“Are you lonely, are you lost? … Hello, I know that you’ve been feeling tired. I bring you love and deeper understanding. Hello, I know that you’re unhappy. I bring you love and deeper understanding.”
The 2011 re-release of Kate Bush’s ‘Deeper Understanding’ has a fantastic video clip and, although soundwise I prefer the original 1989 version, provides a great evocation of a fascinating contemporary phenomena, the artificial/electronic love archetype. This has likely been a theme in popular culture for at least as long as there have been computers: market-based solutions for the alienation of modern city life and the evidence of individualist social dysfunction this may be read as. Other explorations of the nexus between machine and affection, loneliness and desire, silicon and flesh, include Computer Love (1981) by Kraftwerk and the recent Spike Jonze film ‘Her‘.
One of the more interesting contemporary manifestations of the ‘computer love’ archetype is the popular genre of youtube videos featuring ‘ASMR’ (Automated Sensory Meridian Response). This is a hybrid genre featuring aspects of confession, counselling, flirting, guided meditation, and theatrical performance but centered on an overall aesthetic involving whispered voice, often binaural, in which the static of room sound and delicate vocal nuances are heard softly and intensely in the listeners’ ears, mostly delivered in a confessional direct ‘conversation’ by the performer facing the video camera, and making use of extra auditory triggers such as bag wrinkling, brushing feathers on a microphone or alternating breath through the right and left audio channels. The goal of the videos are to elicit an ‘automatic sensory meridian response’ and so the medium is very much privelaged over the content (a nod to Marshall McLuhan here). Here is an example:
Here I am attempting to informally articulate what I find fascinating but also unsettling about the medium of ASMR, and to place it in a popular art and culture context. As a topical phenomenon, ASMR has been written about before – here is one example of a blog post with an depth exploration of what the author describes as the notions of “intimacy and strange feelings” through technology mediated voices, and features an appropriately Marxist edge to the critique, as well as listing some other popular culture manifestations of the ‘cyborg whisper’ including the Kate Bush song mentioned above.
The role of gender in the ASMR genre is immediately apparent, with the apparent majority of channels are run by young women (as sketchily evidenced by a search for ‘asmr’ on youtube), although there are exceptions:
and this one which reminds me of the ‘word jazz’ of Ken Nordine, e.g. here and here):
If you are watching an ASMR video and look at the sidebar, you may feel a sense of ‘seediness’ from the overall gender disbalance in relation to the ‘market’ aspect of ASMR on youtube. If you search for ‘ASMR’ with a filter for view count 17 of the most watched videos on the first page are (when I searched) by young women, 2 by men, 2 indeterminate (and three advertisements). There is an apparent exchange of “what you want” gratification for viewers in exchange for (hopefully sufficient) advertising revenue: triggers; tingles; a sensual encounter. Reimbursement is totally legitimate – the creators seem to put a lot of effort into regularly releasing new videos and projecting an engaged and caring self for their audience:
And watching a few you get the sense that many creators get worn down, despite or because of the counselling role they are undertaking. Some offer coping advice directed to the self as well as audience:
The confessional monologue in the above linked video suggests that harsh comments from some audience members may be a cause for depression amongst some creators (at 6 minutes and 35 seconds), which in turn provides content for future ASMR videos. In this video you can also see the commitment to fulfilling ‘requests’ by subscribers for specific content, such as the ASMR vocal triggers in the form of spoken word lyrics (reference to requests for this at 8 minutes and 6 seconds).
There is an article on the Vice blog on ASMR which acknowledges the hallmark of successful ASMR video makers as being ‘young, female, and good-looking in a nonthreatening way’, but disavows this by saying that in general ‘…head tingles and sex don’t mix … but physical attractiveness can’t hurt’. Part of me feels that, if the essence of ASMR really is about delicate 3D voice and sound stimulation, how can it be coincidence that the ASMR medium is stylistically dominated in this way? I think there is a blurring between this ‘asexual’ idea and a reality of human sexuality, which in a market context such as youtube where advertising revenue is sought after seems to be a factor in the production of these videos. So in regard to this aspect of ASMR I am unable to fully articulate what is a vague concern of a subtext of objectification or an unnerving manifestation of comfort technology a la the Kate Bush song mentioned above.
