Pitchfork has a new story about Billie Eilish, which focuses on the 17-year-old goth-pop rising star’s fans in the ASMR community. ASMR—that’s short for autonomous sensory meridian response, if you don’t know—refers to the pleasantly tingly feeling some people get when they’re exposed to certain soft, scratchy, tactile sounds like whispering and crinkling paper, and also to a hugely popular genre of YouTube videos designed to elicit this sort of response in their viewers. Eilish’s music, which features breathy lead vocals and all manner of tickly headphone-friendly percussive sounds and effects in its electronic production, is apparently catnip for ASMR enthusiasts. The Pitchfork piece cites multiple listeners and critics who have made the connection, as well as a proliferation of Eilish-centric ASMR videos on YouTube since the March 29 release of her debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go.
One of the most popular videos in this subgenre—and the first result when you search YouTube for “Billie Eilish ASMR”—was produced by Gibi, a pseudonymous ASMR microcelebrity whose videos have been covered in the New York Times Magazine and on Vice News. It’s 40 minutes long, with 1.2 million views and counting, and features Gibi whispering the full lyrics to every song on When We All Fall Asleep, accompanying herself with scratches, tapped fingernails, and the sound of pop rocks fizzing in her mouth. It’s wild stuff, and weirdly soothing, even for a non-ASMR aficionado. But the most interesting thing about it is that Polydor, the UK distributor for Eilish’s label Interscope, apparently asked Gibi to make it. From Pitchfork:
Over email, Gibi tells me that she first discovered Eilish through an ASMR cover of her song “lovely.” Then, when When We All Fall Asleep came out, Gibi was contacted by someone at the singer’s UK distributor, Polydor Records, and asked if she was interested in performing a read-through of the album. She immediately said yes. “I hope [Eilish] enjoyed the video and it didn’t freak her out too much!” Gibi adds. (While Gibi says she wasn’t paid by Polydor, she was offered free merch and tickets to an upcoming Eilish show.)
The text of Gibi’s YouTube video dovetails with this description, though it doesn’t mention Polydor specifically: “I was literally listening to a Billie Eilish song (i kid you noT miss me with it) when I got this email to do a video for her new album and I was like YUP and spent the entire week shooting and editing and I know its late but I really hope you enjoy it.”
This isn’t to say that the ASMR-related enthusiasm for Eilish’s music isn’t a grassroots internet phenomenon: there are plenty of other videos out there, including the one Gibi says turned her on to Eilish’s music, before Polydor ever contacted her. Still, it’s a fascinating look behind the curtain at major label music marketing in 2019, with the ongoing erosion of old-fashioned media channels, and traditional advertising increasingly irrelevant to the internet-savvy young audiences that labels are trying to court. It makes sense that Eilish’s music in particular, which topped the Billboard albums chart based largely on streaming numbers and without a major radio hit, would be pushed out to web subcultures in this way. One figures she won’t be the last.