The American Room
Behind the nation’s closed doors, with YouTube.
The first time I noticed the room was in the Numa Numa video of 2004, circulated pre-YouTube, in which a New Jersey man named Gary Brolsma danced in his chair to a Moldovan pop song called “Dragostea din tei.”
The video is blurry; it’s from the world of the 2000s. We can’t see Brolsma’s computer because he’s facing an outward-peering webcam. The camera never moves. Behind him there is an aquarium, maybe for a reptile. Also: The edge of a doorframe. He dances in his chair as music plays. In its YouTube incarnation the video has been played 54,207,045 times.
The curtains are drawn. Some light comes through, casting a small glow on the top left of the air conditioner. It’s daytime. The wall is an undecorated slab of beige. That is the American room.
It’s not that every popular video includes this room. But enough do that you start to notice it, over the years. Consider the belching woman, or a woman performing “laughing exercises” from 2012. Again, nothing on the walls. The camera points up from a desktop. Their bodies are the same distance from the camera, framed from pelvis to forehead. The motion is to and fro the camera and the most dynamic element is often the speaker’s chin which juts in and out as they talk.
Zoom out to another room, this time with men in inflatable dancing outfits. Here the camera is a further distance from the action. The walls are decorated, although we can’t see the art. The same color on the walls, the same white doors. Look at the size of that room. In another country it might be an elementary school. The camera is still and the bodies move.
I am pulling the videos in this post from a collection gathered by some friends over a five-year period. They call it “basement bin.” The collection runs to 800 videos and I’ve watched about 400 of them. The criteria for inclusion are very complex but the rule of thumb is that all of the videos capture something besides what the performer intended them to capture. The big empty American room appears again and again.
It’s a standardized room. Like Diet Coke or iPhones, American rooms are a kind of product, built as quickly and cheaply as possible to a standardized specification. Here are Benjamin Moore’s best-selling shades of white. Look familiar?
More than 100 million Americans live in the suburbs. Suburban homes are built many at a time to achieve efficiencies. A set of tract homes is the horizontal equivalent of a skyscraper. The plans themselves are defined along familiar principles, designed to meet market demand. Programs like AutoCAD make it possible to quickly and efficently produce blueprints for homes using a pre-defined, standardized library of components. Viewed very broadly, the construction industry functions like a massive, decentralized, and human-powered 3D printer controlled by AutoCAD.
Hundreds of home plans exist at the website Family Home Plans, for example. Many are variations on one of a few architectural themes, a mix of ranch and Cape Cod styles. Here’s one house you can build:
The full plans cost $625. This does not include the license to build. The home above is 1,929 square feet with an attached garage. It has four bedrooms. The plans are presumably in line with state building codes, which call for a certain number of windows, minimum ceiling heights, and define fire safety. A database listing gives us more details:
Formal Dining Room: Yes
1st Floor Master: Yes
Main Ceiling Height: 8'
Note the ceiling height. Here is what Lawrence Busch says about ceiling heights in his 2011 book Standards:
…the standard height of ceilings could vary considerably in a world in which walls were constructed of plaster and individually cut laths. But once standard building materials, such as (in the United States) 2 × 4s, and 4 foot × 8 foot sheets of plasterboard were made available, the variation in the height of ceilings was sharply reduced even as the speed at which wooden homes could be built increased. Furthermore, the need for skilled labor declined, waste was minimized, and costs were reduced, such that the use of nonstandard heights would result in considerable extra costs. This did not make construction of nonstandard buildings impossible, but it meant that they became considerably more difficult to build and costlier than standard buildings; indeed, as a result, having a new home with 9-foot ceilings has now become a point of prestige and status.
The people dancing and talking and singing in beige rooms with 8' ceilings are surrounded by standards, physically and online. Technological standards like HTML5 also allow us to view web pages and look at video over the Internet. All of their frolic is bounded by a set of conventions that are essentially invisible yet define our national physical and technological architecture. Their dancing, talking bodies are the only non-standardized things in the videos.
But we’re working on that too. Michelle Phan’s makeup tutorials have hundreds of millions of views. Behind Phan are lovely, well-produced backgrounds. They shift and move over and over.
