New York City, according to Parquet Courts’s Human Performance, is a claustrophobic mess. The Brooklyn band's sound channels the city's musical royalty — The Velvet Underground, Television, Talking Heads, and Silver Jews — but where those groups haunted street corners and open highways in their lyrics, Parquet Courts’s Andrew Savage hides indoors. In his New York, cramped kitchens and bedrooms hold as much dramatic potential as the graffiti-streaked nightclubs along the Bowery.
“Dust is everywhere / Sweep!" Savage commands on the album's opener, "Dust." “I don’t get out / I don’t have fun," Austin Brown sings on “Captive of the Sun." On the title track, Savage's gaze lingers on a pile of unwashed dishes clogging the sink. He burrows into domesticity, populating the indoors with the same neuroses and crises that have troubled New York musicians for decades. His home safeguards him in isolation, its opaque walls locking him in emotional quarantine.
Domestic spaces have appeared in the work of canonical male musicians of the past, but usually only because women led them there. David Byrne hangs out with someone’s else’s kid on “Stay Up Late" and watches a married couple turn their domestic life into a TV show on “Found a Job," but the home rarely if ever serves as a central setting for him as a protagonist. When he does mention it, home is an object he comes to possess alongside his large automobile in “Once in a Lifetime," an item on his bulleted list of reasons to fear the future: “You may ask yourself, what is that beautiful house? / You may ask yourself, where does that highway go to?"
When The Beatles sing about houses from the inside, they nearly always sing from the perspective of a woman, or a man accompanying one: “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window," “She’s Leaving Home," the blithely violent “Norwegian Wood," which mentions the details of an interior space only to set them all ablaze. John Lennon lingers indoors by himself in “I’m Only Sleeping," but he burrows so deeply into his head that his gaze never moves past the ceiling. His physical surroundings insulate his mental state; they never stimulate it.
Lou Reed, meanwhile, employs domestic space in tragedy, scanning the details of a bedroom where a woman conceived children and later committed suicide at the climax to his gloomy 1973 masterwork Berlin. Even Simon & Garfunkel’s isolation ballad “I Am a Rock" conceives of the indoors as feminine: "Hiding in my room / Safe within my womb."
The majority of pop lyrics inhabit mental space, emotional space, abstract space. If men sang about physical spaces at all in 20th-century pop music, they tended to fixate on the great outdoors. Rock music embodied the rugged masculinity of the American frontier even when the musicians making it weren’t American, as in Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California." For men, streets, mountains, plains, and highways all served as fair game for the rock imagination; bedrooms, kitchens, and basements were rarer, and almost never breached without a woman in sight.
From its emergence in the ’70s, hip-hop maintained a similarly gendered spatial divide. "Rap music provides a public voice for young black men who are usually silenced and overlooked. It emerged in the streets – outside the confines of a domesticity shaped and informed by poverty, outside enclosed spaces where young male bodies had to be contained and controlled," wrote bell hooks in her landmark 1992 essay, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance." "Male creativity, expressed in rap and dancing, required wide-open spaces, symbolic frontiers where the body could do its thing, expand, grow, and move, surrounded by a watching crowd. Domestic space, equated with repression and containment, as well as with the ‘feminine' was resisted and rejected so that an assertive patriarchal paradigm of competitive masculinity and its concomitant emphasis on physical prowess could emerge."
Inextricable from the creation of the teenager in the 1940s and 1950s, rock positioned itself as antithetical to spaces ruled by mothers and wives. Young people who were no longer children but not yet subject to the pressures of the workforce carved out their own culture that thrived in public places and in cars, away from the disciplining gaze of their parents. Rock’s teen rebellion got it out of the house, but in recent years, it’s quietly stepped back inside.
Gender has softened in the 21st century as economic shifts demand less specific labor from women and mythologies of Western masculinity continue to melt. The past decade in particular has seen more and more men occupy domestic spaces in the course of their music-making, a one-way shift that stands in contrast to the ways that women have historically tended to sing from wherever, to move fluidly through physical space in their storytelling. (They were already breaking gender codes by daring to write and perform songs.) While hip-hop was born on the streets, Chief Keef filmed his breakout video for “I Don’t Like" inside his grandmother’s house. Earl Sweatshirt’s 2015 album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside renders a claustrophobic interior space thick with smoke and roaches. Migos's and Fetty Wap's lyrical personas perennially occupy the bando or trap house, a domestic space repurposed for masculine labor. And Tyler, the Creator spent last summer performing live against a stage set modeled to look like a child’s bedroom.
Keef, Odd Future, and Migos earned notoriety through the Internet as much as — if not more than — through the streets. Inexpensive home recording software and home computers have brought both the studio and the record label into the domestic sphere, whose new association with the Internet has changed the way the indoors are gendered at large. It’s no longer just women who perform labor at home. Start-up celebrities like Mark Zuckerberg boast about inventing empires in dorm rooms, while “bedroom pop" has become both a genre description and a marker of authenticity to the point that labels use it as a marketing keyword.
Artists affiliated with the New York–based microlabel Orchid Tapes proudly craft music in their homes or the homes of their parents. Across his sprawling catalogue, prolific songwriter and producer Sam Ray haunts his mother’s house and the houses of friends across Baltimore. On his band Teen Suicide’s new album, It's the Big Joyous Celebration, Let's Stir the Honeypot, he sings, “Do you want to come over? I’ve got three Netflix accounts / And we can watch a different show on each screen." Two years ago, on the triumphant opener to An Abundance of Strawberries by his other band, Julia Brown, Ray declared, “Sometimes I can’t leave my bed." The womblike atmospheres of his solo work Three Love Songs, produced under the moniker Ricky Eat Acid, bear titles like “Inside my house; some place I keep dreaming about" and “Inside your house; it will swallow us too." The album’s opening track is a spoken word piece that describes the walk from a bedroom to a living room as though it’s an immense spiritual journey, a cross-country road trip that never makes it out the front door.
Songs like these reflect a deeper shift in how Western culture arranges itself along gender. Life outside the home once represented freedom for young Americans, but an atomized job economy patched by online freelance work has forced more and more people inside, many living with their parents to reduce living costs. More work is domestic now — and not just the work involving the upkeep of the home itself. Young men crawl back up the umbilical noose to what would once have been considered their mothers' domain, and make music from inside their bedrooms' four walls. The indoors might be stifling, a site of stagnancy as much as safety, but they're no longer anathema to music or the men who make it.