Some Questions About Phoebe Bridgers’s Bo Burnham Cover

Bo vs. Phoebe. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Netflix and Barry Brecheisen/Getty Images

Bo Burnham released Inside on Netflix in May, exploded hearts and minds and eyeballs around the nation, then stayed mostly quiet. There was a “Here is the album” here, a cryptic photo of himself there. He still hasn’t seemed to shave. What lingered were questions: What was Inside really about? Was Bo okay? Was it “real”? People got to talking and speculating and Always-Sunny-Pepe-Silvia-memeing. Still, nothing, raising yet another question: What does Burnham think of all this? What does he think about our reaction?

But here’s someone saying they saw Burnham and Phoebe Bridgers getting lunch. Now there’s a photo. Now Bridgers is covering “That Funny Feeling” at a Pete Holmes show in L.A., with Burnham backing her up on keys. Now she’s covering it at one of her own shows. And another. Now she’s releasing a cover of the song as a dang single with the proceeds going to Texas abortion funds. With it being Burnham and Bridgers — two protagonists in the discourse, as well as two, you know, brilliant, thoughtful artists — I couldn’t help but wonder (this blog post is the real Sex and the City reboot): What are they trying to say? I have some questions.

What is Bridgers covering Burnham’s “That Funny Feeling” communicating about Burnham?
Specifically, what is Burnham trying tell us “That Funny Feeling,” and to a greater extent Inside, was about? In the weeks following the release of Inside, it felt like the central question being debated was: Is Inside an earnest expression about living through a traumatic experience, or is it a comment on the performance of earnest expressions during traumatic experiences? “That Funny Feeling” was the litmus test. Was Burnham’s list of small-scale hypocrisies, injustices, digital manipulations, and frustrating bullshit meant to inspire the listener to feel an accumulation of existential despair? Or was it, with its projected-woods backdrop and aw-shucks “I’m bad at guitar and singing” folksiness, a joke about the post-Bon Iver glamorized myth of the genuine artist who needs to self-isolate out of distrust for the world, only to return with a fully recorded, mixed, and mastered masterpiece of heartbreaking tone poems?

Having Bridgers, of “When a machine keeps me alive / And I’m losing all my hair / I hope you kiss my rotten head / And pull the plug” fame, cover your song seems to imply the latter. The sweet little kiddies with their great big hearts were right to hear “That Funny Feeling” and think I felt that. If it was meant to be funny, wouldn’t it have been covered by “Weird Al” Yankovic and not “Sad Phoebe” Bridgers? Her whole thing is being sad. She’s like Phoebe from Friends but the freaking opposite! And maybe she has to cover the song live because Burnham is still too sad to do it himself!!!

At that Pete Holmes show, Bridgers introduced “That Funny Feeling” by saying “I’m gonna play a song I wish I wrote.” Considering the songs Bridgers writes tend to be devastating, plain-spoken contemporary alt-folk music, it stands to reason that she is saying this song is also an example of that. How neatly would it fit in a songbook with “And when I grow up, I’m gonna look up / From my phone and see my life”? Was that what that lunch with Burnham was all about? He wanted to be taken seriously, and so to communicate this song was serious, he asked Phoebe to cover it? Maybe the people who tweeted “Inside isn’t a comedy special, it’s so much more” were right.

What is Bridgers covering Burnham’s “That Funny Feeling” communicating about Bridgers?
The first time I ever heard Bridgers cover a song was “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in 2017. Having the world’s saddest singer singing the world’s saddest song about the world’s saddest holiday almost feels like a joke. But what if it was a joke? Well, not a joke, but what if she was, as impressions of Ricky Gervais say, having a laugh? Like she wasn’t shitposting a hauntingly beautiful, heartful rendition of the bittersweet standard, but it has to be intentionally self-aware to the point of self-parody, right? A lot of Bridgers covers feel like this — not jokes, but like she’s doing a bit, a little bit. Like she covered the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris,” a song she clearly has a real affection for, but she did it because she vowed to cover it if Biden won the election. And, yes, the proceeds went to Fair Fight, but also, she posted this:

So, what if, when Bridgers said she wished she wrote “That Funny Feeling,” she meant she wished she was able to write something that is actually comedic? Not like small nose-exhale, silent-nod comedy, but you know, comedy. More specifically, she wanted to puncture the balloon that is inflated every time she needs to play the part of Phoebe Bridgers.

Am I saying Phoebe Bridgers is a lie? No, I’m saying she’s a liar. And she has to be! Think about what her audience expects from her. I’m sure when she wrote “Kyoto,” it was out of an earnest reflection on her relationship with her estranged father, where the isolation of being in a foreign country was meant to mirror disconnection caused by an abusive, alcoholic parent. But can you imagine having to perform this experience every night for people who are paying you to give them some sort of catharsis? I bet Bo Burnham can. As he sings in the Make Happy closer from 2016, “Can’t Handle This”: “Come and watch the skinny kid with a / Steadily declining mental health, and laugh as he attempts / To give you what he cannot give himself.”

What if this is what they talked about at that lunch? Maybe Bridgers asked Burnham, “How can I communicate what I need to about the inherent loneliness of contemporary life without being taken so seriously?” Is being funny a way to break the tension of the weight of emotional expectation created for her performances and allow her to connect with her audience more directly? That feeling is, well, funny.

Can’t it be both?
Yeah, it’s both. Or, neither. They haven’t told me, so I don’t know. But I do know there is something to the fact that a (at least partially) parodic piece of music that was largely taken seriously was removed from the context of the special it’s from and treated as a serious single released by a musician who is mostly defined for writing sad songs. But why does it make so much sense? Why does it feel fitting? I think it’s because Burnham and Bridgers are sort of funhouse-mirror images of each other. She is a serious singer often trying to be funny, and he is a funny singer often trying to be serious. The point where they likely overlap as young millennials who found success young is a self-conscious relationship with their fans. This gets at what the song is about.

You know the fable about boiling a frog? You can’t just put it in boiling water, because it will jump out. Instead you put it in at room temperature and slowly turn up the heat. For at least very sensitive millennials, that’s what living on the internet feels like — slowly your sense of “normal” gets obscured, and previously uncomplicated everyday relationships feel complicated and foreign. Even before the pandemic, the observation that we’ve never been more connected yet disconnected felt trite, and then, as Burnham says near the end of Inside, “the funniest thing happened.” The song, their collaboration, works as a fine allegory for what many people are currently going through right now: trying to rebuild genuine connection, one person at a time.

Or not? Like everyone discussed in this blog post, my brain has been absolutely pulverized by the internet, so I just have questions and a compulsive need to speculate. Is this song a joke? I don’t know. Maybe, but, either way, it’s on us.

Anyway, here’s that cover:

Some Questions About Phoebe Bridgers’s Bo Burnham Cover