- Billie Eilish‘s March 2019 debut album has cemented her place at the top of the pop charts.
- At the 2020 Grammy Awards, Eilish broke records, becoming the second person in history to win all four major Grammys in one year.
- While the 18-year old singer-songwriter has amassed a huge following, one of the most enthusiastic sections of her fan base is YouTube’s ASMR community.
- Her brand of bedroom pop blends in key aspects of ASMR to create a hyper-intimate music listening experience. To take a closer look at Billie’s ASMR appeal, we spoke to YouTube creator Gibi ASMR.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: Billie Eilish. Teenage pop sensation, first musician born in this century to get a No. 1 single, the female artist to log the second most Hot 100 songs at one time, and ASMR icon?
Yep, one look at YouTube will tell you just how popular Billie is in the ASMR community. The platform is full of ASMR-inspired covers, or whisper tributes, of her music. There’s a reason Billie’s a favourite of the ASMR crowd. Her music uses key principles of ASMR to redefine the sound of pop, and that’s the secret to why she’s the industry’s fastest-rising superstar.
ASMR is short for autonomous sensory meridian response, the brain tingles people feel around the head and spine in response to certain triggers. Some of the most common triggers are whispering.
Producer: Deep stretch. Let’s breathe in and out.
Narrator: Rhythmic sounds and movements, and crisp, amplified acoustics.
Producer: Plastic bottle. [tapping] Of hand sanitizer.
Narrator: You can also find these elements in Billie’s music. ♪ Walk in wearing fetters ♪ ♪ Peter should know better ♪ ♪ So you’re a tough guy ♪ ♪ Like it really rough guy ♪ ♪ Just can’t get enough guy ♪ ♪ Don’t ask questions ♪ ♪ You don’t wanna know ♪
Gibi: In “Bury a Friend,” she definitely, like, the voice quality is what sticks out to me. You know, she’s saying, like, “I wanna end me.” ♪ I wanna ♪ ♪ I wanna end me ♪ It’s, like, almost like a whisper, and it gives you the chills.
Narrator: This is Gibi, who The New York Times described as “the LeBron James of touching stuff.” She’s an ASMR creator with over 2 million subscribers on her YouTube channel, and like many ASMRtists, she’s also a big Billie fan. In March, when the singer dropped her debut LP, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” her label reached out to Gibi and commissioned her to do an ASMR read-through of Billie’s album.
Gibi: [whispering] What do you know? Why aren’t you scared of me? Why do you care for me? It sounds like she is right up on the mic and just, like, barely letting the sound out, and she sounds gorgeous. ♪ Into your ocean eyes ♪
Narrator: That hushed, tingly, whisper quality of Billie’s voice? ♪ Don’t you know too much already? ♪ Narrator: It’s supposed to sound like that. According to Billie’s sound mixer, when it comes to her vocals, “everything is close-mic’d and whispered.” The goal, he says, is to always have Billie’s vocals sound “super-present.” It’s as if she’s right there, murmuring directly into your ear. Another thing Billie seems to share with ASMRtists is a passion for foley sound. To produce a range of different sounds for their followers, ASMR creators borrow a lot of techniques from foley artists, the people that recreate everyday sound effects for movies and TV. [crunching] Similarly, Billie and her brother-slash-producer, Finneas, DIY a lot of the sound effects they use in her songs. The metallic scraping sound that marks the upbeat of “You Should See Me in a Crown”? [metallic scrape] That’s a recording of Finneas sharpening a knife. [metallic scrape] ♪ Visions I vandalise ♪ And the horror-movie sound of a whizzing drill in “Bury a Friend?” ♪ Calling security, keeping my head held ♪ Billie captured that on her phone at a dentist appointment. [whooshing] To some people, the sounds of a dentist office might seem more nightmarish than relaxing, but dentist role-plays are actually very common in ASMR.
Gibi: [whispering] The mirror tool. [light whirring]
Narrator: And so are many types of drilling sounds, from dental drills [light, high-pitched drilling] to power drills. [loud drilling] Then there’s the intro to Billie’s album, which opens with a surprisingly loud and slightly gross recording of Billie sucking the saliva out of her Invisalign. [plastic tapping and slurping] Those kinds of wet, slurpy mouth sounds will be familiar to any fans of the video genre mukbang, which means “broadcast eating” in Korean. [slurping] There’s a major ASMR component to mukbang videos, as they often involve a lot of very loud slurping, which some ASMR fans find hypnotic. [slurping and smacking] Whether mouth noises are your thing or you like to stick with paper crinkling and finger tapping, chances are you’re listening to ASMR through headphones if you want to get the optimal effect. And the same goes for Billie’s music. The singer’s been called “the first pop star made for AirPods.”
