Tag Archive | ASMR

What Do We Hear in Depp v. Heard?

As you probably know—whether you want to or not—the jury reached a verdict earlier this summer in the trial between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp. The trial, in the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Virginia, involved defamation and counter-defamation claims by the two actors. Heard published a 2018 op-ed in The Washington Post in which she claimed to be “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” Depp sued her for defamation, she counter-sued, and a seven-week spectacle of celebrity, misogyny, and power followed, in which Depp substantially prevailed.

What does a close listening to Depp v. Heard tell us about this particular trial, as well as about sex and power in the courtroom more generally? 

Depp v. Heard did not just randomly become a media circus. As Joanne Sweeny noted in Slate, the judge made two procedural rulings that led to the ensuing frenzy—and greatly tipped the scales toward the plaintiff. Firstly, the judge allowed cameras in the courtroom to broadcast the proceedings. The Code of Virginia leaves this decision largely up to the court’s discretion, but also stipulates that coverage of “proceedings concerning sexual offenses” is prohibited. Despite the content and high-profile nature of this case, Judge Penney Azcarate decided to proceed with the broadcast. 

Untitled Image by Flickr user SethTippie

Azcarate’s decision is strikingly at odds with the court’s emphasis on silence and decorum. Court order CL-2019-2911 stated, for example, that “Quiet and order shall be maintained at all times. Audible comments of any kind during the court proceedings … will not be tolerated.” In fact, Azcarate interrupted proceedings during trial to tell courtroom spectators to keep their mouths shut. During trial, extraneous noise is heard not just as uncivil but as a threat to impartiality and fairness. However, according to the judge’s logic, this threat is only perceived  within the courtroom. 

This brings us to the second procedural ruling of consequence here. Despite the frenzy enveloping the case, Azcarate decided not to sequester the jury. Jury sequestration involves  the members of the jury being isolated  from public and press during a trial, in order to avoid accidental or deliberate exposure to outside influence or information. Video from the courtroom flooded the internet and, as commentators have argued, likely and unduly influenced the jury, who were not isolated and prevented from accessing TV or social media. As Depp’s legions of supporters raged online, social media effectively became part of his legal team. This  work was done in great part through sound. 

Social media online commentary forensically dissected Heard’s oral testimony, noting changes in her breathing patterns or her speech cadence. Often they would hone in on the fact that she “exhale[d] erratically,” or “can talk so fast,” as seen in this Entertainment Tonight compilation:

The online jury adjudicated on all these vocal elements as proof that she was lying. One internet article described her in audiotape evidence as “cackle[ing] like a witch” and alternating between “laugh[ing] hysterically” and using a “baby voice.” Heard’s detractors took her voice as proof that she was emotionless, robotic, calculated, too well-rehearsed—but also that she was chaotic, nervous, crazy. 

In contrast, commentators described Depp’s voice as “calm,” “calming,” and “soothing,” with Tik Tok users hash-tagging ASMR to audio of him. One fan even posted a ninety-minute ASMR video of his testimony. Multiple Twitter users claimed that “you can hear the pain” in his voice, from an audiotape admitted during trial. At other times, he is applauded for “giggling” and laughing during the trial, with fans hearing it as evidence of his authenticity and “kind soul.” One YouTube commentator, Grandma WHOa, writes that they wish he would record an audiobook so they could “listen to his calming, sexy soothing man voice.” 

So far, so predictable. These are well-established, recognizable patterns about how we hear men’s vs women’s voices in public life—e.g. critiques of Hilary Clinton’s shrill, whiny voice. But listening in to the trial also reveals that this isn’t just a case of online fan culture on overdrive. Instead, it shows how broader social dynamics around gender and power don’t just create outside noise, but are built into formal legal practice within the courtroom.

Much of the conflict here follows a common pattern in defamation cases involving sexual violence claims, with questions around who gets to be a victim (see in my forthcoming piece in HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory titled “The Tone of Justice: Voicing the Perpetrator-as-Victim in Sexual Assault Cases”). Depp claimed to have suffered through the defamatory statement and through a longer history of abuse by Heard. His fans framed him as a hero and a victim, using the  social media hashtag #HeardIsAnAbuser. On the other hand, they refused to believe Heard’s claims of having suffered abuse. This determination was based at least in part on Heard’s vocal performance and courtroom testimony, with detractors hearing duplicity in her exhalations, her rapid pace, the occasional firmness and confidence of her tone. As one Depp supporter commented on a video of Heard’s testimony,  “There’s no way a victim sounds like this.” 

Yet in a key strategic move, Depp’s lawyers chose to make Heard sound precisely as sexual assault victims often do during trial. Seeking to dismantle her credibility, they looked to the toolkit of how to deal with a victim in court, mobilizing a well-worn set of legal techniques used to interrogate survivors of sexual violence. In one cross-examination, for example, the plaintiff’s counsel declares that Heard’s “lies have been exposed to the world multiple times.” This claim is then manifested through a series of vocal disciplinary tactics to undermine Heard’s testimony and depict her as a false witness.

