“Reaction videos”, that is, videos of people watching and reacting to videos, are popular on the internet. Apparently, there is a basis in brain science and something called “mirror neurons” to explain the appeal, but observing people as they authentically feel something is more compelling than you might think. (Winerman, 2005) Understanding this dynamic can also open a window into appreciating how we connect with one another and help us better understand ourselves. I had these experiences while revisiting an old Metallica song, and the song has become meaningful to me all over again in more ways than one.
For some background, the history of reaction videos starts around 2007; a popular early entry was a YouTube video showing a small boy as he watched the dramatic ‘big reveal’ scene in the first Star Wars film when Darth Vader discloses that he is Luke Skywalker’s father. The boy appears to have his mind blown, and it is a fun and pretty remarkable clip. Many viewers commented on the video noting that the child’s reaction reminded them of their own sense of awe and innocence when they first saw the same scene as kids. Others, however, also noted that the video reminded them that they had lost some of that wonder in the years since but that it helped them reconnect. (Anderson, 2011)
Similar reaction videos followed over the years, including subjects such as fans reacting to exciting sporting events or kids opening Christmas gifts. Perhaps not too surprisingly, the breakout in the genre came with an infamous fetish/gross-out video called “Two Girls One Cup” (if unfamiliar, you can trust me, it is disgusting). Interestingly, it seems unnecessary to witness the nastiness in question (and, in this case, the nastiness may have actually been faked) to get something out of the reactions. While some of the popularity of this particular video was clearly due to shock value, some commentators also opined that seeing people from all walks of life react so similarly to the video—with the same extreme disgust—is oddly reassuring. That is, it’s a reminder that, at some basic level, we are not that different from one another. (Anderson)
In any event, there is a popular and decidedly more wholesome series of reaction videos to be discussed here: videos of people listening to songs on video. For these reaction videos, songs are usually recommended for the ‘reactors’ by people in their video comment sections on YouTube. Usually, one or two people react, and they will first acknowledge that they have never heard the song before, perhaps because it is an older song, or from a genre of music they are unfamiliar with. The point is to ensure that their reactions are spontaneous and authentic. Otherwise, the videos may be music videos or live performances and may also show the lyrics while the music plays. The reactors watch, listen, react, emote, and comment, and sometimes pause the video to comment. That’s it.
Reaction videos differ from, for example, movies, where actors are put in artificial situations and then try to create authentic, emotional scenes. These videos essentially eliminate the middle person and cut right to the authentic humanity. This is the promise of reality TV, too, of course. Unfortunately, in that genre, authenticity quite often loses out to the allure of trashy drama, voyeurism, schadenfreude, and obsessions for instant fame and profit.
Conversely, the best reaction videos are special for at least two reasons. First, the songs may be popular or were in the past and are often recommended by die-hard fans who may have heard the songs many times before. Such repetition can make any song sound stale, unexciting, or, as one book described it, “oppressively familiar”. (Daly and Kamp, 2005). Reaction videos, however, can interrupt that process. Watching someone else have the same moments of awe and innocence we once experienced is an odd and fresh excitement. Call it “mirror neurons” or the magic of human connection, but it can be deeply affecting.
Second, even if a song has been heard a million times, good reaction videos can expose new perspectives even a serious fan has never considered. The most successful reactors are good at being both open-minded and expressive. This can be an aspect of the song long taken for granted or something never noticed or fully appreciated in the first place.
My reaction video experience concerns a personal favorite and a signature Metallica song from 1986, “Master of Puppets”. I first heard these heavy metal superstars in my teens, shortly after they debuted in 1982. I was seriously pissed off about quite a number of things at that time (long story), and finding catharsis in the thrash, I listened to little else for the rest of the decade. In the early ’80s, heavy metal was still largely a fringe music genre, let alone the thrash metal mayhem of Metallica.No one at the time imagined that the band would ever get played on the radio, let alone become mainstream superstars. That music was so misunderstood, in fact, that its detractors sometimes assumed that fans loved the Devil and were possibly plotting to kill their parents. (A friend of mine in high school, 99.8% joking, I think, once asked me as much.)
A few months ago, I clicked on a YouTube channel called Chris&RheasiaTv, and watched a couple’s reaction video for “Master of Puppets”. Before the songs start in these videos, the reactors will usually, again, note that they have never heard the song before, give a brief summary of whatever they do know about the song or the band, and often note that fans of the song had requested it. The reactors might say something about how they look forward to hearing it and experiencing something new.
This was the case for Chris, Rheasia, and Metallica’s “Master of Puppets”. Then the song started. With the sudden, loud, metallic crunch of the song’s opening note, Rheasia is visibly unsettled. Clearly, neither she nor her partner, Chris, know what to make of it. As the song takes form, however, they both start to bop around and laugh nervously as they try to get into it. “Master of Puppets” has a long instrumental intro. The song is ultra-heavy, with fast, grinding and driving guitars, pummeling drums, some melody, and, soon, raging vocals. To those who don’t listen to metal, it could shock the system. Whatever the couple’s reference points are for music at this point, based on their reactions, this is decidedly outside of that.
The video they are watching shows the song’s lyrics so the couple doesn’t miss a word. Metallica lead singer James Hetfield sings the entire song in the first person as the song’s protagonist. Thus, when he gets to a line about providing another person a chance to…self-destruct?, Rheasia, who was smiling, now shaking her head ‘no’, and waves her hands like a football referee signaling an incompletion. She will hang in there, but she is no longer down with these crazy metal guys.
