‘First Time Hearing’ YouTube Hit: Troubling Cultural Politics

Tim and Fred Williams listen to Phil Collins’s In the Air Tonight. (winsthenewTrend/YouTube)

As fall approaches, the summer’s viral sensation gets a failing grade.

The 2003 Jack Black film School of Rock was a lousy movie, an aggressively cute, pseudo-hip extension of an Eighties teen comedy — Ferris Bueller become a dumpy pedant. Its real purpose was to perpetuate the cultural status quo, doing it so cravenly that the film’s advertising logo copied — institutionalized — the staid Rolling Stone magazine font: an early indication that the former counterculture was now mainstream culture.

In the current anxiety over safely reopening America’s public schools, the institutional idiocy idealized in School of Rock comes to mind — especially because the debate ignores the progressive beliefs routinely fostered by an educational process based on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s enlightenment and now, apparently, a questionable source of youthful political naïveté and social subterfuge. Our public-school liberal hegemony is epitomized in the Internet clip of two young people listening to the Phil Collins record “In the Air Tonight” that is this summer’s seemingly nonpolitical viral phenomenon.

In fact, the cultural politics of this “In the Air Tonight” tutorial clip are troubling, particularly when you consider the universal media enthusiasm it has received. The spectacle of 21-year-old twins Tim and Fred Williams “rocking out” to the pedestrian strains of “In the Air Tonight” illustrates education in reverse. Natives of Gary, Ind., hometown of the Jackson Five, they react with surprise and compliance to a dismal example of corporate rock in their YouTube series “First Time Hearing.” Yes, I know, “corporate rock” is an alien concept to Millennial listeners who don’t understand how their taste and choices are predetermined by the delivery platforms they follow. But the automatic acceptance of cultural rule is hegemony itself — School of Rock in full effect.

Only critic Gregory Solman has dared suggest that the Williams brothers’ act is contrived. Media hacks from the New York Times to The New Yorker have unsubtly mentioned the youths’ hip-hop background (mostly proved by their bedroom Tupac poster) as a sign that they have overcome adversity — like underprivileged urban kids suddenly exposed to Mozart. But Collins’s drum break, which gets the twins hyped, reveals their unsophisticated listening; they should have been bored by the song’s mewling, Muzaky meter by the time Collins’s drumsticks clatter.

By condescending to the twins’ evident lack of cultural exposure, the media compound a circumstance that suggests remote parental influence — and dereliction of our rapaciously indifferent consumer culture that sells only what is new and meretricious.

The twins’ pseudo-awakening is a cultural version of the COVID lockdown, already stifling music lovers to accept Rolling Stone–approved dictates and the autocracy of the media elite. In schoolhouse terms, these young autodidacts are indoctrinating themselves.

Better that their homework had discovered some excellent 1981 releases, from the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” and the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” to Rick James’s “Superfreak” and Blondie’s “Rapture,” that would inspire honest, rather than grade-grubbing, appreciation.

Other “First Time Hearing” clips graduate to quality classic recordings such as the Chantels’ “Maybe” and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” but even these start to reveal the Williamses’ gimmick. They never respond with insight (about the Chantels’ spiritual poise or Parton’s imaginative drum backup), only the same gee-whiz surprise, which underscores a need for guidance. Their patronizing admirers are like bad teachers who don’t demand rigor or articulation, merely compliance to a canon without understanding why.

Back in 2003, some pop-music listeners caught on that in School of Rock, Jack Black’s oafish insistence on rock music as “rebellion” was just teenage flattery, the latest version of group-think. Ultimately, School of Rock appealed to reviewers and filmgoers who needed confirmation of their allegiance to established popular taste and received opinion — e.g., the media-sanctioned, guitar-based, non-r&b pop music to which the British music press gave the perfect, shaming label “rockist.”

No wonder School of Rock director Richard Linklater eventually made Boyhood, the fatuous 2014 mockumentary that sentimentalized the casualties of America’s millennial broken homes and the problems of irrelevant educational systems that still go unanswered — like a drum break heard on a loop.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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