I’m not sure when it was that I first became aware of the engrossing strangeness of online ASMR culture, but I know that it was 2017 when I first fell down the rabbit hole of attempting to understand the cathartic release that ASMR represented to millions of ardent YouTube viewers.
As I wrote for Paste at the time, one of the most instantly noteworthy things about the ASMR scene is the quiet stillness of its most successful and famous public figures—the top tier of “ASMRtists” who maintain millions of subscribers on YouTube’s platform. Hosting their videos on a site where the key personalities are so often typified as loud, manic and bursting at the seams with artificial energy, the most successful ASMRtists radiate calm, genuine, laid-back composure. They spend their time doing things like helping folks fall asleep, attempting to mitigate the most damaging aspects of listeners’ anxiety or PTSD, or simply assisting casual listeners in achieving those elusive “tingles” the ASMR fans so often reference. A lot of these ASMRtists are easy to like, because they truly seem to enjoy helping people.
That means all the more coming from someone like myself, who could fairly be described—I think most acquaintances would agree—as a cynical jokester who is very likely to poke fun at others. Looking at the results that some people seemingly achieve via the soft-spoken art of ASMR, I’m mostly able to look past its typical combination of New Age “spiritual energy” psychobabble and elements of genuine neuroscience, although the subculture of “holistic” healing that surrounds ASMR on either side tends to veer inevitably into the absurd. If it works for you, though? More power to ya. Check out this video for an explanation of how ASMR works, from one of the most experienced performers in the field.
With that said, however … it’s also impossible to ignore the inherent, weapons-grade weirdness of the countless other ways ASMR is used on YouTube, most of which are significantly harder to understand. I’m not talking about people needing sleep aids, or relaxation tools. That, I can fathom. I’m talking about ASMR used as a tool for stand-up comedy. Or ASMR true crime investigation videos. Or ASMR analysis of the NBA Finals. Or ASMR conspiracy theories. Or ASMR coronavirus safety PSAs. I’m talking about the millions of videos, from ASMRtists both well-known and obscure, that are attaching the concept of “autonomous sensory meridian response” to literally anything else in the hopes that it will result in clicks, whether or not the quiet ASMR performance style makes any sense in that context.
The only way to make you understand? You’ve got to see it—and strain to hear it—for yourself. Here are 5 of the most patently ridiculous uses for ASMR on YouTube that I’ve run across so far.
1. Making Out With Your Microphone
We might as well address the elephant in the room first, and make no mistake—sexuality is always the elephant in the room, when it comes to ASMR videos on YouTube. (Or, really, YouTube, the internet, and life in general.) This is, after all, a field where almost all of the most successful and subscribed-to performers are women, and as in almost every other facet of society, the most conventionally attractive subset of those women—the ones who you’re fairly certain could have/do have an Instagram modeling career on the side—receive by far the most attention, regardless of their video content. To their credit, many of these female hosts settle for sincerely performing classic ASMR gold standards, like whispering sweet nothings, tapping on objects or repeating variations on the word “relax” for 30 minutes, like they’re trying to help The Hulk revert to Bruce Banner. Regardless, I genuinely believe that these performers are just trying to achieve their stated goals.
Some of these other ladies, though … well, you’d better believe there’s nothing more deeply relaxing to the viewer than watching a scantily clad young woman physically licking the camera lens, or suggestively sucking a lollipop in a manner that in no way could be construed as fetishistic. The problem here isn’t that blatant sexuality exists in these videos; it’s that the hosts refuse to acknowledge their use of it, and tacitly suggest that any sexuality you perceive is YOUR perverted projection, rather than their obvious intent. They’re simply out there in their plunging necklines, positioning the camera directly on their chests while sucking on a microphone-shaped ear and making intense eye contact. What, you see something sexual about this? What a sick animal you must be!
I mean really, folks. This kind of quasi-ASMR performance trades in eroticism, and if you’ll fast forward to a point like 2:30 or so in that video, you’ll be watching something that is significantly more erotic than the actual sex many of us Americans are having, or not having. And this is no outlier, as intensely making out with one’s microphone is really almost a subgenre of its own at this point within the ASMR world. To act as if there’s no intent to suggest eroticism in these types of videos is to argue in bad faith—it’s the entire reason the video exists. The hosts simply can’t acknowledge the sexual nature of these types of videos, lest they be branded as the ASMR equivalent of pornographic actresses, which forces a bizarre tug of war between using their sex appeal for attention and pretending they don’t see the thirsty men in the comments section, making creepy comments about their bodies.
