WALL OF TEXT
ASMR Barbers: The Medium is the Massage
20 March 2021
Like thousands before me, I watched a man in Tiruppur, India rub limes on his face for seven and a half minutes. This was my introduction to ASMR barber videos — a bewildering experience that gradually turned into a sense of intrigue and, admittedly, relaxation.
To be fair, the lime face massage isn't your typical barber video. These videos tend to feature barbershop massages, often in India or Turkey, though the genre has expanded to include many other contexts. While people watch these videos for a variety of reasons, many viewers turn to them for relaxation and better sleep.
These videos are fascinating on so many levels. You could trace the continuities (and discontinuities) from centuries-old practices in South Asia and the Middle East. A gender perspective would also be interesting, looking at the changing role of women in this male-dominated profession.
But I really don’t know much about these things, so I’ll leave a few observations from a perspective I’m a bit more familiar with, namely media studies.
ASMR barbers have pioneered a new genre, and like true pioneers, they are highly resourceful. With no examples to follow, many barbers had to experiment with video equipment, often starting with the smartphones they had on hand.
In some cases, the success of a barber’s channel can be tacitly perceived when they upgrade from smartphones to dedicated video cameras — DSLRs, mirrorless cameras or camcorders. In this way, video equipment becomes an investment with an anticipated return, alongside scissors and electric razors.
At the time of writing, "ASMR" is the 13th most popular search term on YouTube, and a whole range of audio equipment is targeted at the genre. Yet, nothing of the sort exists for barber massages.
In this absence, one piece of equipment has emerged as a quasi-industry standard — the armband microphone. This DIY rig has become widely adopted among ASMR barbers from Indonesia to Turkey, who MacGyver a lavalier microphone to their arm with an armband or piece of tape. It's a simple, inexpensive and truly versatile piece of equipment.
YouTubers have to compete for attention in an oversaturated media landscape, employing techniques from the capitalisation of titles to clickbaiting with the evermore absurd. Rising above these pedestrian tactics are the barbers who take it one step further, using props and performance to engage their viewers' imagination.
The performative element is readily apparent with some barbers literally performing, inserting their massages into a dramatised story. In one video, a barber relieves a passerby carrying heavy bottles of water; in another, the barber kidnaps someone to give him a massage.
These narrative devices allow the barber to leave the barbershop, placing the familiar massage in an unfamiliar context, such as a playground, river or open field. There’s a curious link to pornography here, with the use of roleplay to engage viewers’ imagination. All the more, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, often remaining self-aware and rather camp.
A nascent cinematic universe is forming and Asim is one of its most iconic characters. Known for his theatrical performances and aggressive cracking, he has been likened to an “assassin” with his clients dubbed his “victims.”
Asim and his friend Rintu have embraced this honorific, using it in video titles ("Killer asim barber ASMR massage"), thumbnails and even storylines. In this way, his videos become multi-genre, going beyond the sensory to encompass the dramatic and comedic. The cult of Asim is further evinced by a dedicated YouTube channel that remixes his videos into movie trailers and memes, an act equal parts parody and fan fiction.
This marketing savvy raises audience engagement to another level, responding to viewers’ comments and including them in the creative process. The massage is thus expanded into a three-way relationship between barber, client and audience. In this way, the client is no longer the primary beneficiary of pleasure, but becomes a surrogate for the viewer.
Of course, the vast majority of ASMR barber videos aren’t so theatrical. This genre remains centered around traditional barbershop massages, which are often documented from an observational perspective.
European-run channels like ASMR Barber and Nomad Barber take on a quasi-ethnographic approach, documenting barbers across various countries. Taken individually, their videos do not present a narrative, but on a collective level, they bring viewers on a cultural journey in a form of virtual tourism.
YouTuber Massimo Tarantelli enjoys a head massage and some neck cracks from Manoj Master.