Phan is featured in billboards that promote YouTube that appear around New York City. She has ascended from the American room. It’s not quite television: On television shows, the characters’ rooms are filled with art, knicknacks, ephemera, and signifiers. Think of the rooms in The Big Bang Theory: Constant visual stimulus, always something for the eye to do.
None of the surfaces that define the YouTube room are here. This is an entirely different space.
People who make entertainment professionally recognize that the YouTube room itself has become a trope. This was used to great advantage in the “lonelygirl15" hoax YouTube program that started in 2006, where a character named Bree spoke to the camera and over several episodes revealed a dark world of intrigue, and so forth. YouTube was brand new in 2006, but the confessional basics of the room were already well-defined. The fluffy furniture is typical, and the wall is right, but the framed photo (of a gothic barn) is very weird for a video teens bedroom.
Knowing it’s a hoax we can now see that the shot is too well-framed; her face stays in the window of the camera instead of jerking hither and yon like in typical teen videos. When they are not moping in the dark, YouTube teens bounce in and out of frame and put their mouths up to the camera, playing with the camera and audience. They basically move like muppets. But lonelygirl15 hugs her knees. We can even see the top of her head. Her chin is controlled, as opposed to the regular jutting, throbbing chins of YouTube. She is acting. Of course, hindsight is 20/20.
More recently, there was a viral video hoax that was produced for the late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. It is set in a very recognizable variation on the room: Off-white walls, oak veneer cabinet, overstuffed sofa. Care has been taken to get the signifiers of the ad-hoc viral “FAIL” just right. The giveaway is the candles lit in mid-day, the setup for the joke that is to follow, where a twerking woman falls and catches fire.
As part of the hoax reveal Kimmel does a hoax “interview” with the twerking woman “via Skype,” and the video for the faked Skype call is done in the same milieu—the dull wall, a few books.
Stars like Michelle Phan left this room behind some time ago. The well-funded late-night shows show it to us as the set-up for a joke. Purple mountain majesties, amber fields of grain, and 8' walls painted with Benjamin Moore Navajo White. Also, if you want to be a YouTube star, first ditch the wall.
You could judge those rooms and say that America has a paucity of visual imagination, that we live in a kind of wasteland. Or you could draw another conclusion, and note that America might be a little more broke than it wants to show. The painfully expensive 2,000-square foot home is furnished with cheap big sofas and junk from Target. Maybe these video stars don’t hang pictures because they are renters. Maybe they know they are going to move soon, to another part of the state or country; suburbs are the temporary worker housing for America. Maybe they moved in and just haven’t unpacked yet, and the big picture of grandma is still in the garage.
But try to see it from their perspective. Our protagonists are looking into the computer. They like what they see, find it stimulating and exciting. They are eager to participate. They see what we see when we go online. Other people’s rooms.
Some Complicated People and Their Rooms
Let’s look at the rooms of some of the more unusual people on YouTube: Three examples from millions of possibilities, transcluded below: (1) A woman who talks about semen and nuclear bombs; (2) a man who lies on top of large balloons; (3) an adult male in a diaper talking about his love of dinosaurs. In the first of these videos, the woman is close to the camera her voice is urgent. She is very immediate and her presence hides the room.
In the second one the angle is much wider to capture the man’s entire body as he rubs his body against a big red balloon. His room is still close to the template but seems less inline with the suburbs. It’s low-ceilinged, and there is a picture of the moon adhered to the wall. It could be an apartment.
In the third, the man’s bed is made up in bright children’s sheets and covered in soft toys. But here the man is being filmed and the camera is above him, and he is in a corner. He is infantilized—and sexualized as a submissive—not only because he is in a diaper and talking about his favorite dinosaurs in a child’s voice, but because of how he is being filmed.
All beige, of course.
Then there is this guy, singing Flo Rida’s “Low” into his USB headset, the camera askew, the tiled white ceiling, the glossy wood-paneled wall reflecting window light, basically unmarked. He is taking a request from his online audience. The video has more than 50,000 views.
The impulses that went into this man singing “Low” are the same ones that motivated Jimmy Kimmel’s staff of producers to create their twerking hoax, but this thing is way, way, way more real; it exists somewhere between trolling, parody, self-parody, and uncomfortable, mockable weirdness. It’s boring the first time but it gets hilarious by the fifth.