If “porn without nudity” is possible, then surely this is exactly what it would have to look like. And by the way—legitimate, “erotic ASMR” does indeed exist, although at that point you’re venturing into “wait, is this supposed to be relaxing or exhilarating?” territory. But at least the performers of straightforward erotic ASMR are being honest about what they’re trying to achieve, and I respect them for their transparency.
2. In-Depth History Lessons, Stand-Up Comedy and ASMR True Crime
Now that we’ve got all that sex stuff out of the way, we can talk about the fun, weird stuff! And of all the uses of ASMR I’ve run across on YouTube, one of the most confounding must be the deep well of ridiculously intricate history videos. They all tend to beg a question I’ll be returning to repeatedly in this list: “Why is this being delivered via ASMR?”
If you wanted to bone up on say, the history of the Roman Empire, you might very well consider watching a 75 minute YouTube video on the subject. But would your first choice be a history video that is hoarsely whispered through a thick French accent? Or perhaps you want to learn about the history of witchcraft. Well then, I’ve got a THREE HOUR video of whispered witchcraft lore for you!
In these cases, is it the ASMRtist’s intent that you remain awake, listening to the historical information? Or that it drones you into a trancelike, deathly sleep? Which outcome is considered preferable? If you fall asleep, you don’t learn anything about history, unless you’re mechanically absorbing information like Neo in The Matrix. And if you really just want to learn some facts, is it not easier to do that when the speaker is specifically attempting to speak to you in a normal way, as a school teacher would? Is this not a “worst of both worlds” scenario?
Want to feel like internet culture has gone to a place you’ll never be able to follow? Consider for a moment the fact that more than 400,000 people have viewed this hour-long video outlining a map of 1378 Europe, spoken by a man who is talking so softly that his dialog is almost completely inaudible. This has been watched by the equivalent of the entire population of Minneapolis.
The same questions apply to concepts like stand-up comedy delivered via ASMR. Is it supposed to make you laugh? If you laugh, is that not breaking the state of relaxation/meditation you’re supposed to be seeking? Isn’t legibility traditionally considered an important part of the comedian’s art?
These types of counterintuitive uses for ASMR go on and on, and they often feel like the ASMR performance style has simply been grafted onto other types of videos that would have existed separately. In a single afternoon of just casually searching around I found everything from ASMR sex education and ASMR lessons on general relativity and quantum physics to math-based ASMR videos on trajectory and a deep well of ASMR conspiracy theory videos … which somehow doesn’t surprise me, now that I think about it.
Perhaps the most purely confounding? ASMR true crime videos, which recount missing persons and serial killer cases in grisly (whispered, of course) detail. To which I can only say: WHAT? If this is purely a way to learn about the crimes of Son of Sam, then why is whispering necessary? And if it’s a relaxation or sleep aid, then why are serial killers the topic? If many ASMR fans are using the phenomenon of autonomous sensory meridian response to help with anxiety or PTSD, then wouldn’t you think wholesale murder would be the last topic that would be useful in helping them to unwind? Why not just make an ASMR video that is 60 minutes of death threats directed at the listener, while we’re at it?
3. Hyper-Specific Roleplaying Scenarios
Roleplaying is big in the ASMR world, and I can genuinely understand why. Some readers are probably unable to divorce a word like “roleplaying” from a sexual connotation, but unlike all the microphone licking above, these videos are quite sincere attempts to immerse the viewer into calming scenarios via the use of detailed characters, and often costumes. Popular archetypes of ASMR roleplaying videos include hair salon, makeup, manicure and doctoral check-up procedures, in which the ASMRtist plays a salon employee or doctor going through the mechanical physical motions of tending to the viewer’s needs. These videos no doubt provide a valuable approximation of social interaction for those who find it difficult to socially interact with others in their day to day lives—all the more valuable in an age of pandemic quarantine, when we’re all shut up inside. A good example would be something like this gentle haircutting video, with its more than 20 million views. Deeply soothing.
And then there’s things like this ASMR SHREK ROLEPLAYING VIDEO.
I could ponder the finer points of this single video for hours. Consider the amount of commitment displayed in covering oneself entirely in green paint. In assembling the costume. In writing a Shrek-based script, revolving around a character that pretty much always yells rather than whispers. In working on a Scottish accent. All that work, to deliver a calming Shrek experience that in no way is ripping off a lesser-known channel that has somehow produced 75 Shrek-themed ASMR videos since last year. It boggles the mind.
