YouTube reaction videos: the last metal subgenre

YouTube reaction videos are perhaps the starkest demonstration of social media’s uncanny reflecting pool of our identities. The subset of metal “reactcore” videos exploded a few years ago, and has only recently receded at the hands of a rising K-pop market.

Metal reaction videos take on a number of formats, but broadly fit into two categories. The “outsider” and the “expert”. The “outsider” will usually be a random person – hip hop fan, guy that once “had an emo phase” –reacting to popular metal songs, usually gushing with hyperbole and dramatic emotional flair. The Lost In Vegas channel has accumulated over a million subscribers from this format.

The “expert” is a professional musician with no prior knowledge of metal, giving their expert opinion on the music and performance, offering some insight into the theory and techniques behind your favourite metal bands. The Charismatic Voice is probably the most popular current example of this. 

It’s important to note that most reaction channels don’t start out with the express intention of covering metal. But once a channel attains a following, and they start asking their viewers for suggestions on what to react to next, surprise! Metalheads are reliably the most vocal crowd in these callout threads. Nightwish, Metallica, Megadeth, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Tool, all are staples of the reactcore genre.

The science behind the popularity of reaction videos is fairly simple. Humans take pleasure or pain in watching other people perform an activity, a feeling only once removed from experiencing it ourselves. As we grow old and wizened, we lament the fact that we’ll never experience our favourite bands for the first time again. YouTube reaction videos corner (create) a market by playing on these two facts of human psychology by providing us with a reasonable simulation of experiencing the familiar as the new again. We enjoy watching their happy faces aglimmer with the same feelings we once experienced on first listening to ‘War Pigs’. A little suspension of disbelief that the “reactor” in the video is sincere in their emotions helps. We must take it as a given that they have also genuinely never heard the song (or maybe even the genre) before.

Reactcore is now its own little subgenre of platform capitalism, to the extent that a quick google might lead to some helpful guides on how to set up your own reaction channel, offering such glimpses into the abyss as the following from VSDC:

If you want to make a captivating reaction video, the reaction in it must be very visual. Ideally, extreme. Facial expressions and sounds people make when they see something they absolutely love or hate are the cornerstone of a great reaction video. So, if you are going to choose clips to react to, keep in mind that their main goal is to provoke emotions. Otherwise, there’s little point to record it in the first place.

Despite the unchecked psychopathy on display here, the cynical power of reaction videos is such that even if the viewer knows they are a carefully tailored performance designed to elicit an emotional response, we are compelled to keep watching. In browsing Lost In Vegas videos I was still drawn in by their reaction to Megadeth’s ‘Holy Wars’, watching to the end as they gradually get sucked in by the complexity of the track with its layered twists and turns.  

But why does this format gain such currency within metal specifically? There are maybe two reason that hold the most explanatory power, I’ve dub them “legitimacy” and “secrecy”.

“Legitimacy” refers to the metalhead’s journey from outcast at school, to adult with a peer group of fellow metalheads, all of whom perhaps went on a similar journey throughout their youth, and found each other through the scene. But as a group of outsiders re-affirming each other’s shared preconceptions, the question remains, “is metal, as an extreme, vulgar, theatrical, and unsubtle form of music, actually good, or is mainstream society’s perception of us broadly correct?”

Enter reactcore. You stumble across a channel of some randomer reacting to your favourite Slayer track, maybe they look like a former bully, or a colleague who always gives you funny looks for having long hair. You press play, and they reassure you that they’ve never heard Slayer before, but they want to “see what all the fuss is about”, and they hit play on ‘Raining Blood’. They proceed to go through the motions of demonstrating that their mind has been blown, “these guys are crazy”, “what an insane band”. “Yes”, you think, “I was right all along”.

The legitimacy offered by reactcore videos is even more obvious when it comes to the “expert” subgenre. Here, a professional musician with no skin in the game offers up their objective, authoritative opinion, giving Slayer an institutional stamp of legitimacy. If you’re a lonely straight dude and the “reactor” is an attractive woman, this could even be a reasonable simulation of that fantasy you had as a teenager of playing metal to your crush and having them be not only blown away by it, but offering their own astute insight into the music. “All my knowledge and training did not prepare me for just how special this music would be, and I was wrong about you as well, you are special for liking such special music”. The school bully is blown away by the music you like, they had no idea it was so intense and addictive. The snooty music teacher, the jazz drummer, the eccentric vocal coach, all sit back, throw on some thrash metal, and accede that you were right all along, well done for having such great taste.

