Justin Bieber caught me off guard last year. There I was, minding my own business, listening to a pop station, and this breathy little thing, this delicate vocal wrapped in a halo of shimmering effects starts piping through my car. I didn’t even realize it was him at first; it had been so long since I’d heard a new Bieber song. And I had no clue the production was from Skrillex and Diplo (from their 2015 Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü), which is why I was probably also not ready for the drop, that moment when the song’s tension releases and I’m suddenly gliding across a syncopated bass synth while Bieber’s vocals are pinched into a dolphin call. Somehow, two of the most notoriously unsubtle producers and the posterboy for “too much, too soon” had snuck up on me with “Where Are Ü Now” (WAÜN).
WAÜN’s drop from nowhere isn’t brand new. Subtle soars and understated drops are officially A Thing. More importantly, they do work beyond the sonic aesthetic. In this case, I want to listen to WAÜN in the context of Bieber’s performance of gender, specifically with an ear toward the way Skrillex and Diplo mix elements from dancepop’s 2015 toolkit to produce a track that plays on feminine tropes, which articulate a kind of masculinity. Listening to WAÜN alongside Robin James’s Resilience & Melancholy (2015) amplifies the male privilege at play in WAÜN. James calls attention to the way drops can sonify feminine resilience, and WAÜN’s surprise drop toys with that resilience in a thoroughly heteromasculine way. I’ll first set up how drops usually work, then read James in the context of Bieber’s gender performance as heard in WAÜN.
Drops, at their most basic, are climactic moments when a song’s full instrumental measure hits (hence “drop”), often after some key elements of the instrumental have been removed so that the climax can sound more intense. At that broad level, any genre can employ a drop of some sort. EDM and dancepop drops—the kind that most directly inform the music of Skrillex, Diplo, and Bieber—are bass-heavy and typically follow a soar that intensifies volume, texture, rhythm, and/or pitch: you soar to a sonic plateau or a cliff, and with a “YEEEEEES!!!!!” coast on some wobbly goodness to the next verse.
The pre-chorus soar in the Messengers/Sir Nolan/Kuk Harrell-produced “All Around the World” from Bieber’s 2012 Believe is a solid example. In the video below, the soar starts at 0:45, the chorus enters at 1:00, and the drop lands at 1:15. It’s textbook: the instrumental is stripped back and filtered, and in the opening moments, we hear a descending bass glide. A filter does what its name suggests–it filters out a prescribed set of frequencies so that we only hear a certain range, and in this case it’s the low end that comes through. The effect makes the synths sound like they’re pulsating through water, and the higher frequency overtones take on a shimmery quality. Over the course of the 8-measure soar, the higher frequency range is brought into earshot, and then, on the second half of the eighth measure…nothing. This nothingness is integral to James’s central argument in Resilience & Melancholy: nothingness intensifies what follows. In these eight measures, we’ve glided down to the low end only to soar up up up until all that’s left is Bieber’s voice, confident, nasally, with just a touch of autotune as he sings the titular line that will take us to the chorus. That chorus bangs harder because of the soar to oblivion before it.
WAÜN’s drop lands at 1:09. For full context, start from the beginning and listen for the soar. (If you also need to stare dreamily into Bieber’s eyes, then by all means.)
There’s not really a soar there. No intensifying volume, texture, rhythm, pitch. The not-soar (starting at 0:48) is even a weird length, clocking in at 12 measures after an 8-measure intro and 16-measure verse have established a multiples-of-8 structural rhythm; even if we were expecting a drop, it comes four measures early. The clearest sign we get that a drop is imminent is that moment where the instrumental reduces to a quiet hiss for two measures as Bieber sings “Where are you now?” That hiss is the structural equivalent of the nothingness we hear just before “All Around the World”’s chorus, and with no traditional soar before it, we have just enough time to think “Oh shit, are they gonna….?” before we’re off, clutching tight to Justin Bieber as we ride a dolphin through the more tender parts of Skrillex’s and Diplo’s musical oceans.
Until that nothingness, this could just as easily be one of those heartfelt Bieber tunes where he reaches to the high end of his range for a chorus full of feels. That Bieber? He’s incredibly self-assured, bearing his soul because he’s certain you’ll love him. The bait-and-switch of WAÜN’s soarless drop highlights Bieber’s insecurity in this song—he’s just dolphin calls and “Where are you now”s—by creating expectations for a different persona.
So what we have here is an atypical drop, a drop that calls attention to itself by behaving differently than we expect it to, a drop that’s a study in understatement–all courtesy of three of dancepop’s resident maximalists.
Atypical soars and drops aren’t new, as producers will always toy with musical conventions as a way to disrupt expectations. Skrillex’s own “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” (2010) includes a pre-drop that doesn’t soar at all. In 2015, two big acts in the dance scene, Disclosure and The Chemical Brothers, released singles that don’t soar right, either. Disclosure, whose big 2013 hit “Latch” soared rather traditionally into Sam Smith’s chorus, is coyer on “Bang That” and “Jaded.” “Bang That” includes three separate 8-measure phrases (at 0:30, 0:45, and 1:01, respectively, in the linked video) that never take off, finally settling into a descending bass line (starting at 1:09) that just repeats a rhythmic motif, running out the clock on the final four measures before the chorus. “Jaded,” at the other end of the spectrum, includes only a 4-measure pre-chorus (1:18-1:27) that seems to be sweeping upward like a traditional soar, then roller coasters down and back up over the final two measures. The instability of this soar/not-soar is punctuated with an additional eighth note tacked onto the end of the fourth measure, throwing the chorus off-kilter. The Chemical Brothers employ a similar roller coaster sweep in “Sometimes I Feel So Deserted” that marks out an even eight measures (0:58-1:13) without either intensifying rhythmically or pushing to a pitch ceiling at the drop.