For instance, the lawyer, Camille Vasquez, repeatedly employs a common interrogation technique of speaking over and cutting off Heard as she is replying to a question. As legal scholars and sociologists have shown, such techniques are often used in sexual assault cases to intimidate and shape perceptions of the complainant. In a pioneering study on courtroom talk during rape trials, Gregory Matoesian, in Reproducing rape: Domination through talk in the courtroom (1993) describes how lawyers reproduce patriarchal relations of dominance and subordination by “usurping” the witness’ ability to respond (186). As he notes, questions—wielded like weapons of attack by skillful lawyers—are more powerful than answers. 

Vocal technique and dynamics are key here. In Vasquez’s cross-examinations, she repeatedly raises her voice to interrupt Heard, disciplining her before the jury and spectators. She laughs at her testimony and infantilizes Heard, at times speaking to her in calm tones before quickly shifting to a harsher timbre. At one point, Vasquez snaps her notes shut and walks back to her seat while Heard is still answering her question. Heard is forced into abrupt silence. Unable to respond to the question she was asked, she audibly loses control of the narrative being spun. Vasquez also frequently speaks over her and directly to the judge, objecting that Heard is being non-responsive. The lawyer performs for the judge and jury her refusal to listen to Heard. 

At other moments, Vasquez’s voice and affect telegraph exasperation, as she audibly sighs while Heard attempts to answer a question. As Heard and Vasquez go back-and-forth over a line of questioning, Vasquez’s voice bristles with irritation as she speaks in clipped tones, with sharp inflection at the end of each line: “Yes?” “Right?” “Yes or no?” These interjections add an aural layer of interpretation to Heard’s testimony in real-time, guiding the jury to hear the witness as evasive and therefore unreliable. Vasquez’s expressions are all part of a careful vocal strategy, implicitly saying to the jury, “Can you believe this woman?” 

Screenshot from NBC Today video, “Amber Heard Breaks Silence: I Don’t Blame The Jury”

Of course, the answer is no. Jessica Winter, writing in The New Yorker, points out that Heard lost in part because of her “tearless crying,” the fact that she appeared insincere. Winter acknowledges that successful testimony is about “affect and presentation”, a reality that is no secret. In fact, jury instructions in Depp v. Heard clearly state that determinations of witness credibility are based in part on witnesses’ “appearance and manner.” Jurors must use their “common sense” to “determine which witnesses are more believable.” 

But how is “common sense” established? Listening closely to this trial reminds us that such understandings are constructed and regulated through sound as well as through determinants of “appearance and manner,” both in and out of the courtroom. Vasquez’s performance, Heard’s subordinated testimony, and the commentary of millions of avid consumers underline that Heard and Depp sound to many people exactly as common sense and conventional norms would dictate. 

A woman claiming abuse and assault at the hands of a more powerful man is always subject to patriarchal ways of listening, even if she is rich, famous, straight, and white. These ways of listening are contradictory. Research shows that “masculine” voices are heard as more authoritative and dominant, while women are often heard as weak, uncertain, lacking confidence. The public ear hears other racialized and gendered voices through similar power inequities, including queer, nonbinary, and LGBT voices or voices of people of color. In the context of sexual assault adjudication, however, Heather Hlavka and Sameena Mulla show in their Law & Society Review article “That’s How She Talks”: Animating Text Message Evidence in the Sexual Assault Trial” “that a confident voice and calm performance can work against a victim-witness in court, by suggesting that she is not passive or meek enough to be a ‘real’ victim.” On the other hand, they note that a victim-witness who cries on the stand may give the impression of performing or acting. Lawyers audibly manipulate these perceptions, as the examples here show, and men (particularly heteronormative, white men in positions of power) reap huge benefits from them.  

Many observers of Depp v. Heard have noted the toxic social media sludge around the case, as well as the danger that the verdict poses to survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault. But listening closely to the proceedings shows us that these outcomes aren’t random and aren’t just part of informal processes like trial by Tik Tok. 

Instead, formal court proceedings manipulate and mobilize social scripts around survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, and around women and marginalized others, to reach their outcomes. We can hear how this strategy plays out through sound and voice, from sighing and interrupting to laughter and silence. The jury instructions in Depp v. Heard state that “Our system of law does not permit jurors to be governed by sympathy, prejudice, or public opinion.” But despite claims that the legal system is based on objectivity and impartiality, we can hear that the law never exists in a bubble – and lawyers often and successfully rely on this very fact. 

