ASMR:  Turn Up Blue Tomorrow


There’s really no other way to begin this essay, so here goes:  Yes, I’m into ASMR, and no, it’s not a “sex thing.”  And this is coming from a guy who thinks making toast, cleaning the bathroom, and walking outside to get the mail are sex things, so when I say something’s not about sex, you have every reason to trust that.  I always admit it when something’s about sex, for the same reason I always admit it when it was me who farted:  so people will know they can believe me when I say otherwise.

Lots of internet types have already held forth on the ASMR phenomenon, to the point where I’m pretty sure I don’t even need to explain what it is before I continue (but in case my mom or somebody equally out-of-the-loop is reading this: in brief, it’s this thing where people make point-of-view YouTube videos in which they pretend to be giving you a haircut or something like that, and people like it because it’s relaxing and gives them, in the parlance of the ASMR community, “head tingles”). 

Most of the time, said holding forth takes the form of people accusing ASMR of being a weird fetish, people who like it denying that it’s a weird fetish, and then the first people calling bullshit.  I guess this is because accusing things of being weird fetishes gets clicks and pageviews.  I probably should have written more essays where I accuse things of being weird fetishes, now that I think about it.  But I’m not the kind of person who accuses things of being weird fetishes.  I’m the kind of person who waits for other people to accuse things of being weird fetishes, and then defends them.  Usually, I do this about actual weird fetishes, but this time I’m not.  Anyway, my point is, I can’t fall asleep unless somebody I don’t know gives me a fake phrenology exam.

This is my favorite ASMR video of all time, and I'm pretty sure
thinking this is sexual would be weirder than thinking it's not.

Not that I only watch ASMR to fall asleep.  It also calms me down after I’ve been doing something that stresses me out, such as going to work, thinking about going to work, thinking about high school, thinking about college, thinking about elementary school, talking to people who aren’t enough like me, talking to people who are too much like me, checking my bank balance, surfing WebMD for diseases I probably have, or walking (because everyone can tell I walk funny).  Okay, pretty much everything stresses me out except for trivia competitions and documentaries about England.

Based on this, you probably think I’m just a nerd and that I like ASMR because it’s the closest thing I can get to a pretty girl talking to me.  Except that’s not it.  There are lots of cool guys, and lots of women, who enjoy ASMR (or, in the community’s parlance, who “have” ASMR, which stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response and is the fancy term for head tingles).  And besides, pretty girls talk to me all the time.  It’s just that I don’t care unless they’re asking me trivia questions or providing me with information about England.

And I’ve known I had ASMR for a long time, even before all the videos with all the pretty girls existed — I just didn’t know what it was or what it was called (it wasn’t called anything yet).  I can remember standing around with a bunch of people in school one time, and I was like “Do you guys, like, go into this weird trance and start tickling your own arms when you watch that Bob Ross guy?”, and one other kid was like “Dude, totally!” and everyone else was like “…the fuck?”  Then when I first came across ASMR on YouTube, I was like People are trying to replicate the Bob Ross feeling!

I think the main reason so many people are bent on insisting that ASMR is sexual isn’t because the fans are nerdy guys (which isn’t even true), but because the most accomplished practitioners are women.  I think we’re just not used to there being something women are better at that isn’t sexual.

There are art forms at which, for whatever reason, men seem to have an advantage (how many female sculptors can you name?).  There are art forms in which talent seems to be evenly distributed between the genders (e.g., acting, poetry).  There are even art forms for which both men and women are necessary, as they each have set roles that the other is biologically incapable of performing (e.g., opera).

If we accept that ASMR is an art form, then it is significant even beyond the extent to which the invention of any new art form is already inherently significant (which is considerable).  This is because it would be the first art form in human history at which women have an enormous natural advantage (at least, as far as we can tell so far).  That’s a pretty big deal.  And if you are inclined to argue that ASMR is not an art form, then consider this:  How much of that reaction might be based on the fact that our definition of art so far has (probably) been based on privileging things that men are usually better at?

