From the very first measure, just as Chris Stapleton’s guitar buzzes in, you can see Shaquille Davis’ face light up with a grin as wide as his head. He starts bobbing his head, smiling bigger and bigger until a giggle tumbles out. “Bruh, I dunno why I’m nervous, my guy!” he tells the camera, shaking his head.
He returns his attention to his computer, bobbing his head forward, until we hear Stapleton’s mahogany voice ring out: “I used to spend my nights out in a barrr-room, liquor was the only luuuuhv I’ve kno-o-o-ownnn.”
Davis does a double-take at the camera, mouth agape, before pausing “Tennessee Whiskey” and jumping up from his chair. It’s the first country song he’s ever bothered to pay attention to. And by his initial reaction — “Ah naw, oh no way, bro… I know you hear that soul!” — Davis is about as hooked as anyone can get on a genre of music they’ve never heard.
Turning on a camera and listening to Stapleton changed the trajectory of the 26-year-old’s YouTube career. Davis, aka “No Life Shaq,” already had a following for his reactions to hip-hop tracks. But turning his attention to foreign genres and famous songs he’d never heard before made Davis a star in a very particular kind of YouTube niche.
While I think it’s goofy fun to see, say, college kids listen to “Rush” for the first time, there’s something more complicated underlying the love around Davis and his reactions — namely, the fact that Davis, who grew up only listening to “Black” music, is joyously diving into genres that are embraced most by white audiences (e.g., classic rock, country, metal and alt rock).
He’s a highlight in a YouTube cottage industry of black men and women reacting to music, and some of the fans can’t help but take to the comments and talk about the blurring of racial stereotypes. Davis might say that a song like “Tennessee Whiskey” isn’t, in his words, “black or white, it’s beautiful,” but the clashing of cultures is exactly what people want to see. “This reaction can END all the racism talk in this country right now!!!” chirps a user named Matt Faulkner.
“Average ordinary white guy banging his head with a black man on a reaction video listening to Metallica… Is this world peace?” one fan says on Davis’ reaction to “One.”
Elsewhere, on a reaction to “Free Bird”: “You and your fellow utubers [sic] are changing the world. … You’re doing more to bring us all together than anybody has in a long time,” writes Tim Johnson. “This is Martin Luther King shit, I’ve been watching these reaction vids for a while. It’s blowing me away.”
I stumbled into this world after clicking on Davis’ reaction to Pink Floyd’s haunting “Time.” I didn’t mean to watch all 12 minutes. But seeing his awe grow in real-time as he processed the music and lyrics felt a little like recommending a favorite song to your best friend and witnessing them lose their mind over how dope it is. And to the credit of channels like No Life Shaq, Lost in Vegas, Jamel AKA Jamal, D-GiBBY, PinkMetalHead, Loganfam and beyond, I don’t see any play-acting in their reactions. These are faces of genuine shock, confusion and pleasure. It’s like the look you get when you feed someone something delicious they’ve never tasted before. It’s like that old cliché about dinner-table diplomacy, but with LPs of white dudes instead of regional foods.
The man who articulates this tension best is perhaps Jamel Griffin, who acknowledges the differences in his racial and cultural background in a number of reaction videos. His channel, Jamel_AKA_Jamal, has blown up from under 100,000 subscribers to more than 300,000 over the course of a year.
“I know that a lot of y’all be like, ‘How you not hear Pink Floyd before?’ But I know there’s a lot of songs I can say that y’all haven’t heard before. We don’t grow up listening to this type of music, it’s just what it is,” Griffin says in his reaction to “Time.” “Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Luther Vandross, that’s the stuff I listened to. I didn’t have a choice until I got older, but then it was hip-hop. But now… now I’m a grown-ass man, dog. I can listen to whatever the hell I want.”
It’s an example of how our racial identities can shape the art we consume, which makes it all the more uncomfortable to see claims from reaction-video fans that “music has no color” (case in point: “Being white is a label. Being black is a label. I’ve found the most joy in life when you peel back the labels!!!”). It’s a happy myth that perpetuates the idea that racism is overblown or frivolous, flirting dangerously with the trope of “not seeing race.” If great music had no color, a whole lot of black and brown artists would’ve made it onto the airwaves without so many barriers. If music solved racism, Kendrick Lamar wouldn’t have to yell at a white fan for saying the N-word on stage while rapping to his song. So much of the music industry and artist fandoms operate within the context of racial identity — so much so that discrimination exists in the past and still now in the present. And there are real questions as to why rock, metal and country audiences are still so overwhelmingly white, or why some of us can’t stand the sound of rap.
But it’s also obvious that people are best at bonding through the lens of the things closest to their heart. Watching another community embrace the things we love reminds us why we loved that song or text or flavor in the first place. And there is a pure catharsis in watching the breaking of stereotypes, whether they’ve been upheld by popular media or the people around us. It is too easy and naive to believe that we’re really all just the same, coming together in the name of rock and roll. Still, the complex reality doesn’t negate how fun it is to witness someone embrace your favorite song. Acknowledging that you’re from opposite worlds just makes the moment bigger.
Which, again, is probably why people love to mention their race in the comments, on both sides. “I’m a 43-year-old black man. And I love the Doobie Brothers,” a commenter writes to Jamel, as if he’s attending a meeting for recovering soft-rock addicts.
“I’m a big fan of No Life Shaq… Definitely someone I could see becoming friends with and hanging out over some beers chatting about all kinds of stuff — and I’m one of the hated aspects of society: a white male,” says another.
Am I rolling my eyes at that victim complex? Of course. But am I also a little awed that someone would be inspired to be vulnerable like that in the YouTube comments section? Definitely.
Like cheesy movies about friendship transcending race, reaction videos might not fix prejudice in the world. But given the research on how to make people less racist, YouTube clips like this might actually help. Whatever the actual effect, I also appreciate stumbling into such comfort-food wholesomeness in a corner of an internet that usually feels like the widest, darkest, most toxic ocean of simulacra and hot takes. Amid it all, a young dude losing his shit to a song like “Stairway to Heaven” is a clean hit of cross-cultural dopamine. It’s the vicarious shock of remembering your first time. And it’s a reminder that the world is full of so many things to fall in love with — and people who can lead us there.