The Black gaze under the White gaze (or, “Youtube solves racism”)

by Mike O’Brien

(Disclaimer: I have spent the last month in a cabin in the woods, and during that time the media has caught wind of TwinsTheNewTrend and spilled ink about their appeal and significance. What I have written below may therefore be redundant. But it’s still got a hep beat you can bug out to, so follow along anyway.)

A few months ago, Abbas Raza posted a Youtube video to this site from the channel “TwinsTheNewTrend”. It consisted of the titular twins watching a video of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, visible to the viewer in a picture-in-picture frame. This kind of “reaction video” is endemic on Youtube and other user-created-content platforms, and is usually the kind of thing I avoid. But a few things drew me in. First, I think (nay, know) that Dolly Parton is awesome and that this fact should be universally acknowledged. Second, the hosts are young Black men exhibiting cues of a hip-hop cultural world, not the typical audience for such music. The promise inherent in this set-up is that you, the viewer, are going to share an experience of discovery and novelty. That promise is fulfilled.

I said that I normally avoid “reaction videos” as a genre. It’s not that I’m particularly miserly with my screen time, or that I consider such fluff below my standards of consumption. I watch a lot of fluff, and much of it participates in the kind of audience-chasing hustle of which “reactions” are a shop-worn tool. What I find irksome is that “reactions” plug into a primal psychological system of sympathy and emotional mirroring, and that has the sickly-sweet stink of manipulation. Of course, many great works of art have traded on the compelling emotional displays of their characters to elicit an emotional response from their audience. It’s not some devious 21st-century marketing trick. But in the context of algorithm-driven, big-data-leveraging behemoths like Google et al., the vulnerability to such affective infiltration feels dangerous and debasing.

There’s also an element of creative economy at work, in that the creative labour of “reacting” to existing content is just enough to clear the bar of “fair use” for re-posting copyrighted material. Not to say that creating a compelling “reaction video” experience requires no effort or skill; given the glut of similar videos (thank you, Youtube suggestions queue), there is sharp selection pressure on the basis of host personality, editing, recording quality, and other universal considerations of the medium. But the cynic in me (that is to say, I) can’t help but think “that’s a pretty good way to add free value”.

I don’t want to be too grumpy about this, however, because I like this channel and have enjoyed each video as well as the broader spectacle of their ascent as Youtube creators (halfway to a million subs, hit that button). What I want to write about is why I enjoy them as much as I do, and what doubts creep into my mind about this enjoyment.

First, there is a joy in seeing great work appreciated. This has several facets, some of them universal and abstract, others more personally involved. The rhetorical form of encomia exhibits this, speech intended to praise that which deserves praise, pleasing and improving the hearer by its celebration of virtue. It is a welcome antidote to denunciatory speech, which also serves an important function of demonstrating and reinforcing virtue, but can exhaust and toxify the audience in excessive doses. As a fan of some great work or artist, is it joyful to see it or them given their due. But it is also joyful to see a fellow person, however remote and unfamiliar they may be, experience the delight and appreciation we have ourselves felt. Even the anticipation of their experience is enjoyable, seeing a favourite song in the video description and thinking “oh man, you’re about to get your mind blown”.

This feeling-with and being-with, remotely and artificially but nevertheless with emotional impact, is of a piece with the friendly insistence that acquaintances simply must watch such-and-such Netflix show, or listen to an impossibly-overlooked album. As an old advertising campaign said, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”. Well, we never get a second chance to have a first impression (although, the joy of re-experiencing music is not to be under-estimated, especially as the passage of years and experiences makes of us different listeners than we once were). I suppose there is some self-regarding motivations bound up in this, as we feel our own tastes and cultural identities validated by other observers feeling the same. The more “other” these appreciative “others” are, the more robustly the value of our favourite cultural works is validated.

Which brings me to the questions I have about my own enjoyment of these videos. It would be easy to pigeon-hole them as examples of “Black people enjoy White people’s music, for the vicarious enjoyment of same”, or “Young people enjoy Old people’s music.. etc.”. I am a White person (very much so, check my profile photo), and the hosts of TwinsTheNewTrend are Black people. I had a largely White-people musical upbringing in the 80’s and 90’s, shaped by Boomer parents’ tastes for classic rock and pop music. And I am on the cusp of being an Old person (older people would call me a young person, younger people would call me almost dead), and the hosts are in their early 20’s and therefore Young (anyone under 30 is an infant to me). The comments on these videos bear out this pigeon-holing, replete with variations of “As a X-year old White woman, it is heart-warming to see fine young people like yourselves appreciating this great music”.

