Pop music in the late 1990s to early 2000s was often designed to show the singers’ prowess in belting out high notes – think Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, and Beyoncé. With powerful voices, their performances involved a dramatic show of vocal acrobatics that left fans wild with excitement.
But with Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” in 2019, a new trend began to emerge. Her low-pitched, breathy vocals sparked the rise of “whisperpop”, as coined by The Guardian. “In recent years, pop has moved from the theatrical vocal pyrotechnics to a less bombastic style: from a scream to a whisper. Traditionally exceptional vocalists such as Ariana Grande and Sia still abound, but elsewhere a refreshingly subdued vocal stance has become unavoidable,” writes Peter Robinson.
Music streaming platform Pandora has also conducted a analysis on the topic through The Music Genome Project. “Breathy vocalists certainly existed pre-streaming, but up until 2015, songs in this style were in a small minority. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, hushed vocals were present in just one to two percent of songs, while they accounted for two to four percent in the ‘80s and ‘90s. So far in 2019, nearly 23 percent of these songs have what Pandora music analysts consider hushed and breathy vocals,” says the article.
Bagging five 2019 Grammy awards and another two for 2020, Eilish is living proof that music doesn’t always have to be explosive. Having won Record of the Year for Everything I Wanted in the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards, her unique brand of music has attracted fans from all around the world – no screaming and shouting required.
What is it about Eilish’s music that makes it so irresistible?
“It’s as if she’s right next to you, whispering into your ear.” This is one of the most common answers people give – the proximity of her voice, so close you can hear every intake of breath and the pronunciation of her P’s, K’s, and T’s.
With every syllable magnified, listening to Eilish’s music is unlike listening to any other conventional pop tune. It’s likely that you might experience one (or more) of the following: goosebumps running down your arms, chills or tingles along your spine that leave the back of your neck a little numb, or a “brain orgasm” – a trancelike feeling of relaxation and euphoria.
This is known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) – a perception phenomenon that generates a bioelectric current through auditory, visual, tactile, olfactory or perceptive stimuli. When this current passes through the nerves, you experience an unmistakably pleasant feeling.
Even though Eilish and her brother and co-writer Finneas have never openly admitted it, ASMR is indeed a notable influence in her work.
For us at Sound of Life, we’re of the belief that the close-range vocal quality makes listeners feel that they’re experiencing these songs in real life, inside their own auditory bubble (especially with earphones on). It sounds private, uninterrupted, and special.
ASMR can manifest itself in various ways. Everyone has a different trigger and threshold, which means that what gives others a “brain orgasm” might or might not work for you. For some, ASMR can be felt when watching people paint, listening to the sizzle of fried chicken, or even listening to soundscapes of cities.
But some of the most common types of ASMR are felt through soft, isolated sounds like tapping on a keyboard, the rustling of paper, and especially gentle whispers. Whether intentional or not, Eilish incorporates layers of ASMR goodness into her songs, which culminate into one giant ball of sensory enjoyment for the listener.
And it’s not just Eilish’s voice or the way she sings, either. Talking to Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, Finneas reveals some unexpected sources of sounds they used in their songs. “Bury A Friend” features a drill sound that Eilish recorded at the dentist’s, and the hi-hat rhythm from “Bad Guy” is actually from pedestrian traffic lights in Australia. At the very beginning of “Bad Guy”, you even hear Eilish taking out her Invisalign braces, resulting in a plasticky click. These elements also contribute to the overall ASMR listening experience.
SINGING RIGHT INTO YOUR EARS
While Eilish popularized this interesting technique and made it her signature, many artists have also had very successful songs that highlight the use of ASMR. Selena Gomez is a striking example – changing her singing style has resulted in her finding her niche in breathy pop. Gomez’s almost-talking vocalizations in her newer releases are a far cry from her older songs like “Love You Like A Love Song” and “Come And Get It”, which were far more “belty”. “Good For You” was one of the first songs where Gomez started singing in a whispery tone, and it worked amazingly well for her. Subsequently, “Hands To Myself”, “Bad Liar” and “Lose You To Love Me” follow in the same ASMR-esque style.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that singer/songwriter Julia Michaels – who co-wrote Gomez’s chart-topping tracks “Good For You” and “Bad Liar” – also adopts a similar singing technique. In “Issues”, Michaels’ vocals sound markedly louder than the music, even during the chorus where you can hear each lilt clear as day.
MAKING MEMORABLE MOUTH SOUNDS
Hailing from Malaysia, alternative-indie musician Zee Avi is no stranger to laidback melodies and simple (yet memorable) arrangements. “Concrete Wall” has almost no background music – only backing vocals that loop an addictive “boom-shee-clack-clack”, which stays in your brain even after the song has long ended.
After a three-year hiatus, Janelle Monáe made a powerful comeback in early 2018 with “Make Me Feel” from her third studio album, Dirty Computer. “Make Me Feel” delivers a double-whammy of whispers and tongue-clicking, two major ASMR sounds that are sure to send tingles down your spine. And it seems like everyone loved it too – the song charted on Billboard’s Hot 100, and went on to become gold-certified. Did ASMR play a role in its popularity? We’d like to think so.
NOTHING BUT THE MELODY
Before the term ASMR even existed, the Irish were already making music the ASMR way. With little to no background music involved (at most, a single-note drone), sean-nós (which means “the old way”) is an ancient style of unaccompanied singing involving highly ornamented melodic lines performed in the Irish Gaelic language. It is said that during the performance, the singer usually goes into a trance-like state, facing a corner of the room away from the audience. The listeners participate by moving together to the rhythm of the song, sometimes linking hands with the singer.
Classical soprano Madelyn Monaghan pays tribute to her mother tongue in a series of TikTok videos, highlighting the beauty of the traditional Irish singing style of sean-nós. All you hear is the clear, crisp melody that is representative of the style, allowing you to focus your full attention without any distractions.
Molly Webb, who owns singing and artist development school Molly’s Music, explains that you can sing in a conversational tone: “Try shortening your vowels, making them crisp, the way HAIM does. Or just pronounce the consonants as you normally would. If you’re in a particularly conversational part of a song, try talking it on the rhythm first and noticing your speech patterns. If you’re saying “sommmme-day” instead of “suuuuuuhmday,” try singing it this way to see how it comes out.”
By singing “conversationally”, the ASMR quality of a song is further enhanced. The late João Gilberto, a Brazilian bossa nova singer, was known for this particular technique. His vocal style was often described as “laid-back and understated”, giving people the impression of quiet comfort.
Put on your headphones, turn up the volume, and lose yourself in the wonderful world of ASMR music with SOL’s curated playlist below:
Cover Credit: Koury Angelo/Getty Images
Writer | Michelle Tan
Lover of all things bizarre, Michelle has a soft spot for dinosaurs, animal videos and a strong G&T. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.