White people performing music created by African-American people to comic effect is a staple of social media, and regular media, and music, and Vaudeville, all with cultural roots that go right back to the 1800s-era minstrel show. There is some of that here. But look at the focus in this man’s eyes. Maybe the goof who requested the song was going for an easy joke, but that’s not how it plays out.
Two Kinds of Fantasy Rooms
Now let’s look at some rooms where fantasies play out. There is a website, brbxoxo.com, that “searches online sexcam sites and only broadcasts feeds when the performers are absent.” The rooms themselves are very interesting and vary widely in their layout, decoration, and overall aesthetics. They are not necessarily American. And they are not always beige. If you watch this website for some time you see all kinds of colors and images. In the bottom left room below you can see religious icons. Sometimes there are sex toys left on the beds. To me, the sex-worker rooms look far more “normal” than the big American rooms of YouTube. They seem lived-in and more permanent. Some care has been taken for lighting. Collectively the decorative sense of women who masturbate for the gratification of their customers is more novel, more humane, than the typical empty rooms where people perform for a (much) broader audience. I have no idea why this is.
Consider a different kind of fantasy: The fantasy home decors on Pinterest, or sites like Houzz. Here the patterns are immediate. The home decorators of Pinterest want whiteness, huge swaths of sunlight. They very badly want old things or old-seeming things. There is a riot of decorative patterns but an overall, unshakeable order—not a perfect grid, which would be oppressive and urban, but a definite structure to the space. Take a look at the Pinterest home decor section:
Look at that “Gallery Wall” image in the second column. That wall is organized in the very same way as Pinterest: Rectangles on an uneven grid tightly juxtaposed. The homes themselves and Pinterest share the same aesthetic: Tidy and lively. And the homes on Pinterest have art on the walls. What they lack are computers and smartphones and TVs.
The art project that captures webcam rooms in the moment before the naked woman returns, and the empty rooms of Pinterest are both speaking the same weird language. Imagine who lives here. Could I live there? The Pinterest Home Decor section shows us the Cape Cod that lives in all of our hearts: A weathered rocker on a frayed rug on a varnished floor. Curtains swaying gently; a front door of heavy oak that is accessed via a tesselated brick path. Attic rooms with four-pane windows and ceilings the color of key lime pie. Every photo looks as if you could throw back the curtains and look over the low dunes. Urban design fetishism goes for the the hypermodern home, spaces that look like a cross between a Braun record player and a sushi bar. Long open spaces. This is very different: Weathered and bright, clean as a cotton dress pulled from the clothesline. Boats on the horizon.
Finally, consider Pomplamoose, who do sweet, multi-layered covers of various pop songs, most-famously Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” They are sort of a genre bridge; their room is white, not beige, and filled with instruments. The singer stares straight into the camera at times, but she also moves her eyes around and shifts awkwardly; she doesn’t want to be here but she does want to sing. This is a bedroom act, professionally produced (the same instincts as the man doing “Low” by Flo Rida are in play, years earlier) but these are talented, ambitious people. In 2009 they are ready to leave the YouTube room behind, but no one is quite sure how to do it.
This posing and mugging drives some people crazy. It does seem out of keeping with the form of online video, which is direct self-expression. People can read awkwardness as self-regard. A few years ago this image went around.
There is an equation between calculated coyness and savage bears. But Pomplamoose has nothing on this video, where a skilled musician who works under the name Kawehi produces and mixes a cover of Heart Shaped Box. The signifiers are pure Pinterest, down to a bottle of wine and some pleasingly ratty lamps. It’s a very old house and a very old table. The camera moves and sweeps but the artist barely meets its gaze. She is lost in a rapture of real-time-audio mixing and 1990s grunge passion. We’ve lost the room and we’ve lost eye contact. The camera moves, then moves some more. At the end of a very dramatic performance she looks at the camera and smiles happily, as if to say, oh, you caught me! This is the future.
But for most of us life happens against a backdrop of intersecting off-white walls. Those are our homes, plain and a little grim. Our fantasy homes are busy with bright things yet old. Our pins and dreams are not beige. When we sleep we leave the computer behind and step out onto the widow’s walk, to wait for our sailors to come home from the sea.