This leads directly into the “secrecy” dimension of metal reactcore videos. Metal’s borders have always been closely guarded. Its bar of entry is high, one must acquire knowledge of a complex history. Its strictly hierarchical, xenophobic attitude to other musics makes metal a rather confusing prospect to the average passer-by. But for all its posturing, its isolationism, its secrecy, metal is desperate to join the club, desperate to sit alongside other “legitimate” forms of contemporary music, as every bit as nuanced, artistic, profound, and complex as other branches of culture, maybe even a little bit more so.

Reactcore offers the metalhead a glimmer of what this mainstream legitimacy might look like. The doors are thrown open, others can now be welcomed into metal’s hallowed halls, and experience the great adventure that none but we metalheads have been privy to for so long. Metal’s closely guarded secrets are offered up to the world for closer study, and the world doesn’t know what a ride it’s in for.

Reactcore by its very nature has a shelf life. The Charismatic Voice has been posting reaction videos for some three years, metal reactions for about two, to the point where feigning surprise and awe at hearing yet another metal vocalist must by now look like a pretence even to the most naïve viewer. The Charismatic Voice, being of the “expert” category, does make substantive observations beyond histrionics however, but as the format morphs into dry analysis of technique it surely loses viral potential. The channel Garrettmillerdrums – a jazz drummer reacting to metal videos – has not posted for over a year, there’s only so many times one can play out the initial impact of experiencing tech-death drumming.

Equally for the audience, the appeal diminishes over time. Reactcore channels purport to take submissions, but must ultimately go for the most popular songs to generate views. A popular react video will lead to a flurry of copycat reactions to the same song, how many different takes do you need on ‘Ghost Love Score’ to feel vindicated?

But if we step back from the motivation of instantaneous viral potential, metal reaction videos may be on the wane because, well, metal has already been ushered into the clubhouse of legitimacy.

Congratulations! We made it. Metal is not the isolationist state it once was. The walls have toppled down, and music fans from neighbouring communities are pouring in. And, predictably, we hate it. These perceived outsiders aren’t treating metal as a place of respect, a solemn and opulent museum filled with signs and wonders. No, they’re climbing on the artefacts, slipping treasures past security, and graffitiing the walls.

Metal, having spent years crying out for institutional legitimacy, is now a place of fraught cultural (and real) conflict. A battleground of ideas, identities, and politics. For the traditional metalhead set on worshipping awesome music untroubled by such difficult questions, this is a full scale invasion, they must shore up their position, batten down the hatches, and bring metal back to its state of splendid, misanthropic isolation. For more open minded others, the picture may be more complicated. Metal’s accord with other cultural streams may be permissible, but highly conditional.

More broadly though, the idea that a single set of cultural signifiers still determines one’s identity in youth, and that these are defined by various distinct branches of counterculture, is frankly a thing of the past. Culture is so open and open ended, terminally online and negotiated through over-socialised media, that the idea one could go through life having never heard of the most popular metal bands – or even anything that sounds remotely like them as many reactcore videos would have you believe – looks increasingly untenable.

Ultimately, reactcore, especially the metal variant, relies on the premise that crossing cultural borders is not only a rarity, but requires a complete mental rewiring, one perpetually played out in reaction videos.

If we ignore the question of sincerity and take reaction videos at face value, it would be all to easy to dismiss them as an idol pastime. But maybe something more insipid is going on. This is the zeitgeist experiencing itself via the most circular, self-defeating navel gazing imaginable. As culture remains trapped in an endless nostalgic recapitulation, reactcore gives us a glimpse of the next logical step, an emotional recapitulation, perpetually replaying the moment of adolescent revelation at the cost of even conceptualising the new.

One thought on “YouTube reaction videos: the last metal subgenre

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  1. Your thoughts on this trend are really interesting. Great article. I didnt know anyone else even knew about these videos. This past year I started checking out a lot of these metal reaction videos and its been a guilty pleasure. Wathcing the Charismatic Voice woman fall in love with Dio is awesome. Makes me appreciate him even more. I have enjoyed watching “outsiders” suddenly appreciate metal, I think mainly because my own occasional attempts to get other people (friends, family, whoever) to appreciate metal have almost always failed.

    Liked by 1 person

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