These soars and drops stand out precisely because, like WAÜN’s, they aren’t the norm. To help theorize WAÜN’s not-soar, I want to think with Robin James, whose Resilience & Melancholy hears soars and drops in the context of contemporary race and gender politics. James situates soars and drops as the sonic equivalent of resilience–a performance of feminine overcoming that ultimately only strengthens the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that inflicts the damage that is being surmounted. In other words, women can only attempt to overcome through the damage that white supremacist capitalist patriarchy inflicts upon them. Sonically, the soar is an accrual of damage that is spectacularly (and profitably) overcome in the drop, the music that resiliently endures on the other side of nothingness. Melancholy, on the other hand, is failed resilience, a handling of damage that does not directly profit white supremacist patriarchy and that could sound any number of ways, including like a non-traditional soar. While admittedly these soars and drops aren’t always about gender politics, R&M opens space for us to think about gender and soars/drops together.
I don’t think WAÜN’s non-soar/drop is resilient or melancholic, but I do think it’s helpful to think of it as being about resilience and melancholy. This is where Bieber’s performance of masculinity comes into play. From his earliest poofy-headed, babyfaced performances, Biebs has done a modified bro thing: his heart’s on his sleeve, but mostly as a strategy for sexual conquest. “All Around the World,” again, is exemplary. In the lyrics, Bieber uses his worldly experiences to woo a potential lover, who he also negs, keeping himself in a position of power as someone who knows more, has seen more, and is willing to accept this woman despite her obvious flaws.
In WAÜN, though, I hear his performance of masculinity complicated further, as he tries out a number of more feminized tropes all at once. Lyrically, Bieber is the scorned lover who claims to have done all the care work in his relationship. Visually, he’s the pop icon whose body is ogled, scrutinized, and marked. Vocally, he receives the pitch-shift treatment that has most recently been associated with DJ Snake’s production of diva vocals (think “You Know You Like It” and “Lean On”). He also sings in a breathy style that James has elsewhere noted mimics Ellie Goulding’s vocals. Musically, Skrillex and Diplo give him the soar/drop construction to undergird his pain, a musical technique that most often signifies feminine resilience.
What bubbles up is a heteromasculine play on resilience and melancholy. Skrillex and Diplo liquidate the soar until all that’s left is a nothing-hiss before the drop. In the context of the other feminized tropes Bieber is messing with in WAÜN, this failed soar could feel melancholic, a refusal to spectacularly overcome. Overcome what, though? Bieber gets to sound resilient or melancholic without ever experiencing damage. That’s his male privilege. James points out that one of the most violent outcomes of resilience discourse is the re-enforcement of damage. If resilience is the way women become legible and profitable, then the damage inflicted by ablist white cisheteropatriarchy becomes a necessity, something that must be endured to gain access to power and resources. This is the lynchpin of James’s critique: resilience is a harmful discourse because it ultimately benefits the system it purports to overcome. Melancholy turns resilience logic on its head by refusing to treat damage as something an individual is responsible for overcoming. WAÜN, though, erases damage altogether in its initial drop. WAÜN’s feminized tropes ultimately highlight instead of unsettle Bieber’s performance of hetero-masculinity: what’s more man-ly than accessing power and resources without the threat of institutional violence?
Importantly, these feminized tropes don’t undermine Bieber’s heteromasculine performance; rather, they only seem to add nuance to the slightly bro-ier [that’s a word] Bieber performance we’ve become accustomed to. That’s what I mean when I say WAÜN is about resilience and melancholy; Skrillex and Diplo use the markers of queer or feminine overcoming and failed overcoming to re-construct Bieber’s masculinity, to toss some more ingredients into his manly mix, and the not-soar is a big component of that. Skrillex and Diplo tap into this soar experimentation, then drop it into the middle of a slightly more gender-fluid Bieber.
WAÜN’s high water mark is a few months behind us at this point, but Bieber remains hotter than ever, with “What Do You Mean?,” “Sorry” (another Skrillex production credit), and “Love Yourself” still dominating US and UK charts. Several more singles from Purpose (including two more Skrillex collaborations) are poised to do the same in 2016. Each of these singles extends some of the same tropes Bieber, Skrillex, and Diplo explore in WAÜN—breathy vocals, misunderstood and mistreated pop icon, resilience and contrition and care in the face of a failed relationship—and I hear WAÜN’s initial drop as the sonic moment that preps Bieber’s return to the pop charts. He wades back into the mainstream with a more complex performance of heteromasculinity and reaps the profits that come with it.
Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, and a regular writer at Sounding Out!. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his current book project is called Posthuman Pop. He is co-editor with Ali Colleen Neff of the Journal of Popular Music Studies 27:4, “Sounding Global Southernness,” and with Jason Lee Oakes of the Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies (2017). You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @justindburton. His favorite rapper is Right Said Fred.
