Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Producers in Focus: Todd Nathanson (Todd in the Shadows)

            It’s such a simple idea, perfect for an amateur starting out with nothing more than an idea and a camera- sit in total darkness, save for just one well-placed lamp to highlight your silhouette, set up the camera and mic, and just talk. It’s so basic it’s something of a wonder that no thought of it before Todd did.  In that sense, the trajectory of his internet career perfectly encapsulates the Wild West nature of the early Web, where whoever happened to try out a particular gimmick first then had that niche effectively cornered forever. 

            It’s also an extremely durable style that, location changes and the occasional camera upgrade aside, Todd has not had to alter at all since he began his videos in the Fall of 2010, and he, or rather, his shadow, has remained a constant presence providing regular, sharp, on-point music commentary ever since.    

            It wasn’t too long before he started out on Youtube that Todd was invited to join the TGWTG team, and by 2011 he had already established himself as one of the site’s heavy hitters.  He had a particularly close working relationship with Lindsay Ellis (aka Nostalgia Chick) and Allison Pregler (Obscurus Lupa); the three would make frequent cameos in each other’s videos, and at one point even created a particularly tortured love triangle between their respective personas in the year leading up to To Boldly Flee (and say what you will about the film as a whole, the reveal of Todd’s “face” was one of its most inspired moments).  His videos remained a major part of the website until March of this year, when, right when #ChangeTheChannel started to really heat up, he became one of the first to publicly break with the site, and was soon followed by, well, everyone. 

            The span of his pop song reviews, which make up the bulk of his work, serve as a remarkable glimpse at how trends, figures, and styles in the American pop scene have shifted over the past decade.  His early videography is dominated by Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Black Eyed Peas, and Kesha, among others, but they no longer define the pop charts the way they did at the turn of the decade.  Train forced its way onto his radar for a few years with a series of hideous number ones, but has since faded.  Sadly, Taylor Swift, Maroon Five, Chris Brown, and Justin Bieber have continued to be regular (and necessary) targets of his ire. 

            For a number of years now, though, he’s also worked to expand the sort of work he does.  In “Cinemadonna,” he went through each and every film appearance of Madonna in her efforts to establish herself as acting as well as a musical threat (spoiler- she didn’t).  He’s released a small number of videos under the title “Trainwreckords,” about particularly disastrous albums released by major musicians.  My favorites, though, are his “One Hit Wonderland” videos, where he examines a wide variety of one-hit wonders from musical history and provides a remarkably comprehensive look at the origins and eventual fates (some good, some not) of musicians that, for one reason or another, were able to streak across popular culture and make a mark for a brief moment before fading from public view. 

            His style and tone has also altered little- his style has always been quieter, more subtle, and effortlessly self-effacing, eschewing the theatrics more typical of his contemporaries.  That noticeable difference may be a key to what made him stand out early on and allow him to build his own fanbase.  Plus, the fact that he has consistently stayed “in the shadows,” resorting to an eye-covering mask when forced to appear in harsh daylight, has allowed him to retain a certain anonymity increasingly rare in our digital world.  For his sake, I hope it stays that way as best as it possibly can.  I have no doubt there exists a whole cottage industry devoted to “spotting Todd,” but I intend to remain perfectly ignorant of it for as long as I live.   

            Movies and video games were early and easy targets during the rise of internet criticism, but Todd was one of the first to realize the untapped potential in being a video music critic, and his establishing of himself in this field makes him as important and as influential an entrepreneur in the world of online video as anyone.  His videos are fun, funny, and are never less than immensely informative.  Here is a shortlist of my favorites (thus far). 

All His Top Ten Best/Worst Pop Songs

            The links above are for his latest Top Tens for 2017, but all of them are amazing time capsules worth your time, as they consistently rank among his best and most entertaining works. 

The One-Hit Wonders

            Here, again, all of these videos are worth your time, and are on such an equal plane I feel it would be unfair to pick out the “best,” but for the record, the ones that, for one reason or another, have the most personal meaning for me are 500 Miles, Who Let The Dogs Out, Float On, and Safety Dance. 

Todd’s Pop Song Reviews

            There are SO MANY of these at this point, all of them are solid, most are great enough to merit repeat viewing, and given vagaries of taste and humor style there’s no way one person could categorically list the “best,” but here are a few that have remained all-time favorites of mine-

Firework vs. Born This Way

            One of his earliest videos, this contains some of his best examinations of the dual careers of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, especially since I always felt both these songs were a bit overrated at the time.  It’s hilarious to watch it now and think over just how radically different the trajectories their respective careers have since taken. 

Turn Up The Music

            Despite the best efforts of the entire Republican Party, Chris Brown remains at the top of the list of the most vile human walking the face of the earth, and in one of his first videos directly dealing with him, Todd breaks down as best as anyone can why. 

Talk Dirty AND Wiggle

            I actually had to sing an early Jason Derulo hit with my college acapella group way back when, so when he reappeared on the pop charts with these two songs, both of which are particularly heinous examples of “bro” music, Todd’s takedowns were especially needed to help me rebuild my faith in humanity.    

The Time/Dirty Bit

            One of the biggest drivers in Todd’s early videos was the rage induced in him by the worst of what the Black Eyed Peas were putting out at the time, and this video, right when the group was finally falling apart, is where it all comes to a head. 

Look What You Made Me Do

            The last Taylor Swift single I was able to stand, and actually liked, was “Mine.”  Since then it’s been all downhill.  Todd has a somewhat more mixed opinion, and has argued in favor of a number of her lesser hits from recent years, which I can get, but the bad Taylor stuff has been really, really bad.  All of Todd’s videos of her work are well worth watching, but my favorite remains last year’s examination of, arguably, her worst one yet. 

            Are there any former TGWTG/CA producers you’ve been missing and what to get caught up on?  Then check out and follow the Unawesomes page on Twitter.  Let’s make the internet economy of tomorrow a better, more equitable place, starting now. 

-Noah Franc

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