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In 2013, Zach Campbell asked his college professor if he could be excused. He needed to rush back to his dorm room to watch Lady Gaga’s “Applause” music video. Not knowing why, he set up a camera to film his raw reaction. “It wasn’t even for me to post at first,” he tells PAPER. “I just wanted to see what I love about this shit.”
Thinking nothing of it, he uploaded the video to his YouTube channel. When Campbell woke up the next morning, it had over 20,000 views. Within a week, he was getting calls from E! News and BBC. Lady Gaga was singing for him and calling him famous on The Graham Norton Show, a global pop star reacting to a fan reacting to her video. Before he knew it, the college kid from Detroit had infiltrated the system from his bedroom.
Since then, Campbell has become the most well-known figure of the “reaction” YouTube universe. His pop music reactions have struck a cultural nerve, having garnered nearly 130 million views, making him the go-to talking head on pop music discourse. Basically, he’s like Pop Crave personified. “The thing is, people are at home doing what I’m doing, they just don’t record themselves like I do,” he says. It’s partly true, but he’s being humble. Not all pop music stans have the camera-ready charisma and star quality that Campbell exudes. He may be reacting to a music video or live performance, but in a way he becomes the true star of the whole experience. His reactions are what people can grab onto. His insight has influence.
The pop stars instantly paid attention, too. Some of Campbell’s most-viewed videos are the ones where the artists themselves, like Doja Cat and Lil Nas X, join him to react live to their own work. The Graham Norton Gaga meet-and-greet was a big one for Campbell, but then there was Bey. In 2016, Campbell raced home from his shift at Buffalo Wild Wings to react to the “Formation” music video. “Sew in all messed up and everything,” he says. Shortly after, Beyoncé, his ultimate queen, would personally reach out to him and use his reaction clip as an interlude on the Formation World Tour. In a weird turn of events, the pop icons were now worshipping him. “I started to realize that before I even graduated college, I was working with my two faves in the entire industry. I was like, what is happening?”
In 2008, “reaction video” made its way onto Urban Dictionary, where it is defined as “a recording of a reaction to a disturbing or frightening image or video.” There was a boom in the early 2010s, though, of pop culture reaction channels on YouTube. The difference was that these reactors were making a career out of it, an entire economy of expression. It was meta — a product of the product that was being sold to cultural consumers. An Atlantic article from 2016 likens ‘watching people watch things’ to what audiences would do in the Roman Empire. This isn’t exactly new behavior.
To me, it’s an evolutionary thing: reaction videos tap into this weird human characteristic of living through other people’s emotions. We’ve all shown our friends a video we loved, and looked over to see their reaction. It’s why Twitch is the dominant platform for young people who like to watch their favorite gamers play video games. In the same vein, some people would rather watch people be a fan than exhibit the fandom themselves. This innately twenty-first century trait is what has allowed Zach Campbell to thrive.
The logical next step would be to live out his pop star fantasies to the fullest extent, and Campbell is doing just that. His 2022 single “Away From You” is really good, a no-holds-barred R&B earworm co-written by British pop prince MNEK and queer vocal veteran Durand Bernarr. The song was inspired by the X-Men theme song and NSYNC, he tells me, and the self-funded music video is a full-on production with choreography and elaborate set designs. Last year’s “Maybe It’s Love” is top-notch chill pop, a silky Janet Jackson-esque number. Now, he’s working on an EP set to release this spring.
Suddenly, it’s come full circle for Campbell. He made a career out of being a fan, an eager student of pop music who lurked on chatrooms and online forums. Then, people became fans of him being a fan. Now, they’re fans of his surrealist pop fantasies. Lady Gaga is flying him out to hang out. He finally met Beyoncé, and in a YouTube video recap, he emotionally reflects: “Any Black gay boy out there that don’t think it’s possible, baby I’m here to tell you I come from the east side of Detroit. It’s very possible.”
It will always go back to that kid in Detroit, the one who was obsessed with pop music and sometimes felt like an outcast for it. “I had a sense of community in Detroit, but everyone else listened to hip-hop or R&B, and I’m over here rah-rah-ah-ah-ah’ing down the hallway,” he says. “I remember when “Alejandro” and “Telephone” started to break into the hood, child, I was like, wait you’re singing “Alejandro”? I love this for you!”
He tells me that, like many Black singer-songwriters, he got his start in church. It makes me think about how, with his unique brand of reaction videos, Campbell has sort of created a church of his own. A digital stomping ground for pop lovers to connect and worship. “I was always told that I was too loud, too outspoken, too fat, too Black,” he says.“And I was like, okay, well I’m gonna make my own space.” As humans, we yearn for a sense of belonging, and maybe this new era of reactions is just a new evolution of that natural desire.
“The sub genre of reactions gives you a feeling of this person sees me, this person feels like me,” he says. “Or maybe even, this person is me.”
Photos courtesy of Zach Campbell / YouTube