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SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig. You’re welcome!
The first annual Sounding Board sound exhibit was held at The Companion Gallery in Austin, Texas on December 3 – 6, 2015, as part of the 60th anniversary meeting of the Society of Ethnomusicology (SEM). In the promotional literature for the show, the curator, Leonardo Cardoso (Texas A&M), described its objective: to give students, ethnographers, ethnomusicologists, and any “sound-minded” people an opportunity to share research and contemplate fieldwork from different perspectives. Cardoso hoped that SEM Sounding Board would “stimulate dialogue between ethnomusicology and other fields, especially sound studies, sound art, ecomusicology, anthropology, and media studies.” He also sought to facilitate interaction between the local community in Austin and SEM scholars who traveled to attend the conference.
I spoke with Cardoso about this exhibit on several occasions. When I asked him why name the exhibit “Sounding Board”?, he told me that Veit Erlmann (University of Texas Austin), described once described his role as a mentor as someone to bounce ideas off of, like a sounding board. In a similar way, Cardoso’s vision for the first annual SEM sound art exhibit was to create opportunities for scholars and local people to meet and discuss sound, ethnography, art, and fieldwork in an open context, and learn from each other while interacting in that space. He designed Sounding Board as a place where “ideas are amplified” and scholars and community members can make fruitful connections because they have an opportunity to reflect and discuss research with people from different backgrounds.
In his invitation to SEM attendees, Cardoso described Sounding Board as
[eight] sound works that probe into sonic in-placements (water and wind), sonic displacements (the telephone, the radio, and the microphone), sonic emplacements (the acoustic territories of urban Taiwan, the Brazilian hinterlands, and West Texas), and sonic mix-placements (in Mexico City).
This collective sound exhibit showcases the creative work of scholars attentive to the spatial, acoustemological, and ethnographic potential of sound. SEM SOUNDING BOARD challenges distinctions between sound-as-episteme and sound-as-performance, sound-as-ethnography and sound-as-art.
Interactive, Immersive, Ethnographic Sound Art
The playfully engaging work, Pool of Sound, welcomed me to the interactive SEM Sounding Board exhibit. As soon as I walked into The Companion Gallery, I noticed the eye catching 1st Annual SEM Sounding Board poster near a studio monitor on a stand, facing another monitor, placed directly across from it, about 20 feet away. A large illuminated circular area gleamed in between the silent speakers. When I moved into the light, I suddenly heard the clear sounds of gently rushing water, but only for an instant, then there was silence again, as soon as I stood still. As I turned and stepped towards one of the speakers I heard the rushing water return. The gurgling sound mirrored my movement and when I stopped, the sound of the water stopped.
Lina Dib (Rice University) created the piece, with an
enchanted zone [that] literally becomes a pool of sound where sound becomes substance, something to be physically and playfully encountered. In other words, sound with this installation becomes palpable, sound is made (in)to matter. The larger the visitors’ gestures, the louder and stronger the sound of water becomes.
Dib cites Jean-Luc Nancy in her work’s description, understanding her piece as an embodiment of Nancy’s observation in Listening that sound envelops the listener: “Sound has no hidden face; it is all in front, in back, and outside inside, inside-out.”
While experimenting with the intersections of sound and gesture in Dib’s Pool of Sound, I noticed someone sit down at an antique-looking wooden desk across the gallery, pick up an old school, land line telephone, dial a number, and start writing on a notecard. The person at the desk was experiencing Schizophone, Calling Son Jarocho, a installation by Craig Campbell (University of Texas Austin) and collaborators, Julian Etienne, Juan-Pablo Gonzalez, and Cameron Quevedo. When the person hung up and left, I sat down, braced the phone between my ear and shoulder and listened to a dial tone.
I dialed a few numbers and started to hear a conversation through the receiver: musicians were speaking in Spanish, discussing certain subtleties of a Son Jarocho performance. I felt like I was eavesdropping. I dialed another number and the sounds of Son Jarocho music flooded my ear. This installation provides numerous sound bytes of field recordings related to Son Jarocho music of Mexico. Each recording is described on a notecard that gives ethnographic descriptions of the situation. Campbell also asks the listener to participate in the piece by filling out a card to leave a record of their experience. The artist says that his “work builds on R. Murray Schafer’s ‘schizophonia’ to signal the profound but also banal experience of listening to recorded sound. The schizophone recruits the telephone–a mundane, though now largely residual technology–to frame and structure an encounter with archival recordings.”
A few feet away from the Schizophone desk, a poster stand held a flyer for the piece Wind Noise by Marina Peterson (Ohio University). A pair of headphones clung to the stand.
When I put the headphones on I expected to hear some cinematic blowing, or the soft sound of a summer breeze. Instead, I heard a familiar, dreaded, thumping noise. Peterson’s work indulges in a recording taboo: the clipping, dull thud of wind hitting an unprotected microphone.