Some people will bristle at the suggestion that there is such a thing as “White people music”, or at categories like White people and Black people at all. I understand the danger of such essentializing language, and the harm of essentializing socially constructed categories like race. But the fact is that these definitions map imperfectly-but-usefully onto cultural distinctions. If you grew up listening almost exclusively to hip-hop music, or metal music, or country music, you inhabit a certain cultural space with self-reinforcing limits. Maybe these hosts are secretly life-long Paul Anka fans, but are feigning ignorance of that musical scene for the sake of their Youtube personae (I do not mean to accuse them of such insincerity). As a Lebanese-Canadian, Paul Anka would interesting enough not be White enough for many racially intolerant White folks, though his music passes the “would Will make fun of Carlton for liking it?” test for inclusion in the White people music canon.

Some of the music featured on the channel is squarely in the hip-hop canon, but familiar to me and unfamiliar to them because it is Old (early 21st-century hip-hop is now Old. This was a bracing realization). Some of the music was already Old by the time I was born, and culturally Whiter than my own upbringing. This includes classic country and proto-rock music. I’ve been discovering old country and 40’s-50’s pop music for myself in the last few years, however, and so this music too is “my” music, and I get the same charge from witnessing the hosts’ discovery of it as I get from seeing their first encounter with songs that constituted the soundtrack of my adolescence.

When I say that music is “mine”, I mean simply that it is familiar to me and has an emotional connection to me. But seeing that word, “mine”, on the screen in front of me does raise the question of appropriation, in the sense of a feeling of ownership. Of course anyone can feel that their own cultural world includes whatever they want it to include. But a feeling of crossing a border, or entering an unfamiliar venue, may still persist. I suppose that part of my privilege was that I felt all the culture in the world was mine to enjoy, if I wanted (though the 80’s and 90’s were not kind to White kids who wanted to enjoy hip-hop, and not kind to Black kids at all). The generous interpretation of what Older and/or Whiter viewers of these videos experience is not that their joy comes from feeling validated or esteemed (“now you kids know what REAL music sounds like!”), but rather, that it is from witnessing a joy they know themselves on the face of another.

These videos do have a curiously affective power on me. I think that it may be because I started watching them in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests, and in the depths of Covid lockdown. The latter circumstance meant a lack of human connection, a lack of socialization and shared celebration in which music plays a crucial role (especially since, in normal times, I would often be surrounded by exuberant musical theatre actors). During the last few months, I have spent many hours diving into musical genealogies on Youtube, discovering and enjoying countless new (to me) songs and artists, and losing myself in a solitary world. Wonderful in its own way, but solitary. Perhaps I had underestimated how much I was missing in not having shared musical experiences. Thinking about this now, I realize that there are certain songs that, when replayed in my head, are by default accompanied by a rough chorus of fellow listeners.

The former circumstance, the recent acute conflagration of racial tensions in the US, plays a role as well. (I am wading into the weeds here, please forgive my inevitable mis-steps). First, to call them “tensions” is already a problem because it says so little. It is like saying that someone who has been starved, beaten and poisoned is experiencing “health issues”. That is why the specificity of “Black Lives Matter” is so important, because it addresses an ongoing history of one identifiable people brutalized by another identifiable people. Who, whom. (Here endeth the sermon whereby a Caucasian-Canadian explains BLM). To watch American affairs is to witness the cruel abuse of millions of people and wish it would stop. Against this mental backdrop, a smiling Black face is a powerful contrast. It shows a simple truth that is easily lost in a sea of awful news and history- “and yet we can be happy”.

My self-doubting inner critic tells me that there is a long and ugly history of Black faces smiling for the pleasure of White audiences. The history of minstrel shows and Black caricatures in White-aimed media makes portrayal of any Black experience problematic. The satisfaction that a White viewer takes in seeing a Black man happy and thinking “oh, thank goodness, it’s not all that bad for them” is fraught with a risk of complacency and assuaged discomfort. But there is something dehumanizing in forgetting that people can be happy, and we can grow weary thinking of the grinding unhappiness of others. There is a balance to be struck between hope and outrage, and too much of either is paralyzing.

Seeing a young Black man enjoying a good song shouldn’t be a complicated psycho-social experience spurring hundreds of overwrought words of analysis. But here we are. I have a closing thought, an actionable idea. I mentioned my bristling at the manipulative algorithmic behemoth working behind the screen on Youtube and other platforms, leveraging a century of modern psychological discovery to goad users like rats in a lab. We’ve seen how such manipulation can work for ill, fanning partisan divisions to increase “engagement”, scratching at bodily insecurities to boost product sales. There are simple tricks that reliably work, even when the targets of such tricks know that the game is afoot.

The comments below the videos of TwinsTheNewTrend reveal a desire for connection, an often un-met desire to enjoy shared cultural wealth together with new and unfamiliar people. E pluribus, unum. What measurable benefit, to civic unity and inter-racial fellowship, could be had by simply salting Youtube users’ suggestion queues with videos of people unlike them enjoying the things they enjoy? A simple trick, yes, but we’re simple creatures. We’ve seen the power of big dumb data driving anti-social trends. Maybe we could try using it to drive pro-social trends. Does “we” include the companies who control the algorithms, though? That might be a question for legislatures. In the meantime, I’m going to try to make my browser window look less like a mirror.