Featured image: “Courtroom” by Flickr user Karen Neoh, CC BY 2.0

Nomi Dave is a former lawyer, interdisciplinary researcher, and co-director of the Sound Justice Lab at the University of Virginia, where she is Associate Professor of Music. She is currently co-writing  and co-directing a documentary film, Big Mouth, on a defamation lawsuit connected to a sexual violence case in Guinea.

tape reel

REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:

“People’s lives are at stake”: A conversation about Law, Listening, and Sound between James Parker and Lawrence English—Lawrence English and James Parker

Vocal Gender and the Gendered Soundscape: At the Intersection of Gender Studies and Sound Studies—Christine Ehrick

Or Does it Explode?: Sounding Out the U.S. Metropolis in Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun—Liana Silva

Mukbang Cooks, Chews, and Heals

Welcome to Next Gen sound studies! In the month of November, you will be treated to the future. . . today! In this series, we will share excellent work from undergraduates, along with the pedagogy that inspired them. You’ll read voice biographies, check out blog assignments, listen to podcasts, and read detailed histories that will inspire and invigorate. Bet.  –JS

Today’s post comes from Binghamton University junior David Lee, former student in SO! Editor-in-Chief J. Stoever’s English 380W “How We Listen,” an introductory, upper-division sound studies course at Binghamton University, with a typical enrollment of 45 students. This assignment asked students to

write one researched, multimedia blog post on our class WordPress in the style of Sounding Out! on a sound studies topic of interest to you (approximately 1500 words). Your post should involve an issue involving power and social identity, use our in-class readings as a springboard and quotes and analyzes at least 2 in the post, relate our course topic at hand to a contemporary event, conversation, or issue and includes evidence of research of that topic (3-5 quotations/links to credible online sources), include audio, visual, and/or audio-visual elements as a key part of your analysis (this can include recordings, still photos, you tube clips, videos, etc.) and follow SO!’s submission guidelines on form, style, tone, and content: (https://soundstudiesblog.com/to-blog-2/).

For the full assignment sheet, click How We Listen_Final Blog Assignment For the grading rubric, click Blog Assignment Grading Rubric (1). For the full Fall 2018 syllabus, click english-380w_how-we-listen_fall-2018

Mukbang is the newest wave in trends for ASMR; it is an online audiovisual broadcast in which the host enjoys his/her food while interacting with the audience. Adopted from Korea, Mukbang’s literal translation is a portmanteau—it is a combination of two Korean words: “mukja” (let’s eat) and “bangsong” (broadcast). The first time I watched these eating broadcasts was in 2018, before major surgery. Prior to the surgery, I could not eat for twenty-four hours. It came to the point where I was so hungry that I would chew up the meat and spit it out and I would make a mental list of foods that I wanted to eat after the surgery. In an effort to satisfy my hunger, I watched a lot of videos on the Tasty network and stumbled upon Mukbangs. I had heard of the term prior to that day but had never watched the videos myself. The experience could be expressed as an oxymoron: sweet torture. I remember salivating uncontrollably but at the same time watching someone eat began to ease my own stomach.

In recent years Mukbang has blown up on streaming sites like Youtube, and has been met with a subsequent huge audience growth. Mukbang was most notably referenced in the company’s Youtube Rewind 2018 video:

Interestingly, Mukbangs have only been considered ASMR once they were adopted by American content creators. According to journalist Matthew Sedacca, viewers explain that they experience what they call a “braingasm”, described as a tingling sensation down one’s spine from the sounds of cooking and eating. The sizzling sounds of the broth or the slurping sounds of noodles are what is said to relax the listeners. In Touch the Sound, Evelyn Glennie communicates that to hear is to also touch. Likewise, the viewers experience a sensation of touch from the audio and visual elements that the video stimulates. The sounds of food that many associate with tingling, pleasant sensation can also provide viewers with a sense of comfort and reassurance.

In today’s busy society, it is hard to have a formal meal with our family and friends, so oftentimes we are found eating alone. Watching Mukbangs can mitigate the feeling of loneliness through the presence of what Steve Connor calls the vocalic body, so while we are eating alone, the presence of another is real and felt. According to Connor, “[t]he principle of the vocalic body is simple. Voices are produced by bodies: but can also themselves produce bodies. The vocalic body is the idea—which can take the form of dream, fantasy, ideal, theological doctrine, or hallucination—of a surrogate or secondary body, a projection of a new way of having or being a body, formed and sustained out of the autonomous operations of the voice” (35). The voice in these videos takes the form of a body sitting next to us, eating and talking to us.

Simply put, viewers are watching another individual enjoy his/her meal, but Mukbangs have a greater social implication. The rise in popularity of Mukbangs coincide with the rapid technological advancements occurring in society and the shift in entertainment focus on streamable content. Eating is a routine and everyday experience, so Mukbangs portray a vital aspect of life where viewers can passively watch while experiencing the sensory feeling that sound evokes. When the host visually and audibly enjoys his/her meal the viewers can feel the presence of a body ,which accounts for the chills down one’s spine characteristic of ASMR videos. As this phenomenon demonstrates, sound can lessen feelings of loneliness by bringing the audience a sense of human comfort.