As I listened, I thought about noise and how to define it. Usually, this thudding sound would bother me and I would cut out chunks of recordings to get rid of it. But in the context of a sound art exhibit, I found myself examining this noise, and listening to it as art. This reinterpretation of sound in relation to space reminded me of David Novak’s discussion of “Noise” as a genre in the context of Japanese music coffeehouses in his article, “2.5 meters of space: Japanese music coffeehouses and experimental practices of listening.” Peterson discusses her work as an exploration of technology, mediation, and the microphone. She describes these recordings as
an effort to reveal the microphone as technology by disrupting it. Wind noise is sound as touch – this is the sound produced by touching the microphone, whether by finger, breath, or air. These recordings do not capture the sound of wind, but the sound wind makes on the microphone. The sound the microphone makes when touched by wind.
In a recessed corner of the gallery I saw a music stand with a piece of paper on it. I didn’t know if it was part of the Sounding Board installation, or just a piece of equipment, set aside. As I stepped up to the stand to read the paper, I unexpectedly stepped into a chamber of sound. A Holosonics AudioSpotlight AS-24i directional speaker, mounted on the ceiling, beamed a column of music into that area, which a listener can hear only when directly below the speaker.
The piece is called Resting Place, by Michael Austin (Howard University). In the description of this work Austin states:
Resting Place is based on the old cowboy song ‘Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.’ Not only does this work confront listeners with thoughts of mortality and final resting places, it embodies the wide open spaces of my childhood home and serves as a place of peace and relief for the here and now.
Austin grew up in the countryside of the Texas Panhandle, and his work intends to bring a piece of that Texan soundscape to a corner of the gallery. I could hear the sounds of birds, wind, and water combined with chant and meditative, drone music; they were all sounds that would usually communicate rest and peace. Unfortunately, I had a difficult time entering that relaxed frame of mind because the recording of the Texan soundscape often clipped, which disrupted my concentration on the calming aspects of the field recording. Composers such as Annea Lockwood and Janet Cardiff use binaural microphones to capture nature sounds up close and create an intimate surround sound experience for the listener; although I am fascinated by the concept of creating a “soundscape chamber” by using a hyper directional speaker, I would love to hear the details of Austin’s field recordings through a nice pair of headphones.
Resting Place and Wind Noise invite contemplation as the listener receives sound. In contrast, the broadcasting sound piece by Tom Miller (Berkeley College) is intensely interactive. In Radio Texas International, a Micro Radio Station in the Austin Wavescape, Miller creates an experience where it is possible to broadcast sound and listen to recordings.
Resting Place and Wind Noise invite contemplation as the listener passively receives sound. In contrast, the broadcasting sound piece by Tom Miller (Berkeley College) is intensely interactive. In Radio Texas International, a Micro Radio Station in the Austin Wavescape, Miller creates an experience where it is possible to broadcast sound and listen to recordings. Miller explains that for this piece he
operate[s] a low power Mini FM Micro Radio station in the gallery… Tuning to open frequencies, a legal micro power transmitter broadcast[s] to receivers distributed within a 200-foot radius as a hyperlocal, pop-up intervention into the FM band. Using headsets, listeners will tune the radio dials seeking to locate the signal interspersed with the music, religious broadcasts, news, foreign language programming and static of the local radio wavescape.
In the video of his work you can hear several different ethnographic recordings that are broadcasted by Miller in the gallery, and at the same time intertwine with the sounds of local radio stations in Austin. Besides broadcasting field recordings, Miller also aired live interviews and music throughout the three-day exhibit. I was delighted to have the chance to play some traditional Irish music on the air for Radio Texas International.
雜 (dza) is a piece by Yun Emily Wang (University of Toronto) and Wendy Hsu (Dept. of Cultural Affairs, City of Los Angeles), who created a work that inhabits a cardboard box. The artist Zimoun often uses percussive elements to explore acoustics and cardboard, but in 雜 (dza), Wang and Hsu employ the box as a resonator to amplify and combine sounds emitted from headphones playing loops. The listener is asked to put their head in the box to hear a cacophony of intermingled field recordings that create a decontextualized soundscape of Taiwan.
The artists explain that “These composed loops recontextualize the sonic materiality of the informal economy and quotidian life exemplified at a Taiwanese night market, and interact with the spatial and sonic elements of the venue and its role within the emerging art-as-enterprise share economy.
There were two pieces of interactive, ethnographic sound art that integrated both audio and visual elements of fieldwork in Mexico City, and Brazil. Dry Signals by Michael Silvers (University of Illinois Urbana – Champaign) invites the auditor to “touch the screen” and listen to field recordings. The touchscreen of the laptop displays an image of a painting of a small town surrounded by mountains, near water.
I put the headphones on and touched a part of the image of the town that caught my attention: a traditional forró trio standing on the porch of small pink house (no.8). In the headphones I immediately heard the rhythmic music produced by the musicians playing the drum, the accordion, and a triangle.
Silvers describes the inspiration for Dry Signals as an exploration of
the sounds of drought in northeastern Brazil. From trickling reservoir spillways… to the music and shuffling feet of dance parties in dusty fields, these sounds tell stories of labor, birds, politics, agriculture, plants, mass media, corruption, water, and the quotidian experience of life in the semi-arid Brazilian hinterlands.
The artists take advantage of touchscreen technology to give the viewer a chance to curate their own soundtrack of their experience of the painting. There is no lag in the experience of touching, listening and viewing the village and surrounding landscape. Even though the field recordings are not uniform in sound quality, I enjoyed the experience of hearing an ethnographic audio record of a small town in northeastern Brazil, by touching an image of it.
