It’s been three weeks since Bo Burnham released Inside, his new Netflix special, and I’ve been able to think of little else since.
I’ve often found Bo’s films fascinating, but they owe their brilliance to the original songs. His fame stemmed from his short YouTube videos back in the early 2000s, and if you’re old and existed pre-TikTok, you might also remember his vines (he’s grown up a bit since then.) Writing songs has always been an outlet for his smart-alecky but perceptive, often self-deprecating humour. And Inside has no shortage of dazzling new material, from ‘White Woman’s Instagram’ to ‘How The World Works,’ from ‘Turning 30’ to ‘Welcome to the Internet.’
Now, before you say I’ve written this with too much time on my hands, I won’t be the only one fascinated by this music and overly eager to understand everything that’s going on in the film Inside. So naturally, after a late-night eBay impulse buy and some new music tech, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks learning and breaking down the elements of each of his songs. Was this necessary? No. Is it a cause for concern among my friends and family? Probably. Has it been fun? Yes, it absolutely has.
I also want to address the way I wrote about this in the review. I wouldn’t go back on my first impressions of the show, but I feel like the piece didn’t really do justice to the film. To have created any kind of film individually is no mean feat and the fact that Inside is visually so varied and exciting means you’re never bored watching it. I feel like a lot of my criticism was about Netflix and its distribution and the problematic messaging, more than it was about the film. While I’m just concerned for his mental health given some of the issues he mentions, I still maintain that Bo is a genius. He’s surpassed himself, creating something very powerful, alone, during a pandemic, and I have to applaud him.
On the songs: I’ve had many hours to mull them over, and each is composed in a different genre, which makes the film so unpredictable and surprising. It showcases Burnham’s talent and versatility, so I felt like the only natural way to appreciate it fully was to reverse-engineer the process and find out how the songs were made up. Here we go!
The opening showstopper shows Bo with unfortunately long hair, apologising for his appearance (“I booked a haircut but it got rescheduled”) and putting on a light show with a head torch and a disco ball. Simple! Genius! We’ve got a fairly circular chord progression in the key of E and a percussive synth in the background, while the camera performs a slow zoom out of Bo and on the wider room.
The best line is the self-explanatory “it’s a beautiful day to stay inside!” And we get the impression that Bo had already been working on the special for a while before he’d filmed this part. But I’m so glad this was the way he introduced us. Cast your mind back to the start of Make Happy and you’ll remember a voiceover giving an intro to the performance: in every way this is the exact opposite: home-made spectacle.
This one’s a lot of fun. We begin with Bo at the piano, singing about the general fate of the world (not dissimilar to his earlier songs “Sad” and “Straight White Man” from Make Happy and “What’s Funny” from Words Words Words.) He interrupts his spiraling thoughts with a bright spotlight and a pre-recorded voiceover – he is, above all else, a showman -which gives him the inspiration to write jokes, ‘healing the world with comedy’. In the second Bo then gives us a sequence in which he comes up with this magical, life-altering, world-changing comedy, a Venn diagram putting him in the centre between Weird Al (remember him?) and Malcolm X. Bold, dramatic. His dance moves and the general editing between shots is hilarious. It’s a strong start.
My favourite line is in the mid-8: ‘Don’t panic, call me and I’ll tell you a joke.’ The orchestration suddenly slows, becomes much more operatic and there’s even the sample of an organ background for a sense of more elevated Chamber music, rotating around the diatonic key of F major. It’s appropriate, given that the song is actually very reflective and examines the motivations for comedy during a pandemic. While he never explicitly mentions the virus, he does make reference to the ‘violence in the streets, the wars, the droughts’ and ‘income inequality…and the other stuff.’ So, it’s there in his (and our) awareness all the time. The mid-8 deals with whether or not he should even sing the song, but somehow absolves himself by drawing our awareness to it.
There’s a brilliant key change for the outro with an up-tempo shift and strobe lighting effects to conclude the song, countering all the panic he felt about adding nothing to society through his songs and ending on a triumphant note.
This one’s used for the Netflix preview, and Bo playfully introduces a phone call with his mom and the frustration of trying to connect with technophobe parents. By far the best thing about this song is the way it’s shot: you never feel bored looking at it, it’s very cinematic. A three-paneled shot shows Bo, shot vertically on his front-facing iPhone camera, filtered with a dusky blue light. In a style that would rival Drake, he’s created a soulful R&B hit that talks about all the perils of FaceTiming with mom: losing her glasses, holding the phone too close, covering up the camera.
The vocal harmonies are great and it feels multi-layered, a feat considering he has produced this entire film solo. My favourite line refers to a cursory conversation with his dad: ‘that’s the deepest chat we’ve ever had.’ The chord progressions are simple and rely on an ascending four-chord pattern around the keys of F# and C#, a soulful tune whose simplicity belies its visually inventive video, evoking the sense of missing loved ones during the pandemic.
