Is it ASMR? Well, not quite. But Eilish’s spindly take on pop production has a spine-tingling appeal all of its own
Both oh-so-2019 products of the internet, the respective rises of tingle-sensation du jour ASMR and pop prodigy Billie Eilish have run parallel to each other. On paper, they’re chalk and cheese – one’s a delicate, static-y sensation evoked by certain, mostly-intimate sounds; the other’s an LA-based, always online, loud-as-you-like pop personality for the YouTuber generation. And yet, comparisons abound.
It’s not just the fact that they found fame online which links Eilish and ASMR. The production on ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’, the debut album from Eilish, has drawn comparisons to the ASMR-inducing videos that, too, flood YouTube. Clicks, scratches, and breathy vocal sounds – but, crucially, not words themselves – are what powers these videos, which attempt to induce the comforting sensations of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. What’s that entail, you ask? “I like to compare it to a feeling you get when you’re having a massage and it feels so nice you can feel a tingle in your head,” explains ASMR enthusiast (and Billie stan) Daria Gerasimova. “”It’s the same but without any physical contact.”
The same sounds form the backbone of Eilish’s production. Her brother Finneas O’Connell, who helms production duties for the singer-songwriter, strips things back to an almost industrial level, which, when combined with Billie’s breathy, horror-movie vocal, lends tracks like ‘Bad Guy’ a tingling feeling. It’s a captivating challenge to a pop world that’s been obsessed with sheen for far too long – a gloomy, intimate, shivery sound from a pop star this supernova doesn’t come along all too often.
It’s these similarities which have led people to question whether Eilish’s music can be rightly considered ASMR-inducing itself. One YouTuber has gone as far as recreating the whole of ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’ in ASMR-form, using her hands and a pair of hypersensitive microphones to recreate the whole record with astonishing accuracy. It’s garnered millions of views. A Pitchfork article soon revealed that that video was, in fact, commissioned by her label Polydor, suggesting that there’s big marketing bucks in the worlds of ASMR.
Daria seems to agree, speaking of a level of “hype” that ASMR has become burdened with, “I’m not a fan of how it’s being twisted these days as a sexual thing – there are Pornhub accounts that do ‘sexy’ ASMR like moaning into a binaural mic – or as an advertising gimmick – check out the Nissan partnership with an ASMR YouTuber for one of the earlier examples – but I guess now that it’s more in the mainstream, people are trying to capitalise on the ‘hype’.”
How does all this tie to Eilish, though? Well, if her label are commissioning ASMR tributes, that hype’s clearly hit the music industry. But can it reasonably be considered ASMR itself? Not quite.
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“I really like her music and ‘Bury A Friend’ is a banger, but I don’t get ASMR from music,” explains Daria. For all its creaking, delicate sounds and whispery vocals, the production behind Billie’s bangers is simply too maximalist to count. “My theory is that ASMR has to be fairly quiet and have a certain cadence, and music just doesn’t tick those boxes.” What’s more, while it might feel delicate, some of the processes behind that music were anything but: “I also watched an interview with Billie about the production of Bury A Friend the other day, and they sampled stuff like dentist drills. Knowing that is definitely not relaxing.”
Around 18 months ago, an influx of artists claiming to experience synaesthesia flooded the music press. That particular condition, which sees suffers picture sound visually, usually through flashes of colour in their field of vision, became the go-to soundbite for musicians and music fans alike, everyone and their uncle clamouring to claim they had the totally un-provable condition as some sort of badge of authenticity. It seems ASMR is suffering a similar fate – a victim of its own trendiness, those claiming to get ASMR from Billie Eilish’s music are probably exaggerating, possibly for cool points. More innocently, they’re probably just enjoying it. That’s quite alright, too – it just doesn’t need a fancy, scientific-sounding name.
“Thing is, ASMR, despite its very fancy sounding name, is still just a theory,” says Daria. “There is research being done but it hasn’t been officially classified or proven. I doubt there is any funding to put people with ASMR into MRI machines and see what goes on in their brains, so at the moment, it’s all purely theoretical.”
If Eilish can shine more light on ASMR, though, it might yet yield some positivity, offers Daria. “In my case, I watch it purely to chill out and get the ‘brain tingles’, but some people watch ASMR because of their insomnia, anxiety or PTSD. And for some people, it really helps! And if ASMR can help alleviate anxiety, insomnia or PTSD for those who suffer from them, all the hype and miscommunication is a small price to pay.”