Anthony Rasmussen (UC Riverside) provides an opportunity to peek in on urban street scenes filmed throughout Mexico City in his work, El Caracol: A Stroll through Space and Time in Mexico City.
Some of the most compelling scenes in the 20 minute loop of video and audio depict street protests in Mexico City which are accompanied by ambient sounds from the field recording, combined with subtle music, and seemingly unconnected background conversation.
The artist explains that
the video element consists of footage captured while walking through various sites in Mexico City and represents the phenomenological ‘present’. The audio element provides a counterpoint to the visual; as the loop begins the audio corresponds to the action on screen, but with increasing frequency (based on the ‘Fibonacci Spiral’) the contemporary sounds will be ‘ruptured’ by historical recordings of Mexico City that drift further back in time.
I particularly enjoyed the sections where the connection between the audio and the video was unclear. Toby Butler’s article “A walk of art: the potential of the sound walk,” traces the efforts of different artists and their uses of the sound walk in their work, but he does not describe any endeavors like Rasmussen’s, where ethnographic footage is the prime source of the walk. I wondered about the position of peering through the hole to watch Rasmussen’s field recording of Mexico City, and I realized that at times, gazing through the hole gave me the sense that I was the ethnographer gathering footage.
“always more sound to experience”
I visited the Sounding Board exhibit several times while attending the SEM conference. Every time I left I felt like there was always more sound to experience. I wanted to hear all of the numerous field recording of Son Jarocho material presented by Campbell’s Schizophone; Miller’s Radio Texas International changed every time I listened and I wondered what ethnographic material I might encounter the next time I tuned in. I never tired of Lina Dib’s Pool of Sound because it gave me the chance to perform the gurgling of water, using gesture. Apart from the evocative expressions of ethnology as art, Sounding Board converted The Companion Gallery into an interactive playground of sound.
The live performances in the gallery on Friday night brought the ethnographic sound art to life. When I listened to at least twenty members of the Comunidad Fandango of Austin perform and dance Son Jarocho music in the gallery on Friday evening, I began to make connections to the field recordings that I heard in Schizophone. When Bruno Vinezof and Forró de Quintal took the stage to play forró music from northeastern Brazil, I could feel the groove of the drum that was merely suggested in the field recording that I had listened to in Dry Signals. It was a unique pleasure to observe and participate in these musical traditions with my body, after having encountered them earlier through headphones as sound art.
When I spoke with Cardoso he was especially grateful to the Son Jarocho community of Austin, who volunteered to participate in the show by gathering in The Companion Gallery for a Fandango. He emphasized the grassroots aspect of this community music making event which came about because Cardoso knows the group and their passion for Son Jarocho music.
Cardoso plans to expand the variety of works and disciplines involved in next year’s Sounding Board to include media studies, literature, film, and the visual arts. As SEM 2016 will be meeting in Washington DC and co-hosted by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings (and George Washington University), this should not only be possible, but especially exciting.
Featured image: Lina Dib’s “Pool of Sound” by Matt Morris
Jay Loomis is a composer, a performer, and a graduate student in ethnomusicology at Stony Brook University with a particular interest in transnationalism, soundscapes, improvisation, wind instruments, and electronic music. He hosts a radio show called “Face the Music,” and recently curated a sound installation called “SOUNDREAMS” at Stony Brook University, which used geo-located sounds and music strategically placed around the university campus which people heard by using a smart phone app called Recho. Jay hand crafts Native American and other kinds of flutes, and leads flute making workshops in local libraries and schools. He plays a variety of wind instruments from around the world. He recently led workshops in a contemporary music festival in Cuenca, Ecuador (FIMAC: Festival Internacional de Musica Academica Contemporanea). Participants in Jay’s workshops arranged music and created flutes as a practical way to examine how indigenous music making practices and pre colonial instruments can contribute to the world of contemporary academic music.
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To conclude our Hysterical Sound series, we are pleased to present an excerpt from John Corbett, Terri Kapsalis and Danny Thompson’s performance of The Hysterical Alphabet.
Through this series we have explored a history of fetishizing women’s hysterical vocalizations with Gordon Sullivan’s post on Clayton Cubitt’s video work, and my post on Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film Hysteria and it’s relation to the “silence” of hysteria in medical history.
Today, Kapsalis gives us a piece in which “the ABCs are seized in a convulsive fit,” each letter of the alphabet serving to introduce some episode of the history of hysteria. Accompanied by the sound design of Corbett and Thompson’s visual collage, this performance of The Hysterical Alphabet offers a multi-sensory engagement with the past to “disprove the theory that time heals all wombs.”
SO! is grateful to the artists for sharing their work with us.
— Guest Editor Karly-Lynne Scott
Inspired by primary medical writings and actual case histories, “The Hysterical Alphabet” tracks the 4,000 year history of hysteria starting with A in ancient Egypt. First published as a book with text by Terri Kapsalis and drawings by Gina Litherland, it subsequently assumed a different form as a performance featuring video and live soundtrack. Terri Kapsalis (voice), John Corbett (sound), and Danny Thompson (video) performed the feature length piece from 2007-2012 in many different venues, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Emory University, RISD, Bates College, Clark University, and the University of Chicago. The video documentation included here excerpts the letters S, T, U, and V, which focus on the 19th century, moving into the 20th century, and were drawn from the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, S. Weir Mitchell, Jean-Martin Charcot, and Sigmund Freud, among others.