Remember, there are two coherent feminist responses to the allegation that men are better at most “important” things:  The first — the one that is favored by the schools of feminism that have become more popular in America — is to argue that this simply isn’t true, and that women are equally good at all those things.  The second, however, which makes just as much sense and, in my opinion, probably has more truth to it, is to argue that the deck has been stacked by the fact that we’ve historically defined certain things as “important” largely because men are better at them.  In other words, men are in fact largely better at the stuff men like to talk about being better at, but there are just as many things that women are better at, and it’s simply that those things have either not gotten as much attention or, in some cases, haven’t even had a chance to be invented yet.

Of course, there are male ASMRtists, just as there are, say, female hockey players.  There’s nothing wrong with someone exceling at, or seeking to excel at, something that is usually dominated by the other gender.  But even if they succeed, that doesn’t change the fact of the other gender’s dominance on average.  If we accept the Bob Ross Theory of ASMR’s origins, then ASMR was even invented by a man (or discovered by his fans, depending on your point of view).  But once again, this doesn’t change the fact that all the best (or the most popular, if you think “skill” at ASMR is impossible to quantify by a method other than popularity) ASMRtists are female.

Now, this is the part where trolls or MRAs or the lizard people or whoever usually step forward to suggest that all of ASMR is a sham, that all that’s going on is pretty girls “getting attention” by wearing lots of makeup and low-cut tops, that everyone’s just whacking off to the videos, and so forth.  As silly as I think this argument is, it’s clearly not going to go away on its own, so I’ll go ahead and address it.

So…  Well, you’re right that most of the top ASMRtists are pretty.  I’ll give you that.  But the thing is, most of the top anything are pretty, because it’s easier for good-looking people to get noticed out of the gate at anything: most famous singers are good-looking, most famous actors are good-looking, etc.  Even in a field where talent can be quantified with facts and figures, like a professional sport, it remains the case that the breakout celebrities tend to be easy on the eyes (e.g., Derek Jeter, Maria Sharapova), but nobody can argue that this means they aren’t very, very good at what they do.

(Just as an interesting aside, it bears mentioning that the only art form I can think of where physical attractiveness seems to be a detriment is stand-up comedy; I think this is because it is harder for people to laugh along with someone they feel inferior to.)

Yes, there are a few people on YouTube calling themselves ASMRtists who are clearly a pile of bullshit and only up there to be sexy — but once again, this happens in every field.  Meryl Streep and Megan Fox are both gorgeous, but it’s just the latter who is only in movies for this reason.  Madonna and the Pussycat Dolls are both sexually provocative, but it’s just the latter that only sold records for this reason.  Saying that “Hungry Lips” proves there’s no such thing as ASMR would be like saying Megan Fox and the Pussycat Dolls prove there’s no such thing as acting or music.  You can’t just ask whether an artist is attractive — you have to ask whether attractive is all that they are.  Jesus, sometimes the single greatest genius in the entire history of an art form can also happen to be so attractive that it literally causes riots (e.g., Paul McCartney).  Coincidences happen.  It’s a big world.

If the trolls hold their ground and say fine, someone can be both attractive and talented, but it remains the case that they wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much attention for their talent if they weren’t also attractive, then the response is, once again, that this is lamentable but true of anything.  It’s almost certainly true that Johnny Depp wouldn’t be so famous or get cast in as many movies if he didn’t look like Johnny Depp, but even if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be less talented, just equally talented but less famous.  Besides, if we’re talking about acting, which ASMR has a lot of overlap with, then sometimes being attractive is part of the job (you would, for example, have trouble believing a fat guy as James Bond).

And it’s not like ASMR view counts exactly correlate with how hot everybody is.  If you ranked ASMRtists by both views and hotness, you might see a general scatter-plot type correlation, but you wouldn’t see two parallel lines.  Again, I think you’d get the same results with acting or music: a higher average attractiveness at the top and a lower average attractiveness at the bottom, but nothing even close to an exact correlation.  And there are obvious factors affecting this besides audience shallowness: an attractive person is probably more likely to have the confidence it takes to go out on that initial limb of putting themselves in front of an audience to begin with — and if you’re the type of person who trolls people by calling them ugly, then you’re the reason why, so you have only yourself to blame for the very thing you’re objecting to.

