Review Summary: There it is again, that funny feeling
All the time, people I know are asking me what I think of Inside
. That sentence is the lede of this review not to position myself as some kind of authority (although obviously, I subconsciously think I am one, why would I be posting a somewhat contrarian review of one of the most well-regarded pieces of 2021 media otherwise?) I bring it up to say that Inside
is perceived as catnip for a certain Type of Guy. Likes comedy, likes music, probably likes movies too. Maybe a little funny, maybe a little introverted and depressive, almost certainly White. The writer and podcaster Steven Hyden called it “Indie Hamilton”, and he meant it as a pejorative. I mean, none of my friends asked me what I thought of, say, The Lonely Island’s The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience
. But Bo Burnham, with this special, has now achieved a certain kind of critical gravitas- his songs, which are sometimes silly and sometimes Very Serious and often both, are worthy of somewhat academic discussion outside of the writerly classes. I think Inside
is good, and worth talking about. But I’m not so sure it deserves the reverence that seems to follow.
To be clear, that score up there just represents my view of Inside (The Songs)
as an album. I’d probably give the special either a 3 or a 3.5, probably depending on whether or not I was going to have to tell someone I know who likes Inside
the score. But I do think divorcing these songs from the always-engaging, immaculately staged visuals of the special flattens the underlying songs a bit and exposes what is probably my main criticism of Burnham’s work, or perhaps, the thing I wish more people would acknowledge about him: he’s a bit formulaic. Take the song “White Woman’s Instagram”, which opens as an amusing but somewhat surface-level paraodical accounting of the pictures found on the titular account. Then, we hit the bridge, and seemingly out of nowhere, Burnham gives his White Woman some unexpected depth as her manicured façade drops and she starts honestly addressing her dead mother. The effect of this is to (1) make a larger point that perhaps the White Woman’s superficiality isn’t completely the fault of the person as opposed to the platform itself, and (2) criticize Burnham’s/our criticism of this lady- see, she’s a person with feelings too!
Burnham wields these metacriticisms and misdirections effectively, but he kind of does it over and over again. And when those devices are directed internally, people tend to buy them wholesale (ostensibly positive but ultimately vacuous comments like “lol, did this dude really just have a mental breakdown and pass it off as a comedy special?” make me want to jump out a window) as opposed to acknowledging that he’s using the same performative techniques as he does in his more outwardly comedic songs. I appreciate these moments (let’s just say everything from “30” through “All Time Low”) as creative ways of staging real feelings, but I just can’t buy that they’re completely unfiltered reflections of them.
I think that’s why my favorite moments on the album go in one of two directions. The first is complete absurdity, like “Bezos I” and “Bezos II”, where Burnham serenades the ever-influential CEO with a super-catchy synthpop ripper and dancefloor strut, respectively. His offhanded and utterly straight-faced “Congratulations!” on “II” makes me laugh every time, and I think part of the reason is that he lets the joke stand on its own.
On the other hand, I think when Burnham tries to tackle our internet-driven dystopia in a more pointed way, it doesn’t work as well. “Welcome to the Internet” is well crafted, but is he really making a novel point in observing, in 2021, that having access to all the world’s information on demand and platforming all of our interpersonal interactions through social media perhaps hasn’t been that great for our collective psyche? “That Funny Feeling” fares better in that it just lets its string of uncanny modern indignities speak for itself, over a plaintive acoustic guitar strum. But at the end of the day, it’s really just another entry into a string of modern indie songs doing the same thing: Father John Misty’s “Holy ***”, The 1975’s “Love It If We Made It”, Lana Del Rey’s “The Greatest”. I’m not sure if I like Burnham’s take any better than these.
The second mode Burnham occasionally operates in that I love is on the complete opposite end of the pendulum, where there aren’t really any jokes. Of course, I’m talking about “All Eyes On Me”, which, on a pure songwriting level, towers above everything else here. It’s the one song from this album I can see myself having on playlists going forward. And I think Burnham knows this too- as I’m writing this review, Burnham has posted “All Eyes On Me (Song Only)”, a version that omits his mid-song monologue about onstage panic attacks and his subsequent attempts to return to performing, on Spotify. “All Eyes On Me” sort of sounds like a Life of Pablo
era Kanye song, or like a more introspective Post Malone. “Get your ***in’ hands up,” he intones. Later: “Hands down/pray for me.” Unlike the rest of the songs on Inside
, it’s unclear what this song is actually about. It’s probably a little bit about Burnham’s relationship to live performance, a bit about his anxiety, a bit about living Inside
and on the internet during a time of pandemic. You can really get lost in it, and more importantly, Burnham actually gives you the chance to do so.
Because it’s not a song, a very important bit from Inside
is excluded from this album. It follows the micro blues ditty “Unpaid Intern”. On the album, the song stands alone. But in the special, something interesting happens after the song, which ends abruptly after a really brief, jarringly hilarious scat solo. Burnham starts by reacting, in the style of a “____ reacts” YouTube video, to the song he just did. He’s a bit embarrassed by it. Then, a new window appears and he starts reacting to his reaction. Then, he reacts to the reaction to his reaction. It’s Burnham’s self-reflective modus operandi laid out as clearly as ever, in all its often fascinating, sometimes exhausting glory. At one point, he mutters to himself, “self-awareness doesn’t absolve you of anything.” He’s right.