In this longform personal essay, I talk about how finding YouTube reaction videos has helped me heal my angsty preteen within! I mean, that is a hilarious sentence as it is, but stick with me! I write about being a Tool fan and how connecting virtually with other Black fans of their music has been a clarifying and soothing way to send love to past lifetimes and allow my own weirdness to let itself shine and thrive. Even if you’re not a Tool fan, this essay helps shed some light on the interdimensionality of our experiences, and on how joyful moments in the present can heal our wounds from our past. Use this piece as a way to connect with your own sensory experiences and emotional sensitivities of your youth and let your inner child know that you are coming back home to care for them! Read on for this essay after the jump!
Like many people, music was a lifeline for me growing up. As a young black weirdo kid in the late 90s and 2000s, I floated between worlds, never quite fitting in to one group or paradigm or style. I remember discovering the local rock station in Chicago, Q101 when I was in 6th or 7th grade, around 11 years old. I was on punishment for something and couldn’t watch TV or play video games that week, so I turned on the radio and started searching for a new station and new music to get into. I already knew the pop, R&B, and hip hop stations well - b96, 107.5, 106.3 were part of my cultural and musical vernacular from a young age. Thanks to my parents, I was well-versed in the oldies and smooth jazz stations too, v103 and 95.5. But this time, I was looking for something different, edgier, not like what I already knew.
I don’t remember what I was in trouble for - whatever it was I am sure it was minor in the grand scheme of things. Maybe I got caught in a fib or white lie about something; at the time I was an extremely well-behaved kid that hated and feared getting in trouble so I mostly avoided scenarios that would involve me getting negative attention in any way. But I know that day I was angry, annoyed, and tired of not feeling heard or seen and just wanting something to shake things up in my life. I remember deliberately turning through the FM radio dial on my stereo in my bedroom because I didn’t know what stations were the rock ones. I recall getting stuck on some station playing music along the lines of the band Train or something and thinking maybe that was it but then quickly realized that wasn’t the edgy kind of shit I was looking for. I don’t remember what song or band it was I heard that made me stop on 101.1 FM, but once I figured out that this was the alternative station, I was so excited. I kept coming back to listen to Q101, night after night, until I knew all the DJs and their styles and usual rotations. I was so obsessed with it, I listened to it literally every day for years, and I would even call in regularly to request songs. It was during this time that I first heard Tool, the award winning prog art metal band that rose to fame in the 90s and 200s for their simultaneously raw, complex, and psychedelic style of music. I remember hearing the opening strums of the dangly and menacing bass riff of their 1993 song “Sober” and being instantly hooked. They quickly become my favorite band and source of adolescent research and fascination.
I could go on and on about Tool and the importance of their music to me. I often tell folks that their work is basically the closest thing I have to gospel or devotional music, their discography ranging from early smart-ass albums of screaming anger and frustration with the world’s hypocrisy, corruption, and foolishness, to their subsequent spiritually centered records about soul evolution, sacred geometry, mourning, expansion, and Oneness. Tool’s music continues to be a light for me even today, both a comfort and a call to action, a reminder of the complexity and delicacy of our emotional and spiritual experiences on this earth.
The one thing that I do remember the most from that time was not only how much I loved them but also the awareness that people who looked like me, with backgrounds like mine, did not typically listen to this kind of music. I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago. Until I reached a certain age, pretty much everyone I knew was Black, and in junior high at my Hyde Park Catholic school, all the kids there listened to R&B, hip hop, and pop. I got made fun of a lot for being strange and for the stuff that I was into, books and depression and obscure bands. Typical story of being a nerdy Black kid, honestly, taken personally and to an extreme because of my emotional sensitivity, delicate psychic constitution, and overidentification with the art I consumed. But I also knew that Tool was an especially weird band for a particular kind of weird person, a band with off-putting and obscure awkwardness and jokes mixed in with biting, seething commentary on conformity, vanity, and bro culture. They were a group that weren’t afraid of making you feel uncomfortable or question your reality, and even though, as an earnest and impressionable young kid, I didn’t always get the joke, I did always admire their willingness to make it.
Though my active interest in the band has waxed and waned over time, especially in the last 13 years or so, I still consider Tool my de facto favorite. There is no one out there quite like them, and in junior high and high school, I was absolutely obsessed. I know they will always be there as a source of pleasure, connection, and reflection for me. It is incredible to me how their music can still hit as good as when I was an 11 year old buying their albums at the mall, sneaking the CDs in the house so I could rush to my room and tear off the parental advisory sticker on the jewel case before my parents could see. Lately, I’ve been super into them again. It’s great music for driving and road trips; their songs are long and winding, with frequently changing time signatures, otherworldly rhythm arrangements, and powerful emotional hits and tangles. In other words, it keeps you active and engaged and awake, and since I know their music so well, it helps energize and enthuse me when I’m driving on the interstate, singing along with every word and intonation.
One night last week, after watching some old bootleg concert videos of the band, I came across a genre of YouTube video that is basically “people reacting to listening to Tool for the first time”. This genre includes a mostly unspoken subset of this style of video that can be summed up as, “okay, specifically BLACK people reacting to listening to Tool for the first time”. There are dozens of these videos, some with tens of thousands of views, from a range of Black music YouTubers, recording producers, metal fans, hip hop and skateboard heads, a mother/daughter team, and other wayward nerds and weirdos. My people.
Before I knew it, it was 5am, and I was out of breath from dancing and headbanging, beaming with joy at my computer screen as I listened and rocked along to Tool with these folks as they heard the band’s songs for the first time, their minds getting blown and third eyes getting cracked open. It felt like sharing and listening to music with friends, me laughing and nodding along to their genuine and expressive reactions to Tool's expansive and winding songs. Like, "yeah, you see, you get it, isn’t this shit crazy??” I felt so present with my inner child in these moments, the awkward preteen who could not wait for school to be out so I could get on the school bus, pop on my headphones, and listen to their CDs on my Walkman on the long trip to my grandmother’s house. This version of me who so wanted to fit in, but also felt isolated from my peers around me, so I decided to get lost in the world of angry white men and their emotional turmoil, somehow still finding a connection there, their sense of frustration and rage mirroring my own as I navigated a world hostile to thoughtful Black kids, especially Black womxn.
I love the facial expressions of these folks as they too hear a note or inflection that makes me go “mnh!” with my whole chest, as evidenced by the countenance of the mother/daughter duo listening to the lead singer Maynard James Keenan screech out “ganja, puh-LEASE!” like a fed-up ancestor in the song “The Pot”. What 11 year old me would have given to meet and befriend another Black girl who connected with this music the way I have! I highly recommend watching ScribeCash's reaction video to their epic and sprawling song “Third Eye” (embedded below), because it’s simultaneously so funny and relatable - her body trembles and eyes widen, as she gasps and grins and air guitars all the way through it. I can see myself in her, she feels like a cousin or a neighbor friend. I am so grateful that I get to share these moments with my inner child today, like “hey look, there are people like you out there who connect with this too. you aren’t alone. you aren’t crazy. isn’t it cool how we can share in this together, even if it’s just a virtual or emotional connection?”
The closest I got to the feelings I get when watching these YouTube videos was in the fall of 2002, when Tool played at the United Center in Chicago my sophomore year of high school. It was my first time seeing them and I was so excited. I had my outfit all planned out - big wide JNCO-style jeans with platform sneakers, paired with a simple black shirt and my uncle’s Army vest from when he fought in the Vietnam War that my dad generously but cautiously let me borrow, the name WALSTON stitched onto the front pocket. I went to the show with my friends Rachel and Eric. I befriended Rachel after seeing her wearing a Tool shirt the first week of our freshmen year at our stuffy, low key conservative leaning prep school in Chicago’s Gold Coast. The next day I made sure I sat next to her in our Humanities class so I could “casually" show off the Tool sticker on my notebook. We have been best friends ever since! Eric was another weirdo Black kid (and fellow Scorpio!) who I had known since 6th grade. He didn’t always feel totally comfortable allowing himself to be as visibly weird as I let myself be. Eric would hold it in, hide it, dial it back, whisper it, but rarely fully allow himself to live and express it.
I cannot for the life of me remember how I convinced Eric to go to this show with me and Rach. I think that it was the only way my mom would let me go to the concert without my parents being there; I suppose she felt better because at least there would be a Black male around, in case something went down? Fair enough, I suppose - I was young still, a couple months shy of my 15th birthday and he was a tall dude, a year older than Rachel and me, but could pass for more mature in a pinch. I don’t even remember if Eric had listened to them before, but I assume I must have tried to play their songs for him at some point. For the most part he stood during the show, politely bobbing and nodding his head throughout. But there were moments, when he thought I wasn’t looking, when I would see out the corner of my eye, him rocking the fuck out next to me, head banging, stomping his feet, and throwing up the horns. As soon as I would turn around and look straight at him, he would stop. Though I was disappointed at the time, because I so wanted to connect with him over the band (he later acted extremely nonchalant about how much he enjoyed the show), I do understand that feeling, his need to hide his enjoyment. That it’s safe to like this shit when no one knows you’re doing it (like me listening to them mostly through headphones or behind my closed bedroom doors). But to be seen and heard enjoying it felt dangerous too. Like, what kind of path am I heading on here? What does this say about me that I identify with or am moved by this music? What am I unearthing with these strange white men?
Somehow I brought these two together and here we all were, just three teenagers at an arena show, surrounded by metal bros with long hair and major chips on the shoulders, watching a small dude covered in blue paint wearing nothing but thong underwear sing about Saturn returns, sacred geometry, posers, and dick jokes alike. What a fucking timeline.
It is fitting, too, that Tool’s music is perfectly suited for my practice of working with and validating my inner child. Throughout many of their songs, Maynard James Keenan references inner child healing, but it is most explicit in the song “Jimmy”, a track about the traumatic experience of 11 year old Keenan (then going by the names James/Jimmy) witnessing his mother’s aneurysm that would leave her paralyzed for the rest of her life. Noting the compassion, patience, and presence it takes to do the work of healing the inner child and speaking to the Divine power of master number 11, Maynard sings to his grieving younger self as he yearns to connect and grow with him:
Hold your light, Eleven
Lead me through each gentle step, by step
By inch by loaded memory
I’ll move to heal
As soon as pain allows
So we can reunite
And both move on together
Hold your light, Eleven
Lead me through each gentle step, by step
By inch by loaded memory until
One and one are One, Eleven
So glow, child, glow
I'm heading back home!
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Alia Walston is a traveling writer and intuitive making connections between the challenges and ecstasies of our evolution