Formats Unpacked: First Time Hearing... Reaction Videos

How reaction videos re-invented how we listen to nostalgia

Hi All,

Hi to all new subscribers and thanks to everyone who shared and emailed about the last episode of Formats Unpacked. It turns out that there are a lot of fans of the 2x2 Matrix amonst you.

This week I’m doing the unpacking. Sorry in advance. There’ll be much smarter people deconstructing their favourite formats in the coming weeks. Get in touch if you fancy it.

This clip of Noel Gallagher talking about his son’s reaction to listening to Absolute 80s radio got me thinking that it was time to unpack reaction videos…


What’s it called?

First Time Hearing (YouTube Video)

What’s the format?

Gen Z twins Fred and Tim Williams listen to songs from the 70s, 80s and 90s for the very first time and film their reactions.  

What’s the magic that makes it special?

We only get to experience something for the first time once, but thanks to First Time Hearing reaction videos we can vicariously enjoy hearing a song we love for the very first time...again.

We don’t just get to remember hearing the song for the first time. Through the reactions of the listener we get to remember what it felt like to hear the song for the first time and that’s an important difference. It’s a natural human instinct to want to re-experience something through the emotional responses of other people. It’s why we have to stop ourselves from giving away the ending of a film. We know we’re never going to totally recapture that ‘first time’ feeling again, but we can get pretty close through the emotions of others.

In summer 2020 the twins went viral as their First Time Hearing Phil Collins ‘In The Air Tonight’ brought a bit of joy to our new reality of working from home. We watched. We loved. We shared. In fact some of us spent entire weekends passively enjoying First Time Reaction videos playing non-stop on our TVs as we got about our weekend business. That was just me then?

Reaction videos have been around since the early days of YouTube in various forms. They've allowed us to relive the experience of being lost for words when we found out who Luke’s father was...again, and be re-gobsmacked watching the Game of Thrones Red Wedding episode reaction. It’s a genre of which there are many sub-genres, but First Time Hearing is by far my favourite. 

With Fred and Tim you’re instantly set up to have all expectations shattered. We know the track and we know Phil Collins. They don’t. They’re gonna hate it, right? They’re gonna tear it shreds. Why would these twins with pictures of Tupac on their bedroom wall care about Phil Collins or other 80s stars such as The Police, Queen or the Bee Gees? But as the track plays their early approval in the form of gentle head nodding dismisses any expectation of snark. There’s no Phil hating going on here. Just love and respect as that song slips gently between the verse and that almost-a-chorus chorus. It’s delightfully snark-free.

A minute in and the twins think this track would make a great ring entrance tune for a wrestling match. They love it already. But what we know and they don’t is that one of the most epic drum fills of all time is just about to pop out of their speakers and throw them back in their chairs like they’ve just hit the dip on a rollercoaster. 

Hitchcock once said that filmmakers often confuse ‘surprise’ with ‘suspense’. Surprise is a scene where two characters are at a table but nobody knows there is a bomb under it, not even the audience. Suddenly - ‘boom’ - the bomb goes off. Everyone is surprised. On the other hand, Suspense is when the audience knows that the bomb is under the table and it’s due to go off in 15 minutes but the characters don’t. The audience can see a clock on the wall ticking away but can’t do anything about it. Suddenly the audience is participating in the scene.

In First Time Hearing videos the surprise is delightful to watch but the what we know and they don’t’ factor adds a level of participation that you don’t get listening to nostalgia radio or playlists. You’re never going to find yourself shouting “Just wait until you hear the drums” when Phil Collins pops up on Spotify.

Favourite Episode

After Phil it might be Dolly’s Jolene because of their appreciation of the storytelling.

Similar Formats

Gogglebox is what reaction videos look like when made for TV.

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Until next time…

Hugh