Gibi: When you do listen to Billie Eilish with headphones, you can hear all of the instruments and the beats, and everything sounds like its own individual thing, and I could totally see where that is similar to the sounds or, like, the layered sort of technique that a lot of ASMRtists use when they find a pleasant sound. So, like, you know, if it’s something like her snapping: ♪ I like it when you take control ♪ Or just, like, a really simple beat. [crisp beat]
Narrator: Crisp sounds, which are among the most common ASMR triggers, are also a key part of Billie’s production. ♪ Out ♪ The clean base and minimal percussion that form the skeleton of her beats leave plenty of space for her unusual sounds and samples. ♪ Sleeping ♪ ♪ You’re on your tippy toes, creeping ♪ Take the song “Bad Guy,” for example. Where you’d usually have a snare drum keeping the song’s pulse, there are just soft yet super-amplified finger snaps. ♪ Bruises on both my knees for you ♪ ♪ Don’t say thank you or please I do ♪ There are also strategic gaps of silence to emphasise the weirdest moments in the song, like at the end of the chorus, when Billie’s voice suddenly breaks up into a million little pieces, making it sound like she’s croaking into a fan. ♪ I’m the bad guy ♪
Gibi: You can catch all of the tiny sounds and noises, so it feels extremely immersive. Compared to other music that maybe is, like, a little more flat, I feel like Billie’s music is extremely 3D.
Narrator: A big reason Billie’s music sounds so three-dimensional is that her mixes are specially crafted to dance from one of your ears to the other. When her voice splits up into two or three tracks, it sounds like you have a different Billie in each ear. ♪ Pearly gates look more like a picket fence ♪ ♪ Once you get inside them ♪ ♪ Got friends but can’t invite them ♪ ♪ Hills burn in California ♪ ♪ My turn to ignore ya ♪
Narrator: In the final riff of “Bad Guy,” you’ll notice her bouncing from left to right in your headphones. ♪ I’m only good at being bad ♪
Narrator: This is what’s known in ASMR as the stereo effect, or binaural effect, binaural meaning two ears. ASMRtists use special techniques to produce this effect for their listeners. [light scratching]
Gibi: You are using a microphone that can track your movements, or, in my case, I would use two microphones. I kinda want to talk a little bit more about the mall situation. Where I grew up, the mall and the movie theatre were right next to each other. If I get closer to the right one, you hear it more in your right ear. Closer to the left, you hear it in your left ear, and it really helps with immersion and making everything sound more intimate, like you’re right there and the music or the sounds of ASMR is happening around you.
Narrator: So Billie takes a page out of the ASMR playbook by trying to simulate the acoustics of a 3D environment in her music, and this makes listening to her a full-sensory experience, which, at times, can get pretty intense.
Gibi: In “Xanny,” she has the ear-to-ear movements. If you’re wearing headphones, it sounds like she’s going back and forth. ♪ I don’t need a Xanny ♪ Which is really interesting because it’s sort of paired with the distortion in the same song, which is, like, actually loudly uncomfortable to listen to.
Narrator: It’s probably because her voice often sounds like it’s encircling you. Many people find watching ASMR videos unsettling at first for the very same reason. It sometimes feels like the person in the video is physically in the room with you, but that intense intimacy might be the secret behind the power of both ASMR and Billie’s music. ASMR is thought to be related to a phenomenon called “frisson,” named after the French word for “shiver.” Often, frisson is most closely associated with music. Music-induced frisson refers to the pleasurable chills that some people may experience while listening to a song, like the goosebumps or shivers that Billie fans often describe getting from her music. The most well-developed theory about music-induced frisson comes from a music cognitive psychologist named David Huron. This theory states that frisson is actually related to fear. According to this theory, when a song contains a surprising element of some kind, like a sharp and unusual sound effect… [metallic scraping] ♪ Step on the glass ♪ ♪ Staple your tongue ♪ ♪ Bury a friend ♪ Or a voice that suddenly sounds like it’s jumping around in space… ♪ Don’t give me a Xanny now ♪ That provokes an instinctual fear response in your brain. This defensive reflex is so short-lived, it probably won’t reach consciousness, because, in short, the rational part of your brain recognises there’s no threat and quickly inhibits your fear centre. That’s when you’d feel the tingles. It’s the suppression of your fear that’s so pleasurable.
OK, so what does this have to do with ASMR and with Billie’s music? Well, because ASMR closely resembles frisson, some scientists believe it might be set off the same way, but with a different initial fear cue. One possibility is that what brings the tingles when you’re watching an ASMR video is the perception of physical closeness with the person creating the sounds. Because of the acoustic techniques that many ASMR creators use and the feeling of intimacy that they cultivate, it can feel, at times, like they’re entering your personal space, something that makes humans and most animals go into high alert. Billie’s vocals and soundscapes create the same unnerving sense of closeness. ♪ Drinking you down like I wanna drown ♪ ♪ Like I wanna end me ♪ ♪ Step on the glass ♪ ♪ Staple your tongue ♪
Essentially, her music is designed to make your brain and body react. It combines the musical cues that are linked to frisson with the physical cues that may well be linked to ASMR. There are a lot of unexpected musical events in Billie’s songs. The startling sound effects [ringing] and new vocal harmonies that seem to come out of nowhere, then there’s all the sonic trickery that makes her voice sound like it’s moving around spatially, sometimes even approaching or surrounding you. It creates that illusion of proximity. The almost-too-close-for-comfort feeling that you’d get from an ASMR video. Billie Eilish combines all of these techniques to make some of the most spine-tingling music to ever hit mainstream, and if her smash debut is any indication, this tingly sound just might be the future of pop. ♪ My Lucifer is lonely ♪
This video was originally published in October 2019.
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