ASMR roleplays also tend to venture into weirdly specific territory on the medical front, going from the basic “you’re at the doctor’s office for a checkup” to “Let’s perform a detailed cranial nerve examination!” That last one is, for whatever reason, another emerging ASMR sub-genre of its own, perhaps because it allows the host to play with little flashlights and shine them directly into the camera. But if you ever wanted to get your nerves examined by a hunky guy who looks like the lovechild of Chris Hemsworth and Kenny Omega, YouTube has got you covered.
And if that’s not your cup of tea, or you find yourself saying “only 35 minutes for a cranial nerve exam?”, you can always flip over to something like this 50 minute version, complete with plenty of bonus, purely coincidental cleavage that you would have to be a jerk to point out or even notice.
4. ASMR Socioeconomic Satire
We’ve seen ASMR grafted to seemingly every other possible arena, so why not also use it as a means to bring internet memes to life within a parody of white, middle class right-wingers? Such is this rather incredible video entitled “Karen Wants to Speak With the Manager,” which combines the whispered ASMR delivery with a scathing parody of the “Karen,” that conservative, upper-middle-class parody of a white person who is usually portrayed as an anti-science mother of three who enjoys belittling customer service employees over minor infractions. Here, witness the joy of her complaining about her Chinese food and digging around in it to find a missing acrylic fingernail, while repeatedly mentioning that her kids are waiting in the car and need to get to soccer practice.
Watching a video like this one, I am filled with admiration for the depth of this person’s parody, along with complete and total confusion as to why such a parody would ever be rendered in the medium of an ASMR video. Why take a form of comedic parody that people might appreciate, and then severely limit the potential audience of those who might consume it by performing it in what amounts to a niche performance style? It’s like saying “Here’s my impressions of the cast of Friends, except via the art of mime and tap dancing.”
This isn’t even a one-off, either—the above “Karen” video was a launching pad for such follow-ups as Karen on the phone with customer service, or Karen complaining to Xbox support, or Karen at a wine bar. And of course, at that point you’ve got to bring in a wider cast of characters to this shared universe, like Karen’s best friend Linda, or an entire gaggle of Karens at a PTA meeting. It’s like an oft-repeated skit that Saturday Night Live is intent on running into the ground, except for the fact that it’s always at 10 decibels. Does it not seem like any thought of “relaxation” has been left far behind at this point?
One way that popular ASRMtists actually are similar to regular YouTubers is that they often can’t resist the urge to make their content more “relevant” and timely by stitching it onto ripped-from-the-headlines current events. And of course, that means we’re talking about the inevitable rash of coronavirus-themed ASMR content that is currently proliferating on YouTube. That includes whispered videos of handwashing tutorials, or plunging neckline coronavirus positive affirmations, or the inevitable coronavirus doctor’s office roleplay videos. Because that’s the kind of roleplay that really calms folks down: Pretending you’re in a doctor’s office getting tested for the extremely infectious disease that has already killed more than 45,000 people in the U.S. alone.
I should note something: The above ASMRtist, a woman who goes by ASMR Darling, is one of the most popular performers on YouTube, and I genuinely believe she’s one of the best and most sincere of the bunch. She doesn’t coat her videos in a sheen of disingenuous sexuality, or rely heavily on gimmicks—she’s just a friendly, soothing voice whose work usually specializes in sleep aids or unique noises that are common triggers for “tingles.” People respond to this woman’s sincerity. But even she couldn’t resist tacking the ASMR format onto a roleplaying situation that is off-putting at best, and distasteful at worst, seemingly making light of a global health crisis despite promises to “raise awareness and debunk myths.”
I think the trouble ultimately comes down to how deep these performers get into the subculture that has been built up around them. As a person with a huge audience (2.5 million subscribers on YouTube), someone like ASMR Darling might see it as their responsibility to disseminate helpful or accurate information in a time of crisis, and that’s great. By all means, go ahead! But could they maybe consider giving that information outside the context of an ASMR roleplaying video that directly revolves around the pandemic? Could they maybe act like a human being for a moment, dropping the constructed character they inhabit, long enough to simply address their audience in an earnest way? In other words, could they turn it off for a few minutes, if this is something they think is important? Because using an “entertaining” roleplaying scenario to discuss a deadly disease just makes the situation feel surreal and off-putting.
And if you feel like you absolutely have to produce content that is directly related to an event like the coronavirus pandemic? You might consider taking inspiration from a performer like the one below, whose “ASMR for People in Quarantine” simply features such stimulating activities as brushing an orange with a paintbrush, rather than roleplaying a doctor who is checking to see if you’ve caught a potentially deadly disease. You can even delight in him crinkling that most essential and sought-after of all substances: toilet paper.
How he made it through that 90 minutes without sucking on his microphone and making bedroom eyes at the camera, I’ll never know.