John Corbett (sound) is a writer, sound-artist, and curator. He is the co-director of the art gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey. In 2002, Corbett served as Artistic Director of JazzFest Berlin, and he co-curated the Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz & Improvised Music for nine years. He is the producer of the Unheard Music Series, an archival program dedicated to creative music issues and re- issues, and he is the author of Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein and Microgroove: Forays into Other Music. Corbett can be heard on a number of CDs including I’m Sick About My Hat and has brought his sound skills to two previous Theater Oobleck productions.
Terri Kapsalis’ (text/sound) writings have appeared in such publications as Short Fiction, The Baffler, Denver Quarterly, new formations, Public, and Lusitania. She is the author of Jane Addams’ Travel Medicine Kit, Hysterical Alphabet, and Public Privates: Performing Gynecology from Both Ends of the Speculum. Kapsalis is a founding member of Theater Oobleck, works as a health educator at Chicago Women’s Health Center, and teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Danny Thompson (video) is a founding member of Theater Oobleck, for which he has written (and performed in) 20 plays and solo performances, including Necessity, Big Tooth High-Tech Megatron vs. the Sockpuppet of Procrastination, and The Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in an Envelope (Partially Burned) in a Dustbin in Paris Labeled “Never to be Performed. Never. Ever. Ever. Or I’ll Sue! I’ll Sue from the Grave!!! The latter was given the “Comedy Excellence Award” at the 2000 New York Fringe Festival, “Top Ten of the Fest” at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, and extensively toured the U.K. and Ireland.
“Why does it feel so good when someone else is touching you?” she asks, fluttering her fingers up her forearm in demonstration. The cheerful blond woman smiles brightly. “Is it because of the physical contact itself? Or is there something else going on?”
This YouTube celebrity is Olivia Kissper, and she is about to demonstrate 40 different sounds that act as “triggers” for ASMR, or Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. ASMR is a term coined by the community of internet users who experience a particular tingling sensation in response to certain auditory, visual, or haptic stimuli. The sensation often originates in the scalp and travels down the spine and is reported to be immensely pleasurable, as well as relaxing. “ASMRtists” now flood YouTube with a steady stream of high definition videos designed to trigger this sensation for viewers, either by whispering or making other sounds with the mouth, by tapping, crinkling, or scratching various household objects, or through role-play scenarios (which often incorporate some or all of the above). In answer to Olivia’s question, I suggest that ASMR “feels so good” because the technology affords listener-viewers the opportunity to imagine alternative sexualities outside of the dominant Western paradigm of heterosexual, two-bodied, genital, orgasmic, reproductive intercourse.
However, the online ASMR community vehemently asserts that there is nothing sexual about ASMR. Of course, that is not to say that NSFW ASMR doesn’t have a strong following on Reddit, or that there haven’t been strident debates on the topic (such as the one sparked by comedian Russell Brand earlier this year). But it does mean that the vocal majority of ASMRtists and their listeners perceive this experience as intensely pleasurable, yet outside the regime of sexuality. It seems that positioning ASMR as distinct from sexual fetishes is an effort to destigmatize what may otherwise be viewed as deviant or unhealthy sexual behavior.
The problem at hand, then, is not that ASMR may in fact be sexual, but that pervasive definitions of sexuality pertain to very narrow set of actions and gestures among a very narrow set of bodies and pertaining to a very narrow set of moralistic qualities. I argue that ASMR videos broaden the scope of what we understand as “sexuality” and provide a means for bodies to gain access to certain other bodies in particular ways, and thus serve as an outlet for people to enjoy those (sexual) pleasures alongside of what is deemed appropriate in the mainstream. By analyzing this video phenomenon, specifically through the videos of ASMRtist Olivia Kissper, I consider what is “real” about this mediated intimacy, and how this mediated intimacy can help us to reimagine sexuality.
If ASMR is described by those who experience it as intensely pleasurable and relaxing, and if ASMRtists craft their videos with the deliberate intention of producing this automatic, visceral, pleasurable sensation, then it is indisputable that ASMR is, above all, concerned with the production of pleasure. In this way, it is not difficult to note the parallels between ASMR videos and pornography—another “body genre” (to borrow the term from Linda Williams) that employs genre-specific techniques with the intention of producing an automatic, visceral, pleasurable sensation in the viewer. Bearing this in mind, it should not be overlooked that most of the bodies interacting with the objects in these videos are young, conventionally attractive, white women. As art historian Joceline Andersen notes, ASMR often “relies on the heteronormative gender roles of care” (685). In other words, the popularity of an ASMRtist (with few exceptions) seems to be directly related to her sexual appeal and the degree to which she upholds Western standards of beauty.
Despite the fact that these videos may not be pornographic in the traditional sense, they are certainly sensual, if not sexual. This is exemplified by the way in which these ASMRtists attempt to evoke the sensation of contact with the viewer. ASMR is triggered not only by sound, but also by touch, and many ASMRtists strive to create perfect illusions of tactile sensation through the expert manipulation of visual and aural components. These are the kinds of videos that Olivia Kissper produces most often, such as “This FEELS SO REAL! Binaural ASMR SCALP MASSAGE with head massager, cicadas & WHISPERING.”
