Reviews and reactions: Is the shape of YouTube music criticism changing for the better?

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2018 saw an explosion in the music reaction video on YouTube. Is the format a new lease of life in online criticism or does it promote personality over music? And does anyone even care?

You’d be forgiven for not always seeing the concept behind the popular YouTube videos of the day. Most of the time you just seem to be watching someone stare at some other screen, whether they’re playing video games, watching TV or, more recently, listening to music. Over the past two years, the music reaction video, a distinctly millennial format in music criticism, has grown rapidly generating millions of hits and thousands of subscribers for YouTube personalities. Where most YouTubers are only able to build a following across several years, popular newcomers like Shawn Cee and Mallory Bros have managed to quickly capitalise on the desire for immediate reactions to chart-topping records, rather than formally presented video reviews. On many occasions, the reaction video has proved just as viral as the music itself, especially as YouTubers gasp and shriek their way through dancefloor bangers and rappers’ diss tracks.

While the reaction video reached its peak in 2018, the genre is far from new. Indeed, it’s one of the genre’s oldest figureheads, Big Quint Indeed, who has demonstrated the lasting appeal of such videos. Whether he’s bouncing around the room, shouting profanities or breaking his chair to Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DNA’ Quint is a loveable, larger than life character. Unlike many of his contemporaries he also provides insightful commentary on music and gives real pause for contemplation in his videos. Stick around long enough with Quint and you’ll realise the reaction video offers not only laughs, but unique perspective in a refreshingly unfiltered format. It’s this idea of perspective that drives the most interesting reaction videos across the Internet. One particularly entertaining channel, entitled ‘Dad Reacts’, features a father and his young son listening to hip hop together and discussing their differing relationships with the genre. It’s a refreshing take on a predictable style of video to say the least.

Big Quint

On other channels however, the reaction video already seems jaded and unsustainable. At times the format verges on overkill, with exaggerated and clichéd performances for the camera, but little regard for the music itself. One particular YouTuber, Joey Da Prince, has taken it upon himself to make a reaction video for a slurry of age old hits, including ‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, contributing nothing to music discussion, but a series of ‘ooohs’, ‘aaahhs’ and pantomimic glances at the camera. While this cash-in content seems unlikely to unseat review kingpins like The Needle Drop, it does raise the question of whether YouTube criticism is moving in a positive direction, with such blatant promotion of personality over music.

Another question of course is whether the viewership of these channels actually care. People digest music in different ways and need to digest reviewers’ opinions in different ways too. While the reaction video may initially appear shoddy and off the cuff alongside professional content, it’s certainly gained traction for smaller artists and provoked a less pretentious music discussion in online forums. Regardless of your opinion on these YouTube personalities, the fact remains that writers will go on writing, bloggers will go on blogging and vloggers will go on vlogging. Maybe all this noise, meaningful or not, just goes to show how diverse music criticism has been in 2018. And that surely is a cause for celebration.

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