Throughout the pandemic, I, like many others, found myself turning to familiar music I listened to as a teenager, seeking comfort in 2000s nostalgia playlists and the hollow, monotonous “landfill indie” of the 2010s. It wasn’t that I especially enjoyed listening to music that I’d last heard on student nights at bad nightclubs in York, or that they marked a particularly happy period of my life. Instead, I returned to these playlists because I found myself unable to listen to new music.
Initially, I blamed this on Spotify. It’s well documented that the platform’s recommendation algorithms are less likely to introduce you to new, interesting genres of music than to recommend songs that sound similar to your favourites – producing an endless feedback loop, where music is not something to be enjoyed and shared, but rather a way to fill silences with constant background noise. I was listening to more music than ever, but appreciating barely any of it.
In early 2021, YouTube recommended I watch a video called First reaction to “Rock Music” Linkin Park. I immediately clicked on it – the song in the video, Faint, remains my favourite Linkin Park track, and one that has been a constant on my Spotify playlists. The reaction video was made by Desean Hunton, an American rapper, music producer and YouTuber, whose channel, LaydbakDFR, became hugely popular on the platform for its music “reaction” videos, especially those where hip-hop fans listen to rock music and vice versa. Hunton’s video series, Trash or Pass!, shows him discovering songs and genres for the first time, filming live reactions as he listens. In each video, ranging from reviews of the Beastie Boys and Disturbed to UK acts like Dave, we see Hunton dancing, head-slamming, at times even pausing and rewinding the track, to parts that he’s awed by. While there are thousands of music review channels on YouTube, Hunton’s strips the format back to its basics. Absent of overanalysis of lyrics, deep dives into production credits or engaging in the lore of fandoms, Hunton’s metrics are simple: is this a bop?
Hunton’s videos represented a feeling I’d long been missing, even before the pandemic – of the genuine excitement of discovering, enjoying and sharing in something new. Watching his videos over the past year took me back to the first time I’d discovered the rock and emo bands that would define my teens, the first time I’d snuck out of my parents’ house and travelled into London to go to a gig in a shady pub, the first time I went to a music festival (Reading 2008).
Reading the comments under Hunton’s videos – overwhelmingly sharing in his excitement – also made me realise that as streaming services continue to eclipse the music industry and the freedom given to artists, they also remove the social culture that made discovering music so exciting in the first place. Bonds were forged through swapping MP3s, making mix CDs and discovering new bands on platforms like Myspace. In all these cases, it wasn’t just about finding the music itself, but also the friendships and relationships that were part and parcel of discovering new bands.
Hunton’s videos were a reminder that even at a time when popular culture is increasingly mediated through automation and surveillance-based algorithms, the desire for collective social experiences is still very much present. People find genuine joy in seeing others enjoying themselves.