But the Williams brothers’ reaction has pushed it back to center stage: After the video went viral on Aug. 7, “In the Air Tonight” rose to No.2 on the iTunes charts. It is a familiar modern-day music business story, where a couple of guys in a bedroom can accomplish a job once designated to battalions of marketers. It is also a reminder that the reaction video — staring at a screen to watch people stare at a screen — is a weird, definitively American art form that stretches back at least to the 1990s heyday of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” But the viral popularity of this display of intergenerational sympathy — Black 20-somethings professing love for a white boomer’s pop-rock chestnut — may also tell us something else about the ambient tensions and neuroses that are, you might say, in the air, adrift in the ether of 2020.
There are many varieties of reaction video, capturing what purport to be first encounters with movies, comedy routines and famous recordings. Reactions are a staple of the YouTube platform: much-viewed, highly clickable and a good way for creators — including many Black creators — to get noticed by people searching for things like “Phil Collins.” To watch videos like the Williams brothers’ is to experience a vicarious thrill of discovery, to scrub your mind’s ears clean and rehear a familiar song as if for the first time.
It helps that Tim and Fred Williams are smart, fun guys, eager to extract pleasure from whatever they’ve cued up: ’80s hits, classic rock, Dolly Parton, the Bee Gees, the Fugees. They’re close listeners, attuned to details of production, arrangements and lyrics. “What’s this about?” Tim asks over the droning introduction to “In the Air Tonight.” When the main keyboard figure rises out of the murk 30 seconds in, he has already picked up on the ratcheting tension and sees the big rupture ahead. “Sound like they finna go cray,” he says — something crazy is going to happen. The Williamses are art appreciators, and pretty discerning ones at that.
Yet the online response to the video sometimes framed things differently. It struck a patronizing note, misidentifying the brothers as children and casting them as naïfs: “Two teenagers get schooled by Phil Collins.” In a piece on the Vulture website, Rebecca Alter compared the clip to videos of babies trying new foods. Social media is periodically convulsed by controversies over young people’s musical blind spots — millennials who have never heard of the Beatles, Zoomers who don’t recognize Destiny’s Child. For Gen Xers staring down middle-aged obsolescence, the Williams twins’ video provides a satisfying twofer: a chance to cluck their tongues at clueless youths while confirming the supremacy of their own touchstones.
Clearly, the Williams brothers understand this dynamic. They begin each video with the tagline “Back with another banger,” announcing a foregone conclusion: The song will be received with wild enthusiasm. Even if we take them at their word that they’ve never heard these songs, even if we accept their raves as genuine, we may still note that exaggerating their guilelessness and throwing a little extra sauce on their wowed responses is good business, part and parcel of the reaction-video gig. A popular YouTube channel can be a lucrative thing; the Williamses sell merchandise and know how to build a brand. Flattering the tastes of your target audience — catering to its insecurities — is Marketing 101.