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Opinion | Inside YouTube’s secret time machine

  • YouTube is infamous for its vile, politically polarizing rabbit-holes
  • But for a while now, I have noticed a particular ritual in this barbaric place that has won my heart

Still here in 2019? Céline Dion performing this year. Getty Images
Still here in 2019? Céline Dion performing this year. Getty Images

I am playing a new song loudly for the third time in a row. A friend asks, prompted perhaps by the baffled expression on my face, “Who is this teenage boy you are listening to?" The teenage boy is the 51-year-old mega chanteuse Céline Dion singing Perfect Goodbye.

I listened to Dion’s new album, Courage, feeling continuously baffled. She doesn’t just sound like a whole new person, she sounds like a whole new dozen people, all of them fashionable and all of them practising intermittent fasting. The person who is singing Look At Us Now seems a world removed from the person singing Lovers Never Die, and a whole interstellar fleet away from the 1997 hit My Heart Will Go On (the second best-selling single by a female artist in history). This reinvented Dion has had the side effect of accentuating my addiction to the last goofy corner of the internet.

YouTube is infamous for its vile, politically polarizing rabbit-holes, but for a while now I have noticed a particular ritual in this barbaric place that has won my heart. It goes like this. Pick a song that you listened to a year ago, five years ago or even 20 years ago. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t born 20 years ago. Just pick a song that can be classified as “old". The comments section will inevitably include someone asking, “Who is still here in November 2019?" And as you scroll down, you will find a call-and-response of people marking their re-entry into the magical forest of that one song that destroys you. “Still here in June 2017?" “Still here in May 2012?" Still here? Still here?

Recently, I met a young woman I used to know when she was 12. As soon as I saw her blissed-out smile, I flashed back to a November evening when her mother was giggling at the 12-year-old who had discovered the then sensational new singer Rabbi Shergill. She was playing his music all day long. “Side A. Side B. Side A. Side B," her mother complained, pretending to be annoyed but actually delighted.

The news that U2 is coming to India reminded me of listening to tapes. The year 2002 was a whole year of listening to All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Listening to it every day and nothing else in Pune, in Bengaluru, in Delhi, in Wayanad, in trains, in buses, in bed and everywhere on a Walkman, the portable cassette player that turned 40 this year. But I don’t miss tapes at all. Playing the same songs over and over again? That has not changed. Something about becoming a certain kind of music fan takes you to a stage of wanting constant repetition, like children who want the same book, the same cartoon, the same food every day. This is not a dedication that demands variety, but one that is satisfied each time as if the song is being enjoyed for the very first time.

“Still here in 2019?" someone asks knowingly below Estelle’s 2009 hit American Boy, featuring a Kanye West you could giggle at. 2009 was a time for listening over and over and over again to Estelle, to Amy Winehouse, to the soundtracks of Dev. D, Gulaal, to Duffy, Kings of Leon and M.I.A.

Still here. I have been listening to one set of songs by the deeply satisfying music composer Santhosh Narayanan for almost a year. I listen to other things and keep coming back to his songs. Then this month I stumbled on to a recording of the Carnatic musician Sanjay Subrahmanyan singing Thunbam Nergayil and fell hopelessly in love. I have watched him sing Thunbam Nergayil every day for some weeks. And it is with this new infatuation that I truly fell in with the strange time-machine crowd on YouTube.

Vast musical worlds sit side by side on YouTube—Etta James next to Baby Shark, The Ditty Bops next to my favourite Malayalam song Alliyambal Kadavil (from the 1965 movie Rosie). And because of this shattering egalitarianism, it’s not just Dion who reinvents herself, it’s also the fan who becomes a constant, high-speed phoenix. Every week someone who only knows Leonardo DiCaprio as a middle-aged dude, discovers Dion for the first time, is struck by her magical campness and prepares the world for a 2019 where a Dion album goes to No.1 for the first time in 17 years.

The time machine is a remarkable place of fandom. Because it’s snark-free. And mostly because it is stuck on one thought. As if we are high, we just can’t get over the fact that time is an arrow and time is a cycle. Or as the U2 song goes: I’m still standing, I’m still standing/ Where you left me/ Are you still growing wild/ With everything tame around you?

Having said this, I have to admit that if you go looking for a fight, you can always find one. I found one brawl and almost joined in. A curmudgeonly type said Sanjay Subrahmanyan should restrain himself to singing and “not dance about so much. An occasional headshake would do, no need to move his shoulders so much" and so on. I was enraged. I wanted to say, how dare you say any such thing about those shoulders that I love. I typed it out and deleted it. Just as I have typed out Google searches to learn more about other recent musical crushes and then deleted them. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to tell. I just want to be here. We are still here in 2019, ready for side A, side B, side A, side B.

Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.


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