(Incidentally, I think it’s great the Vice article mentioned above not only considers the broad range of ASMR-type videos, but also interviews people involved in the ASMR youtube community, which in my eagreness to commit my thoughts to the ether I have not done but recognise is essential for truly developing a picture of what ASMR means to people.)
The pop art aspects of ASMR videos are my favourite feature however, in particular the roleplaying variations, which can be quite surreal:
Audience-wise, based on the content and comments you get the sense that there is a cross-over between those seeking synaesthetic experiences as well as those seeking human affection, the latter as depicted in the Kate Bush video, or the Kraftwerk song mentioned above:
Another lonely night
Stare at the TV screen
I don’t know what to do
I need a rendezvous – Computer love, Computer love
I call this number
For a data date
I don’t know what to do
I need a rendezvous – Computer love, Computer love
Or myself, because feeling lonely late one night, after moving to a new city, aimlessly searching the internet somewhat narcissistically for ‘track y pants’ (a rephrasing of my own musical alter-ego), clicking on a youtube link to a powerfully creepy song by Y Pants, ‘That’s the way boys are’ and somewhat ironically clicking on the bizarre sounding link – ‘[ASMR ♥] Ear Cleaning Role Play (+massage)’ by fastASMR:
‘((**PMA Examination**)) Binaural Medical Exam Role Play ♦ Close Up Ear to Ear ASMR ‘ by WhispersREDASMR:
and ‘ASMR Cranial Nerve Exam Role Play HD w/ Ear to Ear Whispering’ by Cosmic Tingles:
So bizarre, and very creative; I think it certainly is a form of performance art. The lo-fi sound aesthetic, with glitchy artifacts in the background noise very apparent with volume turned up high to hear whispering, is for me one very charismatic attribute of the ASMR aesthetic. I subsequently read the entry for ASMR on Wikipedia and watched more, random ASMR videos.
I think the genre is fascinating and an interesting development of confessional video; counselling services; performance art; affection economy – coming together in a form somewhat like that observed by musical artists such as Kraftwerk (1981) and Kate Bush (1989) more or less thirty years ago. It is unfair to cast these themes in a solely negative dystopic light, as the songs are really musings on social change as humans integrate further with technology and away from families; computerised affection or ASMR YouTube videos may offer solutions to problems in society which probably emerged alongside industrialisation and ensuing modernisation and urbanisation. Is ASMR a form of free-market Tele-health?
And so now, after posting these really great songs about technology and affection and some good examples of the ASMR genre, here is a song I recorded late one night a couple of weeks ago. It is not a polished song, just a sketch – in a sense half way between a song and an ASMR confession; probably not as successful as either, but that’s what experiments are for:
ASMR through music with whispered singing and stuttered visions of a desolate city dreamscape
The description I wrote on YouTube:
“A sketch attempt at inducing ASMR through a song about ASMR, with whispered voice, room noise and panoramic tapping percussives.
The idea [of ASMR] is, you wear headphones with the volume up and delicate spatial noises and textures induce your spine to tingle…. This video was a late night experiment at how this would work in a musical context. Usually this is done in a different format to this though – see the side bar videos (roleplay medical exams are an especially odd experience).
Inspired by the aesthetic of youtube ASMR videos and the notion of being lonely and stressed in a city, listening to a stranger whisper intimately to ‘you’ as a surrogate for close human affection. This latter aspect isn’t what ASMR is about in essence (“tingles”), but it seems to be a part of how it plays out in youtube context, which is interesting as a sociological phenomenon.”