Speculative Saturdays: The Distinct Adolescent Melancholy of YouTube Edits
Written by Duncan Holzhall
I am willing to admit that I spend a lot of time watching YouTube. Many of my close friends tease me for the amount of time I spend streaming fitness, comedy, and music content on the app. Whether over a bowl of oatmeal in the morning or winding down before bed, I would say that I spend a solid two hours a day perusing YouTube. With the help of one of the best video recommendation algorithms available, I tend to find some new content everyday that catches my attention. Over the weekend, I saw a video entitled “ d y i n g a l o n e “ under a static-laden image of Bojack Horseman. The video itself was scored by a lo-fi hip hop beat, interspersed with visuals and dialogue from the show. It captured a feeling of ennui that I have seen in other manifestations on the app, a feeling that is insular to the YouTube atmosphere. Without further ado, here is a brief history of youthful melancholy on YouTube, its origins, and how it could evolve.
The Bojack Horseman example serves as a good template for the main elements of sad YouTube edits. First, there is the musical element. Lo-fi hip hop has a storied history on the platform, with the ChilledCow livestream of beats to relax/study to gaining notoriety for its ambient atmosphere, garnering thousands of viewers at any given time. The soft lull of the beat does not fight to be at the forefront of your attention, but rather decorating your atmosphere subconsciously. Just as important to the video is the visual accompaniment to the music. Filtered through distortion and color saturation, the clips from the show highlight snippets of dialogue centered on Bojack’s battle with existentialism. The theme of grappling with a sad existence despite enormous privilege is explored throughout the show, delivered through a darkly comedic lens. This specific brand of “Weltschmerz” (world-weariness) is elevated by the visual effects and soundtrack to recontextualize the material in a unique way.
Recontextualization is central to capturing the youthful melancholy of YouTube, and no phenomenon better highlights this than Simpsonwave. The building blocks of the genre are not dissimilar to the Bojack example: visual element and musical element. Simpsonwave sources its name from the consolidation of these two elements, The Simpsons for the visuals and vaporwave for the music. Many of the images for Simpsonwave videos come from the late 90s to early 00s, considered the “golden age” of the sitcom. For viewers now who were born just as these episodes were airing, these clips capture a feeling of nostalgia, nostalgia which is amplified through the filtration of VHS tape crackles and interference. As for the musical element, the sounds of vaporwave are steeped heavily in nostalgia. Whether 80s synths, muzak saxophones, or drum machines, the genre is a collage of vintage sounds that is simultaneously modern and out-of-date. The combination of this music with episodes of The Simpsons encapsulates an awareness of time gone by.
While the above examples are recontextualized in an additive fashion (combining elements and adding filters), two prominent examples of YouTube ennui recontextualize songs in a manipulative fashion, intentionally changing the genetic fabric of the music. One of these movements is the now-infamous “slowed + reverb” genre. True to the name, songs in this realm are physically slowed and washed out in reverb. Unlike the previous examples we’ve discussed, the styles of music covered are far wider, ranging from trap and electropop to R&B and indie. Additionally, there is an interest within “slowed + reverb” to feature artists who have passed away, with some of the most popular tributaries being Juice WRLD, Lil Peep, and XXXTentacion. These songs are superimposed with calming animated visuals, roses falling or a midnight drive on an abandoned highway. The calming effect of the slower tempo, the warm stereo atmosphere of the reverb, the hypnotic looping of the animation, and the memory of artists who may have passed blend into a pastiche of youthful melancholia.
Another manipulative recontextualization of music is the _______ but you’re _______ movement. This movement originally started with Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” but has since branched off into several other songs. With these songs, the audio of the track is manipulated to emulate a specific setting, as well as the emotional stakes of such a setting. Popular examples of Redbone include crying in the bathroom (low-pass filter and added crowd noise/sobbing), sinking at the pool party (low-pass filter, added crowd noise, and water ambience), and having too much lean (psychedelic alterations to the audio). YouTube clips in this genre serve to allow younger high-school/college audiences to live vicariously through the clip, engaging with a feeling through nostalgia or surrogacy.
Why is this movement so prevalent on YouTube, and how will it evolve? According to a 2018 Pew study, 85% of American teenagers reported using YouTube, a percentage of the demographic that is higher than Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook. With such a high percentage of representation, their taste and interest will undoubtedly influence the content on the platform. Emotional vulnerability is on the rise in younger generations, with the APA reporting that Gen Z people are more likely to report mental health concerns. Additionally, younger generations are more likely now to be vocal and open about their emotions, allowing others to provide emotional support. Finally, puberty causes emotions and moods to be more frequent and intense than in childhood or adulthood. Combine the intensity of potentially negative emotions with emotional vulnerability and social media engagement, and you have a population likely to indulge in content that resonates with these emotions.
It is unlikely that sad YouTube edits will come to an end anytime soon. The concept has progressed through multiple mutations already, each capturing the same general feelings with fine-tuned nuances between the movements. There will likely be a cultural shift that sparks a new generation of nostalgia, such as the potential ten years down the line to encounter tearful Adventure Time edits. It is also unlikely that this phenomenon will venture away from YouTube. The movement has been around long enough that, if there was a sufficient demand outside of YouTube for this content, it would have been met. There is also a critical visual element to these videos that would be missing on other digital platforms. Overall, sad YouTube edits have such a strong association with the YouTube environment that they will prosper for a long time on the platform.
If you or someone you know is suicidal or in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255. Trained crisis workers are available to talk 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.