The tabloid-headline-esque style of the video’s title exemplifies the common practice of wordy titles for ASMR videos, so that viewers can tell at a glance if the video contains the specific triggers they are looking for, in this case tactile role-play and the auditory triggers of whispering and binaural recording. The quality of ASMR videos has steadily improved over the last couple of years, and most successful ASMRtists use high definition binaural microphones that record from two different “ear” locations, so that when the listener uses headphones, it produces the immersive effect of “3D” sound.
At the beginning of this video, Olivia asks, “are you ready for the most blissful experience?” then leans in close to whisper: “Are you ready to treat your senses a little bit today?” She speaks very softly and slowly, her voice intonated by her Czech accent. She punctuates her speech with graceful, twirling hand movements, and she shows off her long fingers and perfectly groomed fingernails as she displays the head massager and taps on the different materials it is made of in order to display its texture.
As a rule, ASMR videos deliberately engage with texture: if not of objects, then of the voice and the mouth, sibilance and saliva amplified sensuously through binaural recording. ASMR, then, is exemplary of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s claim in Touching Feeling that, “what [texture and affect] have in common is that at whatever scale they are attended to, both are irreducibly phenomenological” (21). Here, the pleasurable affect manifests in the phenomenological tingles across the listener-viewer’s skin as Olivia taps her fingers along “your” hairline, runs her fingers through your hair, massages your scalp with her fingertips, and pushes the tines of the wire head massager down your head. If all goes well, you will feel like Kissper really is touching, stroking, and caressing you, and the experience will trigger “the tingles.” Performances such as Kissper’s produce the sensation of proximity, and are able to do so specifically through the digital technology that allows for the perfect storm of amplified aural, visual, and haptic stimulation. Here, the ASMRtist’s performance evinces the sensation of proximity and even direct contact with another body. As sound studies scholar Joshua Hudelson has described, in ASMR media, “sound is transduced into touch, and the taut membranes of the listener’s headphones become coterminous with his own skin.” The pleasure of these role-play videos derives not only from the physiological response to the mediated contact, but from the “personal attention” trigger (one of the top five most popular ASMR triggers according to a recent survey), as established through the use of second-person address. The demand for this element of intimacy is also growing in porn, according to Ela Darling, whose new website vrtube.xxx (NSFW) features virtual, one-on-one 3D cam sessions.
Mediated intimacy is at play in all ASMR videos, in the sense that they are produced for personal use. ASMR videos that use binaural recording techniques must be listened to with headphones, which means that each individual among the hundreds of thousands of viewers of these performances experiences an intimate encounter with the ASMRtist. But that intimacy is turned up even higher in role-play scenarios, as in one of Olivia’s earliest videos, “❀ Whispering, HAIR BRUSHING, Braiding & card reading ASMR ❀.”
This video takes place in a softly lit bedroom, with eye level low enough to suggest that the viewer-listener is sitting on the bed. Olivia is dressed casually in a plaid shirt, which is, not incidentally, unbuttoned rather low. She begins the video by addressing the viewer-listener directly as “friend,” and providing some expository dialogue indicating that the relationship is one of good friends who have not seen each other for a long time. She tells the viewer-listener she wants to braid her hair, but before she does that, she wants to:
start with acknowledging you because I’ve realized recently that I don’t tell you certain things and I just don’t want to put it off anymore. And I’m gonna whisper it to you, um, because it is really important for me that you really get that, yeah?
However, despite the platonic relationship established in the expository introduction, the boundary-crossing proximity of Olivia’s neck and hair in the viewer-listener’s field of vision erotically charges the banal acknowledgements she whispers.
It is clear that the intimacy that I experienced with Olivia is mediated—the hair she is braiding is not my own, for example, I cannot actually touch the objects she offers me, nor would she recognize me if I met her walking down the street—but does mediation necessarily imply inauthenticity? If intimacy is affective (pleasurable) and phenomenological (tingly), then doesn’t my experience with the mediated Olivia count as “real” intimacy? Dominic Pettman has suggested that love itself is a technology in “Love in the Time of Tamagotchi,” and points to the fact that intimacy is often done better through digital simulation:
[W]ith the current technology, simultaneous eye-contact is not possible. […] The video-chatter has the choice of staring at the image of their interlocutor, or straight into the camera, but not both at the same time. […] In 2012, simulated avatars already have an advantage over other humans on video-chat, since they can better simulate such a vital interactional presence, precisely by better simulating this eye-to-eye event (110).
Although Pettman provides the example of a digital avatar in a game, I think the same could be said of ASMR videos, and that Olivia’s eye contact is equally effective and affective. Olivia herself believes this to be true, asserting on her personal website that, “Because of our emphatic [sic] human connection and mirror neurons, our brain cannot tell the difference between a face-to-face interaction and online roleplay.”
