Bo Burnham's groundbreaking Netflix special "Inside" exposes the flaws in millennial culture
Bo Burnham's "Inside" is a painfully accurate reflection of what it feels like to be not young, not old and not well.
I say painful because I turned 30 during the pandemic, and watching Burnham "celebrate" the minute he turned 30 during the pandemic with a meager "Yay" and a song about no longer being the youngest person in the room—it hit hard. Even the bits that didn't resonate with me still provoked a feeling of millennial familiarity, and nailed how easy it is to see the problems with ourselves, yet how complex it is to fix them.
Welcome to the Internet - Bo Burnham (from "Inside" -- ALBUM OUT NOW)www.youtube.com
"Inside" takes place over the course of a year. Burnham films and directs the special in his guesthouse and strings together pieces of the pandemic through songs, monologues, parodies of popular YouTube conventions and the occasional clip of equipment falling to the ground. Subjects range from systemic oppression, to FaceTiming your mom, also known as the average day in the COVID-19 age. One key difference is though my feelings and fears matched Burnham's to a T, his were voiced from an auxiliary home, surrounded by thousands of dollars of equipment, earning him a Netflix payday.
Despite the obvious income disparity, many other sentiments in Burnham's latest special hold up a vanity mirror to what millennials have been feeling all too well. At the end of the aforementioned "30," Burnham sings "It's 2020, and I'm t30, I'll do another 10/2030, I'll be 40 and kill myself then." This is immediately followed by a new, transition-less scene where Burnham sits on a stool, looks in a mirror with a mic assuring us he doesn't actually want to kill himself and a satirical half-hearted plea for others not to kill themselves either. The segment ends with Burnham saying "but if I could kill myself for a year, I'd do it today."
I'd never heard my feeling about an entire year summed up so perfectly in one sentence.
Millennials first met Burnham in 2006 on YouTube. In a sea of Fall Out Boy lyric videos and clips of your next door neighbor falling down stairs, Burnham was a nerdy white guy who played instruments in his bedroom and sang cleverly irreverent songs. In 2006, there was nothing cooler. High schoolers like me ate up his charm, his wordplay and his casual racism because that was state-of-the-art. In his 2008 video "New Math," 18-year-old Burnham sings "And if 10% of men are gay/20% of men are Chinese/What are the odds that a man chosen at random/Spends his free time and mealtime while on his knees?" This was my MySpace song during that year, and I never gave it a second thought. Now, my peers and I cringe and regret.
After recognition from older, more established stand-ups and creating a beautifully poignant coming-of-age film "Eighth Grade," it's clear that Burnham has grown. But, like many his age, the pandemic dictated a regression. While I chose to play New Found Glory and My Chemical Romance, Burnham returned to the genesis of his fame and realization of his creativity: alone in a room with a keyboard.
All Eyes On Me -- Bo Burnham (from "Inside" - album out now)www.youtube.com
While some of us deleted old tweets from when we were teens for fear they might be construed as mildly offensive if a hiring manager found them, Burnham has been forced to reckon with the idea that his version of cringey tweets are what made him famous. He can't simply delete his past, nor does he want to as evidenced by his 15-year-old YouTube videos still being online. In the song "Problematic," Burnham works himself into a sweat that drips from his pandemic-grown beard. He sings that growing up in white suburbs was what led him to say offensive things, but then flips, saying he shouldn't blame his behavior on his upbringing—perhaps a dance some of us have done over these past few years.
"Problematic" is still very much a Burnham song, complete with the funny asides that made us like him in the first place, like when he slips in "When I was seventeen, on Halloween/I dressed up as Aladdin/I did not darken my skin, but still, it feels weird in hindsight." The reason why we can forgive Burnham for being "problematic" is because it's a level of controversy we can imagine ourselves in. It made me wonder if there had been some cancellation buzz around Burnham if we'd be so quick to forgive. Or, if seeing Burnham forgive himself, we simply used it as an excuse to forgive ourselves, too.
"Inside" is saturated with self-awareness, while questioning the value of that quality. The special stretches from concert to internet variety show. One segment shows Burnham singing a song about unpaid interns, then zooms out to introduce Burnham once again, only sitting in front of the computer watching himself and about to do a live commentary on the video. This keeps zooming out in a Russian Doll level of commentary, during which he refers to a portion of himself in the video saying "Here, I'm so worried critics will levy against me, that I levy it against myself. If I'm self-aware about being a douchebag, it somehow makes me less of a douchebag—but it doesn't. Self-awareness does not absolve anyone of anything."
If we take anything away from this special, it's that saying we did something wrong is hollow unless it's backed up with the action to do better.
That all being said, "Inside" isn't entirely revelatory. Songs like "White Woman's Instagram" that name and demonstrate the cliche images we've all come to label as "basic" has the same snark as the teenager who dropped the line "You're a first time vegan and it's nice to meat ya" in 2008.
White Woman's Instagram -- Bo Burnham (from "Inside" -- ALBUM OUT NOW)www.youtube.com
It's also just as dated. In "Sexting" we hear all the awkwardness about the subject we've heard since Tinder became a thing. For being so hard-hitting at times, there's no shortage of pandering, though the music is always remarkably great.
Even the special itself might seem dated. "Inside" came out at the end of May 2021, a time when many people in America are fully vaccinated and venturing outside. Watching it gives flashbacks to a sore time far too recent that is nowhere near nostalgic. But, as Burnham ventures out of the guesthouse at the end of 80 minutes of "content" (as he derisively refers to his own special) he suddenly finds himself in the spotlight. A crowd starts uproariously laughing at him.
During 2020, I spent all this time self-reflecting, spiraling, and promising to do better, but once I go out and see how hard it is to perform in real life, will I just revert back? Will I just think back on this time as something I'm lucky to have escaped? As Burnham sings in "Problematic": Times are changing and I'm getting old / Are you gonna hold me accountable?" Burnham makes an art piece out of the white millennial pastime of apologizing and agonizing, and while that's the first step, it remains to be seen if this type of art creates change, or simply admits it needs to happen.
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