Rediscovering the Water Cooler

Curator's Note

When asked about her favorite TV shows in a recent interview with The New Yorker, Netflix’s head of global television, Bela Bajaria, couldn’t offer a definitive answer. Instead, she meditated on the question itself: “People have very different tastes, and I have no disdain for whatever those things are. What is quality? What is good versus not? That’s all subjective. I just want to super-serve the audience.” In her response, Bajaria makes clear Netflix’s strategy to please viewers not by supplying artistic greatness but by catering to their individual taste preferences. Netflix’s ever-increasing mass of global-reaching content, paired with hyper-individualized taste algorithms—which create a private feedback loop of suggestions based on one’s previous viewing and rating—ensures that each viewer will find exactly what they want to watch.[i] In the land of streaming entertainment, it is personal taste, not aesthetic value, that reigns supreme.

The distinction between judgments of personal taste and judgments of aesthetic value is an old problem of aesthetic theory. Philosophically speaking, Bajaria isn’t wrong when she says that “what is good versus not” is “subjective.” But it’s not merely subjective in the way that personal taste is. Or at least it’s not experienced as such, according to somebody like Immanuel Kant, who made sure to distinguish between judgments of beauty and judgments of mere preference in his Critique of Judgment.[ii] Kant argued that when we find something beautiful—a painting or a sunset (or the latest Netflix show)—we know that the beauty exists only in our minds, not in the object. But the beauty feels as if it’s an objective property of the painting or the sunset. It’s for this reason, Kant says, that when we are standing in front of that beautiful sunset, we feel moved to share our judgment of such beauty with others by speaking it aloud: “This sunset is beautiful!” Bound up in that utterance is our conviction that others ought to find the sunset beautiful, even though we have no logical reasons to convince them.

What happens, though, when everybody is admiring a different sunset? One consequence of the hyper-individualized marketplace Bajaria describes is the growing lack of shared cultural objects, a topic that seems to be everywhere these days. This recent Atlantic cartoon, titled “The slow death of water cooler TV,” depicts a now-familiar situation: you feel moved to bring up the latest show or movie to your coworkers, but nobody has seen it, or it exists on a streaming platform you aren’t subscribed to. A recent SNL sketch points to the same phenomenon in the form of a fictional game show where movie and TV buffs have never heard of any of the most-watched and most-nominated programs currently available. From a Kantian lens, the death of water cooler movies and TV is also the death of aesthetic judgment as an inherently social phenomenon. Locked into the taste algorithms of our own making, our capacity to judge with others has been shifted to the likes, hearts, and five-stars that we give to the platform, and which the platform feeds right back to us.

But there remain pockets of streaming culture that seem to push against this, if strangely and unexpectedly so. Consider the YouTube genre known as the music reaction video. In these videos, creators listen to popular songs that they apparently have never heard before, while their faces, gestures, and words register their “reaction” to the song. From a Kantian perspective, these “reactions” are not merely reactions; they’re embodied performances of the real-time unfolding of aesthetic judgment, and as such, they not only illustrate but exaggerate Kant’s claims about the inherent sociality of aesthetic judgment. In fact, many comments on these videos testify to a kind of vicarious aesthetic experience, a sense of re-hearing long-familiar songs through the ears of another. While movie and TV streaming platforms increasingly isolate us from the judgments of others (and the water-cooler conversations that might ensue), music reaction videos are capitalizing on just the opposite. The appeal of such videos lies in a distinct impression of perceiving together, of having one’s aesthetic perception shaped and renewed by the subjectivity of another.

In other words, when you hear a familiar song through a compelling music reaction video, it’s not unlike renewing your appreciation for a work of art by having a rich conversation about it, or by reading a good work of art criticism. Consider how this works in the most well-known music reaction video to date: creators Tim and Fred Williams, a.k.a. “twinsthenewtrend,” reacting to Phil Collins’ pop hit “In the Air Tonight.” In the video, the Williams brothers help refresh our aesthetic sensitivity to the song as they listen to it ostensibly for the first time. This is most obviously achieved through their verbal commentary. For instance, they often stop the music track to describe what they’ve heard, often noting formal features—e.g., the fact that the song’s long instrumental opening resembles a boxer’s “ring entrance” (1:10), the fact that the song’s famously dramatic drumfill arrives surprisingly late (5:26).

But more uniquely, their facial expressions and gestures register a discerning sensitivity to key musical events—from the arrival of the first sustained synth chord (1:18), to a soaring vocal distortion (4:19), to an ornamental vocal variation (4:39). The shifts in bodily and facial expression that accompany such moments serve as indices of aesthetic attention, not unlike a finger’s emphatic pointing at a particular spot on a canvas. By drawing our attention to significant formal choices which we may have never noticed as choices, these moments contribute to a kind of embodied form of art criticism that is (parasocially) experienced as personal and conversational.

When the video went viral in August of 2020, a number of commentaries[iii] suggested that the Williams brothers’ overnight success could be attributed to a complex dynamic of racialized spectatorship, in which middle-aged white viewers enjoyed seeing their musical tastes validated by young Black men. In Jody Rosen’s words, the video offers such viewers “a chance to cluck their tongues at clueless youths while confirming the supremacy of their own touchstones.” While such observations are warranted (and are not lost on the Williams brothers themselves[iv]), the ubiquity of such arguments may have eclipsed the value of the Williams brothers’ performances as critics, the idea that at least one of the reasons the video is so popular is because, aesthetically speaking, it’s good.   

Indeed, as Bajaria suggested, “what is good versus not” is “subjective.” And as such, I can’t prove that the video is a good work of music criticism any more than the Williams brothers can prove that “In the Air Tonight” is a good pop song. But the popularity of the music reaction video reminds us that the experience of judging an artwork  “good”—or, in Kant’s terms, “beautiful”—is not merely subjective. It’s intersubjective. In fusing an art object together with a performance of its judgment, the music reaction video seems to respond to a collective desire for intersubjective exchange at a time when “likes,” taste algorithms, and endless choices make such exchange increasingly difficult to find.


[i] See Neta Alexander, “Catered to your future self: Netflix’s “predictive personalisation” and the mathemitization of taste,” in The Netflix Effect: Technology and Entertainment in the 21st Century (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016)

[ii] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment. Translated by WS Pluhar (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1987).

[iv] When asked in an interview with CNN why they thought their videos were so successful, Fred Williams responded “because we’re Black…and they don’t expect us to listen to that type of music.”

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