Seriously, how can you complain about ASMRtists being hot girls when you fucking know for a fact that if any girl who wasn’t hot tried to do it, you’d immediately call her ugly and tell her to kill herself?  It’s not that I object to hecklers and wiseguys so much as that I object to people who appear to be too dumb to realize that they are causing the things they’re supposedly pissed about.  And as for their objection to the fact that many ASMRtists have Patreon accounts where they take donations…  Dude, doing something for free up front but asking for donations after the fact has been a thing artists do for, like, forever.  Would you also have bellowed “EXPOSED!!” at Bob Dylan for passing the hat at Café Wha in 1962?  The audience is already perfectly well aware that they don’t have to pay; they’re just not dicks.

I didn’t want this whole essay to be a rebuttal to trolls, so I’m going to move on now — but anyway, seriously, stop.  One of my favorite ASMRtists retired a couple of months ago because she got trolled out of her mind as “revenge” for being pretty.  Go back to trolling Scientologists.  I liked you when you were doing that.

Oh, and don’t say I’m white knighting.  I’m not white knighting; I’m just not an asshole.  There are reasons not to tell people to kill themselves and threaten to rape them other than the hope that they are going to jump out of your computer screen and have sex with you, for fuck’s sake.

Okay, now I’m actually done talking about trolls.

Another seemingly obvious objection to ASMR as an art form is that the avowed goal is for people to fall asleep.  How can someone call themselves an artist if putting the entire audience to sleep is what constitutes a great performance?  Well, I admit that seems weird.  But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong, just new.  Art forms change, disappear altogether, or come into existence, as culture changes.  There are reasons why ASMR couldn’t have existed before, and reasons why it needs to exist now.

ASMR required the invention of the internet and YouTube to exist, of course, but that’s not the most significant thing here.  Look at it this way:  Something is “an art” in proportion to how good “artists” are at doing that thing compared to the general population.  In a world where everyone could sing, being able to sing wouldn’t be remarkable.  If everyone ran equally fast, we wouldn’t bother to have running races.  Do you see where I’m going with this?  Think about it.  What is ASMR?  It’s somebody talking to you in a calming, gentle, friendly way for a sustained period of time.

In other words, we now live in a society that is so mean that being nice has become an art form.

Even if they’d had the internet, ASMR probably couldn’t have become a thing in, say, Victorian England, because everybody was trained and pressured to act super mannered and polite all the time.  ASMR wouldn’t have been different enough from a regular conversation.  Contemporary American society is now basically the opposite of that.  The very existence of the term “white knighting” as a concept that makes sense to people (sorry to bring up trolls again) means that we now live in a society where somebody who is not trying to get you to kill yourself is suspected of having an ulterior motive.  That’s pretty fucked up right there.  Being nice becomes an art form when being cruel becomes the norm.

Of course, it’s not like life was never cruel before.  The Middle Ages were pretty mean, for example.  People didn’t listen to ASMR then, because it didn’t exist yet.  But they did spend an awful lot of time kneeling in front of pictures of this chick:


Comforting, isn’t she?  Round face, wide soft eyes, long soft flat hair, pretty and feminine enough to be comforting, but not to a point where it’s aggressive or distracting.  They called her the Mother of God, and people prayed to her when they felt too distant from — or too intimidated by — the image of the male god who threatens punishment for our worst instincts and who threw himself directly into the path of those instincts, knowing that he would be killed by them.  The central tenet of her legend was that she was able, by being so pure and existing so outside the brutal rules of daily human life, to magically perform the life-giving functions of a mother without ever being sexual — because, you know, the sex part is distracting.  She’s not ugly, though, because that would also be distracting in a different way.  Even though you address her as “mother,” she’s always a pretty young woman — even, somehow, when she’s depicted alongside her son, who’s supposed to be in his mid-30s.  There are obvious logical objections to that, but you can’t argue with results.  This is just what comforts us.

It used to be, anyway.  She’s less popular than she was back in the day.

And besides, we have YouTube now.

ASMRtists collage

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