this youtube asmr trend finds the beauty in loneliness

Cut to me falling into a TikTok hole listening to ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High’, but played as though I’m hearing it while making out with someone in the bathroom at a house party.

by Roisin Lanigan
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08 November 2019, 8:00am

Have you ever wanted to hear your favourite nostalgic track, but in the exact manner that you first fell in love with that song in the first place? Instead of the super-clean audio quality that you can find within a few seconds on Spotify, might it be more resonant to hear the songs from your past as you first heard them? Like, muffled at a house party, sparking flashbacks of you huddled in the bathroom with your friends, crying over a man who’d wronged you? Or echoing around a shopping centre over a tannoy, reminding you of all the aimless afternoons you loitered there with your friends after school, when there was nothing better to do than going to a mall and just... staying there for six hours? Or overloaded with bass, as though it’s being played in the first shitty nightclub you ever snuck into with your fake ID?

All of that might sound way too specific but, if you’re aching for nostalgia, YouTube’s musical ASMR community has you covered. From the same corner of the internet which brought you Simpsonswave and anime-influenced chilled out lo-fi study beats, comes an uber-specific genre: It’s all your favourite songs, but heard through drywall. Muffled and distant, yet weirdly atmospheric, the effect is strangely moving. Fall into a video-hole exploring the genre, and you’ll find the greats are all there. There’s Childish Gambino - 'Redbone' (playing in an empty shopping centre). There’s 'Somebody Else' by The 1975 but you're making out in the bathroom of a party. There’s 'Slow Dancing in the Dark' by Joji but you're in a bathtub. The titles might sound a little odd, but the effect of the edits themselves is simultaneously bizarre, chilling, and moving, and really quite beautiful.

Cecil Roberts runs one of the most popular accounts posting these “from another room edits”. The 22-year-old lives in Wisconsin and works as a kitchen manager, but his real passion is music. “I was inspired by these edits I kept coming across online, and I kept getting requests for them when I started my YouTube channel”, Cecil tells i-D. “But I wanted to make it my own. The first thing I came up with was playing in an empty mall. The reactions I got were amazing and I started thinking of other scenarios that may evoke an emotional response.”

But what makes the videos so popular? As Cecil mentions, they evoke a strange, often melancholy response from viewers. “A lot of it is nostalgia,” he explains. “A lot of it is anemoia. [Anemoia, a relatively new term, arose from an online movement where users invented new words to describe uncanny feelings. It describes nostalgia for a past that didn’t exist or that you yourself have never lived -- like someone born in 1996 being nostalgic for the 1980s]. Some people share stories of my videos bringing them back to their childhood and listening to their older sibling playing their music from the next room over. Or shopping with their parents. Another aspect, I think, is that these videos make perfect sets for stories that aren't there, which aren’t happening. You have a scene, a sound, and a feeling, but no story. I think it encourages people's minds to wander and come up with different scenarios.”

They have proven so emotive, in fact, that “from another room” edits have spawned an online musical community all of their own. Cecil’s most popular video, which imagines Toto’s 'Africa' playing in an empty shopping mall, has over 2.9 million views and took his YouTube career to new heights. “It was a thing I did entirely for fun that millions of people have now connected with and felt some kind of emotional response from,” he says. “It’s extremely surreal that it’s become its own genre, that people have latched onto it so strongly and feel as emotional about it as they do. It clearly still means a lot to a great deal of people.”

The trend, we should point out, is not new. In fact, it’s been popping up intermittently on YouTube since at least early 2018. But it’s definitely growing in popularity. And it’s moving platforms to -- where else! -- TikTok. The collaborative nature of everyone’s favourite video-sharing platform means that this style of video has developed into an almost RPG function. Users can record clips which show them acting out scenes from house parties or meet-cutes worthy of your favourite overly-earnest romantic comedies, while a muffled soundtrack plays in the background. Undeniably quite cringe, they’ve already been parodied to death and become a meme in themselves (such is the nature of TikTok, duh).

But perhaps these POV, roleplay-style situations, and the ASMR videos posted to YouTube tie into a wider generational shift in how we think about loneliness, nostalgia and social anxiety. FOMO first showed up on Urban Dictionary all the way back in 2013, defined as “the mental and emotional strain caused by the fear of missing out”. But recently FOMO has become less ubiquitous as a cultural phenomenon. In fact it’s become inverted. Nowadays, in fact, you’re more likely to see someone celebrating JOMO – the joy of missing out – than worrying about what they’re losing by not going to the club. Last month, a piece in The Atlantic argued that “loneliness is Instagram’s new hottest trend”, and explored the rise of a new class of influencer who, rather than building their following through the usual holiday pics and post-festi selfies, are creating a world that’s lived mostly in their own bedrooms and mostly alone. Under the headline “Why the New Instagram It Girl Spends All Her Time Alone”, writer Kaitlyn Tiffany revealed how our aspirational ideals have changed, how it’s now seen as cool to be antisocial and introverted rather than a social butterfly with a hashtag dependency.

As one commenter under a YouTube video entitled ”As If It’s Your Last by Blackpink as if you’re at a club” asks, “why go out when you can stay in your room and pretend you function like a regular social being?” While once we were ashamed of solitude, introversion has become more aspirational, or at least more accepted. We’ve all seen that meme of the adorable little dog tucked up in bed peacefully with the caption “me when I pretend I’m sick to get out of plans and stay at home doing nothing”. Or the one of Britney Spears slowly ascending a staircase as though she’s about to leave the stage, before suddenly turning around and smiling at the camera. “Me when I’m about to leave the house but my friend says they can’t make it after all,” the caption reads. Same.

While once loneliness was seen as being inherently sad, maybe these YouTube videos, and the TikTok videos which sit alongside them, show that we’re learning to distinguish between forced loneliness and welcome isolation. Maybe rather than chasing the ultimate night out at the club, or endless house parties, we’re happier sat at home recharging our social batteries. Maybe instead of chasing hedonistic new experiences, we're content to sit at home recreating the sensation of being dragged around Asda ten minutes before it shut at age 12... and that! Is! Valid!

Tagged:
YouTube
asmr
online culture
TikTok