Welcome to Learned, a short, weekly look at language, education, and everything else under the sun. I’m Joel, amateur linguist and professional slacker. And this week, we're reacting?
One of the reasons I like teaching is because the kids keep me in touch, at least tangentially, with pop culture that has begun, more or less, to pass me by; this past week, I was talking to a few of my students (via a physically distant Zoom lesson - simultaneously an enormous boon to teaching and a huge pain in the ass) about the art conservation and restoration videos I wrote about last week.
They, in turn, got me started on a whole series of “reaction” videos. I had seen quite a few different reaction videos over the years, mainly various incarnations of “kids react to things that used to be popular” or “people from other countries react to thing that is really really popular in this other country.” They’re amusing. They can be really fun. I wouldn’t say it’s a genre I particularly enjoy.
So you know where this is going, right?
The kids switched me on to two different “reaction” YouTubers to whom I subscribed just about immediately. One is a Scottish woman who is a professional voice coach and who not only reacts to various bands and artists, but offers interesting insight into how they sing (think technical skills rather than a simplistic “good” or “bad”) along with advice to amateurs who want to try to recreate a given vocal style. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting than my write-up, I promise. The other one is an American man who appears to have grown-up primarily with soul and R&B music and who is now discovering 70s rock. And while his commentary is, well, not all that critical, in any sense, watching him get into classics I know intimately like Layla is immensely entertaining.
But. Once the kids had pointed these channels and creators to me, we continued talking about reaction videos. I pointed out that it was a relatively new genre, something that didn’t exist on t.v. when I was a kid except for family night viewing oddities like America’s Funniest Home Videos.
(Media studies majors in need of a thesis? Here you go: Candid Camera and America’s Funniest Home Videos - the genesis of the react genre. Go for it.)
What surprised them about the few clips I could find to show them was how little Bob Saget actually reacted to the videos he showed to the audience. They had a point. Even understanding the realities of how t.v. was made at the time, Bob showed very little overt emotion. He might grin or chuckle or make a witty comment, but he didn’t “react.” There were no wide-eyed looks directly into the camera. No OMGs with a hand over the mouth. No, “whaaa?” Bob’s face barely registers any emotion at all.
So, what makes a good reactor, according to a couple of Japanese teens? A few things:
they have to have a good look. If they look just like everyone else, their videos will get lost in the shuffle, so they have to have something unique in their appearance.
they have to have a very expressive face and outsized hand gestures. Just sitting calmly won’t cut it.
they have to be positive. Negative reaction videos don’t seem to be too popular. It shows a lack of respect and understanding for other people’s hard work.
they have to be legitimately encountering whatever it is they’re reacting to for the first time. No faking allowed.
We talk sometimes about digital divides or the realities that these digital natives face that are natural to them and overwhelming alien to those of us born before 1985. This, to me, was a perfect example. Not in their love of the genre or their enthusiasm for various modelers of it, but in the way they understood what constitutes a good example of the genre and what the rules of the genre are without having to think too deeply about it. As we know by now, this is a natural and common facet as media and genre grow and evolve. We saw it when kids brought home Elvis records that their parents didn’t understand and we saw it again with punk and hip-hop and lofi hip hop radio - beats to relax/study to. It’s just fun to see it happen right in front of you.
The last part of my conversation with the kids about this was when I asked them what they would react to, if they were to start a reaction channel. They bandied some ideas about for a while - music, fashion, make-up. Then, one girl said, “donuts.” And that was that.
Until next time, stay safe, stay curious. Learn something.