The authenticity of the encounter between the ASMRtist and her listener-viewer is paramount in Olivia’s work, especially when it comes to the concept of healing. It is no coincidence that spa treatments and medical exams are two of the most popular genres of ASMR role-play: both appeal to the pleasure of being cared for. Indeed, for Olivia, her videos are not just about producing pleasure for her viewers, but about healing them. This has become more evident in her recent videos, which belie her interest in science fiction, Eastern medicine and spirituality, New Age and metaphysical therapies, and what she calls “transpersonal healing.” One of her more unique videos, “FUTURISTIC TINGLES! Binaural ASMR exam and transpersonal healing role play with binaural beats,” exemplifies this philosophy. “FUTURISTIC TINGLES!” is quite different from the typical ASMR video in that it is less about stimulating particular senses or simulating particular experiences, and much closer to the abstraction of meditation exercises. It is not realistic, nor is it trying to be. But it is still acutely concerned with the phenomenological effect on the listener-viewer’s body.
This unique video, replete with computerized special effects, opens with a quote that draws connections between the placebo effect and the role of “caring attention” in healing. The viewer-listener is then led through a complex scenario in which Olivia, as a virtual cyborg healer, examines them through their computer screen, and then leads them through a healing meditation involving trippy visual sequences and binaural beats intended to trigger different, relaxing brain wave states. While the medical tests conducted in the first half of the video set the scene (and appeal to popular tropes within the ASMR genre at large), the second half is intended to produce actual healing effects within the body, not just simulate them. Olivia’s point is not that alternative therapies such as binaural beats and ASMR could be supported by Western research if only the scientists would study them; on the contrary, her performances embrace the healing potential of those phenomena that cannot be substantiated by Western research.
But although Olivia advocates for the alternative healing qualities of ASMR, her most popular videos are still about spas and medical offices, not reiki, palm reading, or ayahuasca, although she does have videos on all of those topics. The reason these two scenarios—doctor’s offices and salons—are so much more popular than, say, scenes in which the viewer is ill or tired and being cared for by a lover or a parent is because we are more likely to already have access to those forms of intimacy in our day-to-day lives. But although our doctors and aestheticians may know our bodies more intimately than most people in our lives, they are still considered strangers, and interactions with them must therefore follow strict protocol, particularly regarding sexual encounter. We may not articulate the pleasures we enjoy at the doctor or the salon because sexuality is understood as necessarily genital, and definitively relegated to specific relationships only. Similar to Anderson’s point that ASMR videos are productive of a “queer intimacy” (697), this essay shows how ASMR videos exemplify that there are alternative pleasures in these caring intimacies, and provide an outlet for enjoying those intimacies alongside of what is deemed appropriate in the mainstream.
Bearing these three components of Olivia’s videos in mind—pleasure, intimacy, and care—what interests me about ASMR is that they really do touch us: the mediation of the digital recording allows the vibrations produced by Olivia’s vocal cords and finger nails to literally penetrate my ear and resonate within my body. In this way, the technological mediation of ASMR videos facilitates, rather than hinders, contact between the performer and the viewer-listener, a point that speaks to the appeal of ASMR role-play videos in particular. ASMR refers not just to “the tingles” but to the affective conglomeration of physiological tingles and psychical pleasure and relaxation, as produced by the touch of the ASMRtist. And similarly, as Teresa Brennan suggests in The Transmission of Affect, even my internal chemistry may literally be affected by “body movements and gestures, particularly through the imitation of rhythms (effected by sight, touch, and hearing)” (70). While the sexuality of this resonance is implied by the (problematically) gendered performances of ASMRtists such as Olivia Kissper, I suggest, somewhat provocatively, that ASMR is not just like sex, but is sex.
As “sex” is increasingly acknowledged as referring to a wide range of activities outside of penetrative, heterosexual, genital intercourse, it seems inevitable that its bounds will continue to expand, blur, and reconstitute themselves. Sexuality, therefore, should not be defined by the concrete gestures that constitute “sex” in a given time and place. Rather, sex could be understood as any embodied technique of pleasure, intimacy, and care, while sexuality could refer to an infinite scope of techniques within that category. In this way, by asking what sex does to the body rather than what it means for the subject, we may be able to cast aside sexuality’s moralistic conundrums and better attend to its affective aspects. What the current, dominant, Western definitions of sexuality often restrict, are the socially sanctioned opportunities for certain bodies to touch other bodies and, it follows, the ability to see the benefit of a multiplicity of intimacies. ASMR performances may be one means of transgressing the interdictions on when and how bodies may access one another, sowing the seeds for cultivating alternative, pleasurable, intimate, and caring modes of life.
Image “In the Pink” by Koppenbadger @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.
Emma Leigh Waldron is a Ph.D. student in the Performance Studies Graduate Group at the University of California, Davis and a graduate of the MA Performance Research program at the University of Bristol. She is also Co-Editor-in-Chief at the online journal, Analog Game Studies.
Emma’s research focuses on affective communities that coalesce around intimate performances of touch. She is currently researching the mediated intimacy of ASMR videos on YouTube, and how sex is represented in larp (live-action role-playing games). She is especially interested in how definitions and manifestations of sexuality are negotiated, reified, and transformed through these practices. Her work lies at the intersection of performance studies and media studies, and questions the role of embodiment in sexuality, intimacy, and touch. Her work is informed by feminist theory, queer theory, affect studies, and phenomenology. You can find Emma online at www.emmaleighwaldron.com.
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