighties, Phil Collins, Chicago, and Toto were still all over black radio. So, in some ways, the internet is allowing this revisiting of an earlier generation where music genres weren’t as segregated as they are now.”
If this semiprofessional world of reaction videos has remained confined to YouTube up until now, the explosion of Tim and Fred Williams’ “In the Air Tonight” video is just one indication that that will not be the case for much longer. Among other business opportunities, the Williams twins say they’ve already had informal conversations with Warner Nashville about the idea of them one day possibly providing onstage, in-the-moment reactions during touring artists’ live performances. Earlier this month, Tim Williams handed in his two-weeks’ notice at a health care facility; he and his brother are moving from Gary, Indiana, to Indianapolis, and plan on focusing their efforts on their burgeoning career full time.
Lost in Vegas’ George Baker and Ryan Tolliver, meanwhile, have spent the past year working on a confidential project (to be unveiled later this fall) that moves the duo “outside of making just videos” and will help the pair make the jump into having their reactions become a full-time career. The project, says Tolliver, will tie together everything the duo has been doing since they first met nearly a decade ago. “It’s us making our mark and really transitioning into something we can make huge,” he says.
Like Tim Williams, Tolliver is keenly aware that Lost in Vegas’ videos are primarily a way to draw longtime fans of each individual song into watching his reactions. “People just want to see you like what they like and just give them a crazy reaction,” he admits. But through their channel, Baker and Tolliver have inadvertently created a community that they believe reflects a better, less fragmented world.
Of their million subscribers, 10 percent or so, they say, watch all of their videos, which range from reactions to legends like ZZ Top and Kenny Rogers to more niche acts like the metal band Gojira and the rapper JID. To Baker and Tolliver, that represents not only positive subscriber-engagement metrics but also an increased willingness to listen outside of genre boxes and consider alternative generational and cultural perspectives.
“All the time, people will say, ‘You haven’t heard Metallica?’” Baker says. “It’s enlightening people to be like, ‘Dude, there’s a different world outside of where you come from.’ Where I grew up, we listened to R&B, jazz, blues, hip-hop, a little rock, a little other stuff.… There are people that don’t look like you, walk like you, talk like you, and listen to completely different things. I think that people are realizing that now, and I love seeing people have that realization, like, ‘OK, the world is bigger than where I come from.’”