Some more seemingly odd lyrics pass. With the line, “Taste me, you will see”, Chris quizzically asks, “What kind of sexual act is this?” Both are cracking up. Then comes a line about the song’s protagonist being committed to…killing someone? Rheasia’s very worst expectations for the song are now actually getting worse.
“Master of Puppets” is long, runs for more than eight minutes, and is mostly unrelenting. Rheasia tries to float out a question innocently: “Are we listening to the whole eight minutes…?” clearly hoping that Chris will say no. But Chris, while still a bit mystified, is totally committed and doggedly trying to decipher the lyrics and understand the point of the song and its performance.
The first verse and a pre-chorus go by. Then the title/chorus further reinforces the notion that whatever this “Master of Puppets” is, it is indeed nasty, in total control, and possibly unstoppable. Rheasia, trying to be positive, notes, and Chris agrees that “People like this!”—meaning that if so many people like this kind of music, there must be some merit to it, right?
A lyrical reference to a needle finally seems to present a piece of the puzzle for Chris as the possible topic of drugs enters the picture. Rheasia continues to tolerate the song and tries to be a good sport. Also worth noting at this point is that thrash metal can be a very physical experience, i.e., it is music that can make you want to headbang, mosh, possibly break something, or scream. Chris is clearly connecting with that aggression in a way that Rheasia is not, as he tries to sing along and does an occasional fist pump.
Finally, what for the couple is a long two-and-a-half minutes into the thrash-fest, comes the last line of the second verse when Hetfield sings, “Chop your breakfast on a mir-ror”. Chris pauses the video and points out the line to Rheasia, realizing that “chopped” and “mirror” can only mean one thing: someone is preparing to use cocaine. Rheasia makes the same connection. All the previous odd and disturbing lyrical pieces suddenly fall into place. Chris lights up. He is geeked. He cackles and pumps his arms. He is so amped up that he must get up and walk off the screen momentarily. He has realized the riddle about this previously confounding song – addiction is the “Master”, and the addicted are the “Puppets”.
Rheasia is still disturbed by “Master of Puppets”. She has heard enough and understands the genre better, but she has not become a heavy metal fan. Chris says that, at first, he thought the whole song was “straight devil shit”, but now he sees it from a totally different perspective. He also says, and Rhaeis agrees, that it was a challenge for the couple to really hear heavy metal because “It is not how we came up on music”, which they both note was a lot of rap music. In fact, both also note with some amazement that it turns out that “Master of Puppets” is a story about the same horrors that are often the subject of the rap songs they listened to: drugs and their destruction. While the story in “Master of Puppets” is done in a very different style of music than they were accustomed to, it invokes the same feeling toward that subject: fear, powerlessness, pain, and frustration. As Chris says, Metallica is “…talking about the shit all people talk about.” His initial conception of “Master of Puppets” was dispelled, and he was rewarded. For viewers of reaction videos, it’s fun and gratifying to watch this process unfold.
On a personal level, viewing and re-viewing this video changed my perspective of the song, and I gained new insights. Imagine having no clue what this song was about and, for the first time, hearing this completely foreign, heavy, dark, and wildly aggressive music. Is Hetfield singing/yelling lines promoting death and destruction? He sings nearly the entire song from the first-person perspective of addiction. I had never thought about that part too much. Watching Rhaeis’ discomfort forced me to re-evaluate the song and its storytelling perspective and ask myself why “Master of Puppets” still works for me, even after listening to it many times.
Clearly addiction, and maybe as much as any of life’s hardships, can be a humbling and horrible experience, both for addicts and for those that care about them. It can be an unrelenting, terrifying, degrading, and lethal ordeal. It is so wicked, in fact, that for addicts, even the very notion of agency in their lives is turned completely upside down. In short, drug addiction is monstrous.
In “Master of Puppets”, Metallica confronts and conveys these realities with brutal and remarkable clarity and in a visceral manner that brings them to life. The song is acknowledging the true nature of the problem of addiction. Facing one’s addiction is something like staring down a terrifying demon. Such honesty with oneself can be a wake-up call, and owning the rage and frustration involved is empowering and cathartic.
It is no coincidence that Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” remains revered nearly 40 years after its initial release. It was also embraced by a new generation when featured on the hit television show Stranger Things in 2022.
The epiphanies and connections described above are impossible via a solitary music-listening experience. Chris and Rhaeis’s reaction video can help fans old and new appreciate such a challenging song. That is partly due to the genius of Metallica, of course, but in the experience of reaction videos, it’s also the beauty of seeing people keeping an open mind and expressing themselves honestly. When seeing deeper truths within others, we can learn a lot about ourselves.
Anderson, Sam “Watching people watching people watching“. The New York Times. 25 November 2011. Retrieved 5 June 2022.
Chris&RheasiaTv. “This about drugs?? Metallica – Master of puppets first reaction from Hip Hop Heads!! WTF!! YouTube. 13 April 2020. Retrieved 1 July 2022.
Daly, Steven and Kamp, David. (2005). The Rock Snob’s Dictionary: An Essential Lexicon of rockological knowledge. Sanctuary Music Library. 2005
Winerman, Lea (2005, October). “The Mind’s Mirror”. Monitor on Psychology. October 2005. Retrieved 2 February 2023.