It was predictable that YouTube—surely the most prolific engine humanity has ever devised for the recycling, recombining, tributing, and parodying chunks of culture—would soon itself be harvested to produce standalone works of art. I first saw it happen in 2008 with Toronto artist Margaux Williamson’s Dancing to The End of Poverty. By now, YouTube-based installations by artists such as Cory Arcangel or Lebanon’s Akram Zaatari have become gallery commonplaces.
But these are works drawn from the virtuous part of YouTube, its ongoing, creative visual bonanza. They do not dare trifle with the evil side of YouTube: the comments sections.
Everyone knows that unmoderated comments sections are generally toxic dumps that you’d best not wade into unless you want your belief in humanity irradiated into dust. But YouTube comment sections are especially vile, crackling with pent-up rage and degenerating almost instantly into volleys of racist, sexist, and homophobic invective no matter how milquetoast the original video may be. It’s one of the most anti-social of social media sites.
This is largely because YouTube commenting—unlike the kind of ideologically driven misanthropy that news sites attract—is a pastime of adolescence. YouTube belongs to all of us (and is yet another way we all belong to Google) but it is a greater fixation for teenagers: It was over a year ago that a Nielsen study confirmed that American teens were doing most of their music listening there, a fact that made radio tremble and motivated Billboard to recalibrate the way it draws up charts.
It’s helped produce a new golden age of novelty-song hits by Psy and Ylvis and Macklemore, which is one of the many ways that these days recall past transitional pop periods such as the late 1950s or the turn of the 1990s. But it has also seeded the comment-section atrocity fields.
Recently, however, a couple of hardy salvage artists have entered those forbidden zones to unearth what can be reclaimed. First came Montreal writer and filmmaker Mark Slutsky, who created the Tumblr site Sad YouTube about a year ago, starting with a post drawn from the comments on sappy U.K. songwriter James Blunt’s almost unbearably lachrymose 2005 European hit, “Goodbye My Lover”:
R.I.P Harris, we only knew each other for like 2 months, but you were the sickest guy i’ve meet in a while… We weren’t lovers, but now your 6 feet under and i missed your funeral.. sorry bud… ill dedicate some of this life out to you, ….. truth is i feel so helpless, just wating to die.. i wish there was something i could do to change my life..
Harrowing, yes, but not as bleak as the latest Sad YouTube find, posted Monday:
Brought me back to a time where I wish life could’ve stood still & never went forward. I was 13 & in one more year, my sister would be murdered & my life torn apart.
The improbable madeleine that evoked that memory? Exile’s randy 1978 stadium-rock creepy-crawler “I Wanna Kiss You All Over.”
Sad YouTube is full of such juxtapositions, though not all so devastating—many are gentle, bittersweet recollections of parents and grandparents, of lost loves, of coming back from Vietnam or Iraq, and much more. Then there are uniquely touching accounts such as this comment on the relatively obscure 1980s hi-NRG club anthem “Take a Chance on Me” (not the ABBA song):
My parents are staying with us this week. Mom walked into my study when I started playing this. She just stood there with her eyes closed, and tears running down her face. She hasn’t heard this song since she and my Dad were dancing at The Saint, a mostly Gay club in Manhattan, in the Eighties. For a moment she was back there, with so many friends who died in the epidemic not long after. ‘For a minute, it’s like I was actually there, and they were all still alive.’ Thanks for posting this!
On a first encounter it’s tricky to gauge the tone of Sad YouTube, to tell whether, like so much of the Internet, its typos-and-all excerpts offer cheap laughs at other people’s misery. Fortunately, Slutsky has put up a page explaining his intentions and mounting a defense of the “much-maligned” genre of YouTube commentary: “Among the usual hate speech and Obama conspiracy theories, you can find these amazing nuggets of humanity—heartbreaking moments from people’s lives recalled by an old favourite song, stories of love and loss, perfectly crystallized moments of nostalgia and saudade. … I almost feel like you could write a Studs Terkel oral history of America culled entirely from YouTube comments on pop songs.”
Perhaps so, but you also could argue that Slutsky’s act of culling is paring away something essential to YouTube and even to America: the contentious, clashing, collaborative chaos. Baltimore artist and writer Stephanie Barber goes out of her way to preserve all that in her book Night Moves, published earlier this year: It’s a 75-page transcription of the YouTube comments on a single video, the one for the Bob Seger 1976 FM classic “Night Moves.”