“the cook has to eat alone” by Flickr user Joseph Choi, CC BY 2.0

Mukbangs are also helpful to those who have restrictions in their diet. For someone who may be deadly allergic to shellfish, he/she can imagine that experience by watching another person enjoy the dish. While it is not the same as twisting off the claws of a lobster and eating the meat, watching and listening to another person do just that allows the viewer to be a part of that experience. Moreover, a deadly food allergy may keep someone from sharing a communal meal with friends; the sounds of a Mukbang video could recreate that experience. Lastly, and no less important, Mukbangs act in opposition to the unrealistic beauty standards of society; while society’s expectations push us to always keep our figure, a Mukbanger’s response is to eat senselessly. Therefore, Mukbangs embody our fantasies; we live vicariously through the broadcaster.

Mukbangs have introduced a new format for cooking shows. Rather than emphasizing cheesy background music and eccentric hosts on cable tv, Mukbangs strip all these effects away, so that viewers can truly appreciate the essence of cooking in the kitchen: it’s not just about what the dish tastes like in the end, but also the auditory experience. On cooking shows, a lot of the focus ends up on what the plate looks like, or what steps go in what order—it is a visual experience, in general. When it comes to Mukbangs, people watching the videos get to enjoy the relaxing sounds of cooking, and the focus is not on copying the recipe: Sedacca states, “with ASMR it becomes more about the sound than the taste.” The alternate format promotes cooking to a larger audience instead of gearing towards stay-at-home moms. Mukbang cooking videos tend to be more of a minimalist everyday perspective rather than displaying cooking as a luxurious commodity. Mukbangs show us that it is no longer about becoming the cook, but appreciating the cooking being done, and the sound adds to the intimacy of the event. With Mukbangs it is as if your mom were cooking in the kitchen.

In doing so, Mukbangs can also advocate for cultural awareness, as viewers are exposed to different foods that the host enjoys. By seeing a host they trust enjoy foreign food, it encourages the viewer to possibly try that food or visit that country in the future. A popular example of this would be when kpop idol Hwasa from group Mamamoo went on a South Korean tv show called I Live Alone and ate gopchang (cattle intestines) at a nearby restaurant. After the video went viral, the Korean BBQ restaurant industry exploded within a day, so much so, that the dish was reportedly sold out in all of Seoul, Korea.

As for me, nowadays I watch Mukbangs when I miss home. Now that I am away at college, many of my meals consist of dining hall food. Where I go to school, Korean restaurants are scarce and do not taste the same as home. There is something about a well-cooked Korean meal that Korean restaurants at school cannot replicate. So, when I am away at college, I often watch Korean Mukbangs to tap into the comfort of home, through sound and images.

Mukbang watchers have an array of audience members; people watch it to lose weight, for ASMR, or simply when they are eating alone. Mukbangs challenge social norms; although it may be rude to slurp spaghetti noodles in public, Mukbang is evidence that some people enjoy those exact sounds. Likewise, as more people begin to live individualistic lives, the eating broadcasts make up for this difference in human interaction. For those trying to lose weight, Mukbangs offer the option of seeing someone “eat their feelings” without you yourself having to overindulge or feel guilt.

More importantly, Mukbang is a relevant example that listening can be a tactile experience: through vibrations and also from sensations through the body. It challenges the listening audience to be present and appreciate the essence of food, and cooking as a sustaining artform. The aforementioned is especially true for cooking shows where the audience listens for the calming sounds that come with cooking instead of listening to what seems like a sales pitch to best copy the recipe. Mukbang makes cooking and, consequently, eating into healing activities instead of something that is reserved solely for those who have the time. Mukbangs are making a social difference by promoting Korean culture, spreading cultural awareness through food, and helping to lessen the feeling of loneliness. While Mukbangs were previously seen as fetishized or weird they are now challenging our preconceived notions on how, what, and with who we should enjoy food.

Featured image: “Korean Food – Korean Kimchi and BBQ Cooking Meat (Creative Commons)” by Flickr user Sous Chef, CC BY 2.0

David Lee is a Korean American Junior at Binghamton University studying Finance and Marketing. In his free time he likes to read, work out, or watch TV. He is an avid fan of Game of Thrones, Rick and Morty, and Got7.

REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Sounding Out Podcast #14: Interview with Meme Librarian Amanda Brennan — Aaron Trammell

Listening to Whisperers: Performance, ASMR Community, and Fetish on Youtube — Joshua Hudelson

Toward A Civically Engaged Sound Studies, or ReSounding Binghamton–Jennifer Stoever

 

%d bloggers like this: