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These YouTube twins went viral listening to ‘In the Air Tonight.’ One brother explains

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Tim Williams and his twin brother, Fred, have rocketed to internet celebrity over the last few weeks thanks to that most modern of cultural artifacts: the reaction video, in which the comedy or drama of someone’s first encounter with a piece of art becomes itself a piece of art available to be encountered by someone else.

In their most talked-about clip, which has been viewed more than 4.9 million times since they posted it on YouTube in late July, the Williams brothers listen intently to Phil Collins’ eerie 1981 hitIn the Air Tonight.”

How could they, at age 22, have missed this undeniable (and oft-sampled) pop classic?

“I think we were late bloomers of everything,” Tim said in a phone interview this week. “That’s why we didn’t hear none of this music.”

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In the video, he and Fred are sitting in Tim’s bedroom in their mother’s house in Gary, Ind.; a 2Pac poster hangs on a wall behind them, while between them looms a graphic of Collins’ stony visage as pictured on the cover of the singer’s “Face Value” album.

“He look like he staring into my soul,” Fred says. “I’m scared — I can’t look at him.”

The emotional payoff comes when the two flip out at the sound of Collins’ famously slow-to-arrive drum fill. Both brothers are knocked back in their swivel chairs; Tim turns to Fred in disbelief, as though he needs to confirm that his brother heard what he just heard. “I ain’t never seen nobody drop a beat three minutes in a song,” Fred says, but part of what’s magical about the video is that you, the viewer, have seen someone do that — this exact someone, in fact.

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To watch the Williams twins experience the surprise you know Collins has in store — and then to watch it again (and again), because they’re so insanely charming — is to feel the past, present and future all jostling for space in the same moment.

As guileless as the brothers appear in the video, they understand the complex layering of expectations that made it go viral. But you wouldn’t say that’s what was on Tim’s mind when we spoke; what he was thinking about then was the much more mundane problem of the weather.

A “big, bad storm” had knocked out power to tens of thousands of people in northwestern Indiana, Tim said, which meant that he and Fred were unable to make more reaction videos just as the world had turned its attention to them.

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“Don’t know when it’s gonna be back on,” Tim said, a bit glumly.

Fortunately for the Williamses, they’ve got an impressive backlog to keep their new fans amused: On their YouTube channel, TwinsthenewTrend — which Tim said grew from 50,000 subscribers to more than 400,000 in less than a month — the brothers offer their first-listen analysis of dozens of songs, including the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun,” Aerosmith’s “Dream On” and “Jolene” by Dolly Parton, whose official Twitter account shouted out the Williamses last week.

“No point in begging,” the tweet read. “Jolene already stole these two.”

Each of the videos — the “Jolene” clip has more than 3 million views — showcases the same warmth and curiosity that propelled “In the Air Tonight” to trending-topic ubiquity. (Downloads for Collins’ original increased by more than 1,500% in the video’s wake, according to Billboard.) If you know the classics they’re reacting to, you watch to have some of your assumptions confirmed. But you also hear new things through the ears of the brothers.

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Have you ever stopped to consider, as they do, how crucial “Jolene’s” zippy tempo is to its sense of desperation?

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A longtime fan of YouTube vloggers and pranksters such as Casey Neistat and Omi in a Hellcat, Tim said he and his brother — Fred is older by 75 minutes — started doing reaction videos about a year ago as a way to express their love of music. But though they began with hip-hop songs, they quickly realized that doing older tunes from other genres would help them stand out on the increasingly crowded platform.

“The norm, they just follow the trend and listen to whatever everybody else listen to,” he said. “And old music before I was born, it’s actually good, if you pay attention to it, because back then, you really had to use your voice and sing without AutoTune and everything.

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“Nowadays, you got computers and all to do that.”

The brothers, whose grandfather was a pastor with his own church in Gary, grew up listening mostly to gospel music. (They have an older sister, who’s 24, and a younger brother, who’s 17; their mom, Tiffany, works for an Indiana healthcare provider.) Because of their family background, they didn’t discover the titans of 1990s and 2000s rap — 2Pac, 50 Cent, the Notorious B.I.G., Lil Wayne — until they were teenagers.

“But we never took the time to listen to old R&B, like Luther Vandross,” Tim said. “I don’t even know who that is.”

They choose songs based on recommendations that come in on Instagram and Patreon and, of course, in the YouTube comments section. So do the videos truly capture their first time hearing the songs?

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“Yes, for sure,” Tim said.

And do they ever do a second take? Maybe sharpen a funny comment from their first go-through?

“We just do it the first time.”

Of the reaction to their reactions, Tim said, “It’s been crazy,” and added that he’s been fielding calls from TV shows and “people hitting us up for deals or people who just want to send us stuff.” He added that he and Fred have been approached to create their own show, though he was unclear for now what that might look like — “just probably doing it how we doing, but switching it up, something like that,” he said.

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Then again, he added, graduating from YouTube doesn’t necessarily feel like the goal. “This is my dream job,” he said. “I want to do YouTube forever.” At the moment, he’s attending to TwinsthenewTrend full time; the brothers even have merch for sale, including a hoodie that sells online for $47.99. (Fred is still working his day job as a barber — and, yes, he cuts his brother’s hair.)

Asked if they’ve traveled yet to the showbiz capitals of New York and Los Angeles, Tim said he had no interest in getting on an airplane during the COVID-19 pandemic that, not incidentally, has helped create a captive audience for his videos.

“When corona over, we’ll most definitely go,” he said. “But we just been here in Indiana.”


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