Over at New York Magazine, writer Brian Feldman explores the connection between a song’s reappearance in pop culture and an uptick in terrific comments on its corresponding YouTube video. Feldman jumps off with the recent Black Mirror episode “San Junipero,” which prominently features Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth.” The comments under the video, however, aren’t about Belinda Carlisle, Feldman finds; they’re about the Black Mirror episode—a pattern he notes is surprisingly common.
Feldman goes on to investigate the YouTube comment sections for Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” and Radiohead’s “No Surprises”—both recently given player-piano renditions on Westworld—and finds the comments similarly full of musings on the TV show, not the songs themselves. Meanwhile, beneath Mark Romanek’s video for Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” the conversation is about the new Wolverine movie Logan, and, below that, a head-butting competition about who the realest Johnny Cash fan is.
“Part of the reason for this YouTube swarm is that there really aren’t many good comment sections for music,” Feldman writes. “SoundCloud doesn’t host canonical popular music like ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth,’ and Apple Music, Spotify, and Tidal don’t have comment sections underneath every song or album.” While this is true, I think Feldman doesn’t go far enough: YouTube comments on music videos may be good when a piece of popular culture points people toward them, but they’re also always good—or at least, instructive about the way people listen to and think about that music.
Take, say, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA,” which, at 15 million views, is obviously not just some beneficiary of a recent pop-culture nudge. It’s a song whose timelessness is reflected in the comments, which start with a gauntlet of sad stories—true or not—about Vietnam veterans. After that, you get to watch people “get” the message of the song. Then, of course, here come the conspiracy theories:
Beneath “Like A Prayer,” commenters quickly connect Madonna to Black Lives Matter and, um, Evanescence.
The real treasure trove of YouTube comments is beneath video game soundtracks, which are almost never available on larger streaming services. The comments commingle nostalgia, gamer fury, and music appreciation into a singularly bitter cocktail. For example, here are responses to “Aerith’s Theme” from Final Fantasy VII:
While YouTube does allow people to respond to each other, they rarely form coherent conversations—more like of-the-moment reflections, removed from the grandstanding of other social platforms. YouTube is becoming an increasingly useful streaming music service, given the segmentation of other platforms, and it’s always worth scrolling down when using it—if only to remind yourself that you’re listening as part of a crowd. A large, diverse, occasionally insane crowd.