YouTube is, in many respects, an undeniable force for good in the music world. It has provided musicians with a slightly more achievable pathway towards gaining a following and, ultimately, making money than other, more traditional means. This is not specific to the songwriters and ‘performers’ on this platform, as musicians often apply their skills to more theoretical areas, such as ‘education’ (because what else are you going to do with that three year music degree you spent all that money on). This is not inherently a bad thing – why pay for instrument or music theory lessons when there are hundreds of videos you can watch for free that will give you a similar, albeit potentially less streamlined, learning experience?
The issue lies not in video tutorials or lessons, but rather the videos where musical knowledge is applied in an ‘analysis’ setting. While some of these videos are genuinely educational, novel, entertaining, or, at the very least, informative to those largely unfamiliar with music theory, many are obnoxiously meaningless. There’s been a growing trend over the last couple of years in which musicians film live reactions to musical content (albums, music videos, live performances, etc.) and then insert observations about the most glaringly obvious features of said content.
Take Nina Schofield’s video ‘CHARLI XCX – Charli Album [Musician’s] Reaction & Review!’, in which she concludes by saying “She’s [Charli] able to give us these pop songs that are radio-friendly, but then she’s not afraid to explore and go places that no pop artist has gone before.” Along with sounding like it was specifically written to be quoted in marketing campaigns for the album, this statement by itself isn’t necessarily untrue or completely devoid of meaning. But when placed in the context of a 24-minute reaction/review video with the prefix ‘Musician’ attached to it, it feels like a basic assertion that anyone with at least one functional ear could have made.
What’s more, Nina spends much of the video pointing out and singing along to various instrumental parts within the songs she’s reacting to, as if we the listener aren’t able to identify these elements for ourselves without filling the necessary requirements to earn that ‘Musician’ prefix. “It’s like an alarm sound,” she observes earlier in the video when, towards the beginning of the track ‘Shake It’, there is, indeed, an alarm-like sound. Thanks Nina!
With only 29,460 views as of the time this article was written, this video is admittedly an easy target. It’s worth mentioning more popular channels who display similar tendencies – at 6.59 million subscribers, ‘RoomieOfficial’ is certainly one of these. The grand majority of Roomie’s content consists of him reacting to other music-related videos, having recently started busting out the ‘Pro Singer Reacts to…’ titles for some of his uploads.
In ‘Pro Singer Reacts To The BEST singing videos 2020’, Roomie spends most of his ‘reaction’ time complimenting various singer’s voices while sprinkling in the occasional musical buzzword (e.g. ‘vibrato’, ‘tone’). “Beautiful voice, really fun to listen to,” he notes, while reacting to the TikTok videos of Sam Ryder. He also points out that Ryder’s voice sounds like a combination of “a little bit more of a metal voice and a rock voice and a pop voice”, and that he is singing very high notes, like a “high B”, before singing said note to seemingly remind us that he is a ‘pro singer’ and thus his comment section-esque wisdom warranted a 13-minute video.
Besides his friendship with famed slur-dispenser PewDiePie, Roomie’s videos probably rose to the top of the landfill of musician reactions due to his flashy and ‘humorous’ editing, which favours many a quick cut between short phrases or sentences, as well as wacky sound effects and text. It’s a gimmick employed by many YouTube channels – not just music ones – who have little else to offer by way of personality. Bassist extraordinaire Davie504 is yet another example of this, though he does sometimes structure his reaction videos more compellingly than most by attempting (and usually succeeding) to play what is being performed in the videos he’s watching. Often, though, he resorts to making Reddit-level jokes accompanied by meme-heavy editing as a substitute for useful insight or any sense of charisma that would make his simple comments entertaining.
Unfortunately, meaningless observations are a lesser evil compared to some of the other pitfalls of the YouTube musician/reactor. On many channels, you’re likely to find the kind of elitist rhetoric that dismisses entire musical styles and discourages many from participating in music performance or discussion. In his video ‘Jazz Pianist Reacts to Watermelon Sugar by Harry Styles’, Charles Cornell deems the song in question “musically useless”, and a particular melodic line in the song’s pre-chorus “completely devoid of definition”, essentially due to a couple of apparently misplaced notes. Not only does he spend nearly the entire video reinforcing strict rules that musicians must abide by lest they be sent to music jail, he also bases parts of his appraisal around his knowledge of jazz theory – a framework which can hardly be usefully applied to a radio-ready pop song. Cornell masks what are clearly nitpicks behind the air of authenticity lent to him by his ‘Jazz Pianist’ title, thus allowing viewers of the video to also declare the song inferior (based on a ‘professional opinion’). Even at a time when many are mocking the notorious claim that ‘Modern/popular music sucks!!!’, this line of thinking still seeps its way into cultural conversation through the guise of theory-based objectivity.
Uninteresting reaction channels are nothing new, and hardly a pressing issue within the music industry in particular. Many of the ‘[Insert musical qualification] reacts’ videos could be less aggravating with less attempts at intercutting instinctive responses with shoehorned music theory, or even a simple removal of any signal of musical authority from their titles. As they stand, however, they do nothing but stifle meaningful music discourse.