In the final 15 minutes of Make Happy, the 2016 special from stand-up and singer-songwriter Bo Burnham, the Massachusetts native appears to figure his whole thing out: “I try to make my show about other things, but it always ends up being about performing.” What follows is a quick riff on millennials and performance, how we were raised to prize self-expression, and how social media and modern advertising have encouraged and exacerbated our tendency to want to be heard, whether we have anything of value to say or not. “The arrogance is taught,” Burnham says, “or it was cultivated.” He implores his rapt audience to try not to live like someone’s always watching, and then he launches into a lengthy auto-tuned spiel inspired by Kanye West’s 2013 Yeezus tour, a note-perfect re-creation of the rapper’s public purgings of his innermost thoughts and fears that you’d recognize instantly if you attended a show or watched clips on your phone. It’s a clever reversal, pivoting from a serious word about how surveillance bakes our brains to a bit about someone in constant crisis with how they’re seen and perceived. But more fascinatingly, in that moment, as in others earlier in his career, Burnham is performing performance: singing, but not in the way that a musician regales a crowd with sounds they’ve concocted. The song is a metacommentary on the Kanye predicament — his thoughts, his reasoning, and his methods of expressing them in a concert setting. It’s topical humor taking shape as a song, at once a piece of pop culture and a piece of pop-culture criticism.
I’m trying to articulate why the old Bo Burnham material feels a little precious to me now. It’s not just the cutesy musical-theateriness of the singing; or the rapping, which has that cloying precociousness you get sometimes from chill white bros who’ll have you know they rap well but won’t have you taking them too seriously about it; or the misguided attempted reclamation of gay slurs; or the fact that he’s from exactly where I went to college and represents a specific, somewhat enlightened bro aesthetic that I feel an odd, latent, geographical kinship with. (It’s probably more of that last piece than I’m willing to accept.) It doesn’t feel entirely earnest. There’s always a smirk. Ironic distance is good cover. Silliness is disarming; Eminem won 8 Mile by roasting himself! Old Bo songs don’t ever go for the jugular. They always want you to know he’s laughing with you. The joke is the point; the medium is only the delivery service. I’m trying to articulate why the new Bo Burnham songs feel strangely vital. If you’re reading this, you have probably heard that Bo Burnham: Inside is a painfully honest multimedia tour of the mind of a comedian suddenly walled off from the world and struggling to maintain a sense of self without the communion of a live audience, a bold traversal of the frayed edges of sanity and a lesson about how much people need people. The release of the audio component, Inside (The Songs), proves the songs Burnham wrote for the special stand independent of the narrative and resourceful cinematography of the Netflix presentation.
Inside invites us into Burnham’s hopes and fears, where complex conversations about white privilege and wealth are set to cool synth-pop tracks. He is catching us up on the state of the world in the five years since his last special, and reflecting on last summer’s upheaval, when racial injustice and police brutality necessitated public protests and facilitated uncomfortable dialogues and often very tacky expressions of solidarity. “How the World Works” offers a clinic in American power dynamics as Burnham debates a leftist sock puppet questioning his commitment to change and challenging white people who “insist on seeing every sociopolitical conflict through the myopic lens of your own self-actualization.” “White Woman’s Instagram” is simply a list of the quaint sights and chill, left-leaning bromides you might spy in the titular location: “A bobblehead of Ruth Bader Ginsburg / A needlepoint of a fox / Some random quote from Lord of the Rings incorrectly attributed to Martin Luther King.”
The skewering is harsh but fair; Burnham is isolating the point where allies flake, where white-hot outrage cools, where posting black squares on your Instagram feed is taking a stand, where signifying goodness overshadows decisive action. Some people’s activism comes from a place of need, and some people’s activism comes from wanting to feel good about themselves. Burnham is not above this criticism, as noted in “Comedy,” a song about reconciling a desire to make people’s lives better with the reality that the comic’s skill set doesn’t include putting out fires or providing health care, the assistance people need most now. Really, Inside is a meditation on the chipper, helpless inertia of caring.
Synth-pop, a genre characterized by the balance between cold electronic synth textures and the warmth of human emotion, is a perfect setpiece for these ideas. Burnham goes deep with it, singing in a controlled warble, recalling Depeche Mode classics like “Enjoy the Silence.” The sleeper hit of the batch, “FaceTime With My Mom (Tonight),” conjures the plaintive, boyish tones of the Postal Service; “Comedy” dabbles in chiptune. As our protagonist weathers a pandemic-sponsored crisis of doubt, Inside’s musical tool kit expands. “30” could fit on a Robyn album, and “Problematic” exudes Olivia Newton-John energy; “Sexting” detours into yacht rock, while “How the World Works” and “Look Who’s Inside Again” are both lively piano tunes. Burnham has overcome the distaste for catchy choruses that he expressed in 2010’s “Words, Words, Words.” The hooks all float even when they’re dumb or slight. “30” may be the best song about staring down the barrel of the end of your 20s since Danny Brown’s XXX. The sock-puppet détente of “How the World Works” has a chorus worthy of Sesame Street. Even short song fragments like “Don’t Wanna Know” leave the listener with an indelible melody or two.
In “All Eyes on Me,” the emotional climax of Inside, Burnham revisits the arena-show conceit of Make Happy’s Kanye bit, but this time, he’s pausing his own big pop anthem and ranting about his own setbacks, laughing at the dubious timing of his plan to return to stand-up last year to bursts of fake audience feedback. (It’s still pastiche, a send-up of crowd participation exercises you experience in stadium gigs, but, crucially, it slaps.) We weren’t supposed to see or hear Bo Burnham like this. Maybe, in an alternate timeline where public life doesn’t radically shift in 2020, there is no need for these songs to exist without the unique and peculiar global and personal circumstances informing them. But the challenge of a show with no audience brought something different out of Bo, and in a way, he’s following through on his own advice from the end of Make Happy, where he implored the crowd to get free from the need to be seen and the urge to put on a show for everyone around them. That’s the grisly irony of the pandemic for anyone lucky enough to be able to pour a time of death and loss into a craft and emerge with something they’re proud of, the monkey-paw curse of prolificacy in dark times. You lived. You’re doing great. Now that you’ve shown people you can create even in the most dire circumstances, the bar for you is raised forever. What now?