Women Turn The Volume Back Down On Pop in 2019

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Less than a week after Billie Eilish released her debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, a full-length tribute to the album appeared on one of the most popular ASMR YouTube channels. A relatively recent cultural phenomenon, ASMR refers to that shivery feeling of euphoria that can be induced in certain people by gentle whispering and quiet tapping sounds. The ASMR version of the record, produced by a performer known mononymously as Gibi, is not strictly music: She whispers rather than sings and manipulates objects near her microphone in lieu of playing instruments. But it’s a faithful enough tribute. Eilish’s music already gets listeners most of the way to ASMR bliss.

“Eilish, like most ASMR creators, records in her bedroom, giving her work an emotional and sonic intimacy,” writes Zach Schonfeld in a recent Pitchfork piece about the 17-year-old singer’s appeal to tingle-seekers. “She is young and female, as are the vast majority of leading ASMR YouTubers. And her approach to pop production is hushed and slightly dreamlike; the songs, while catchy, do not have blaring, screamable hooks.”

The consistently quiet tone of Eilish’s music represents something of a sea change in pop, which until recently favored the brash and the loud. On “Bad Guy,” she opts for finger snaps over hi hats, funneling the intimacy of the body into a space normally reserved for machines. The single “Bury A Friend” recreates the drum pattern from Gary Glitter’s runaway sports anthem “Rock And Roll Part 2,” only it sounds like it’s slapped out on a tabletop by a pair of idle hands instead of hammered on an amplified drum kit by a session musician. Several songs on the album omit percussion altogether. Most striking is Eilish’s voice, which she never raises much past a murmur. Like ASMR artists, she tends to clinch the ends of words. She trails off, as if deep in thought or just distracted. She sings, but always stops far short of belting, that time-honored tradition that until recently stood as a benchmark for a female musician’s talent.

Eilish is hardly the first pop star to employ a hushed vocal mode. Her debut album, where she never so much as gestures toward a belt or a shout, calls back to a turn-of-the-millennium vocal trend. Singers with low-decibel voices seared the charts in the nineties and early aughts with R&B-inflected pop hits. “Try Again,” Aaliyah’s best-selling single, broke the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 2000. A year later, Janet Jackson, whose delicate voice ruled over the eighties and nineties, shot the irresistibly breathy hook of “All For You” to the top of the same chart, where it reigned for seven weeks. Tweet’s “Oops (Oh My)” peaked at No. 7 in 2002. And in 2004, Ciara held the top spot with “Goodies,” a song that suspended her soprano in a high whisper.

After its 2002 debut, American Idol rewarded a specific type of singing that bled into the charts, encouraging a proliferation of women artists who all seemed to try to out-shout each other. Before the reign of the televised singing competition, Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, and Jessica Simpson all rode up the pop charts on the strength of their robust multi-octave runs; American Idol encouraged other women to emulate them, favoring power and risky runs over the subtle intonations of more nuanced singers.