In an alternative timeline, pre-pandemic, we might have already seen Bo’s talents as a children’s songwriter in the Sesame Street movie, but I very much enjoy what we have here. How The World Works has to be one of my favourite songs of the whole film and certainly the easiest to pick up on piano. On the surface we have a cute children’s song about nature working together, but a lot like John Mulaney’s self-aware and underrated Sack Lunch Bunch, it soon descends into something darker. My favourite line is: ‘Every history class is demonstrably false and pedagogically classist’, sung by a puppet, Socko. His observations include a Marxist reading of the global network of capital separating the worker from the means of production, and a criticism of the heavily censored, revisionist education system.
Musically, it’s completely at odds with this message, and there lies the irony. We have a bouncy tempo, jolly descending scale in B major and, and a neat, diatonic circle of fifths ending on D major — the chords are all completely satisfying, not once giving away the sinister criticism of a disaffected sock puppet.
I’m also enjoying how colourful this section is. If you look carefully enough, you can see that the film employs the whole spectrum of colours throughout, and while they’re not in a precise order, you can easily edit them together to see how much thought has gone into the background. Back to my earlier point: not an easy task to achieve alone in a single room for a year.
Directly following ‘How The World Works’ is a short skit about brand awareness and consultancy — it’s not technically a song, though it does borrow the melody from ‘Healing the World With Comedy’. It’s good fun and I’d check it out. But the main attraction here is ‘White Woman’s Instagram.’
It’s as close to perfection as I think you can get. The straightforward four-chord progression, the 4/4 time signature, the drumbeat are all reminiscent of the Taylor Swift songs written with future covers in mind (producers selling songs to be covered by amateurs, guaranteeing a longer circulation.) And is it little doubt that ‘White Woman’s Instagram’ is already a chart-topper?
Fantastically, the song features no less than 18 shots of Bo dressing up in ‘basic white girl’ attire (fluffy jumpers, onesies, slogan T-shirts) and posing for a 35-mm square, just as if taking an Instagram shot. I think we can all agree Bo has a bit of gender envy and makes an absolutely gorgeous white girl. My favourite line is ‘A random quote from Lord of the Rings, incorrectly attributed to Martin Luther King’, pretty much explaining the perils of re-posting without doing your research.
But it’s not all poking fun. There’s a slow mid-8 in which the fictional girl in the story writes a heartfelt caption to her mum who has passed away. It’s unexpectedly deep for something that seems so shallow and offers a bit of motivation for the need to craft a ‘happy ever after’ online.
If Bo is showing us the lengths a ‘basic white woman’ might go to show the perfect life online, he certainly put in equal effort in the recording of this music video. At the very end of the song, we have a deliberate cut to Bo sat in the dark in a hoodie, alone, watching the song back. It just shows how much effort, in real life, everyone puts into their performances online, pouring work into an identity that makes the every day seem less mundane. And while the song might seem like a surface-level dig, you might actually read it as a criticism of the Internet’s collective grouping as Instagram users as ‘normies’ or ‘basic’ when in fact each one might have a motivation for their posts. One commenter summed it up succinctly: “Bo Burnham put more effort into this song than I did into college.” If that’s not true, I don’t know what is.
At just 34 seconds, Unpaid Intern is short and sweet. My favourite line is “The coffee is free, just like me!” and clearly Bo’s getting at a message about free labour while using a typically jazzy underscore. The simple descending chord pattern (G, F, D#, F) makes it light and catchy. It starts shot in cool monochrome, soon becoming part of a larger canvas in a vibrant purple (we wonder if this was added in post-production.)
The section is part of a longer section in which Bo films a reaction video to the song he performs, and then a reaction to his reaction…and so on. A couple of friends and I were trying to work it out when we first watched it, eventually realising it’s all one long video he scripted and timed so that he could speak over himself and criticise his criticism. As he puts it: “Self-awareness does not absolve anybody of anything.” Giving extra commentary on that commentary feels unnecessary, but it’s clever, funny, and just all-around mind-bending fun.
Again a short one at 57 seconds, Jeffrey Bezos (Part 1) is a David Byrne/Talking Heads homage with a glorious synth and catchy hook that is instantly addictive. I wish we had a full Jeffrey Bezos song, but for reasons known only to Bo, it’s split into two parts with this opening and first verse, and then a Part 2 later in the film (a tiny, 36-second chorus.) More on that in a bit.
My favourite line has to be the opening: “CEO, entrepreneur, born in 1964.” To have even thought of that opening line is perfect! It’s poking fun at the fact that Bezos became the world’s richest man during the pandemic, which perhaps explains the random scream Bo lets out at the end. There’s a wickedly energetic synth solo and I only wish I could find out which exact sample he used for the sound.
The weird thing about this song is that we know that Bo has a partner (Lorene Scafaria), so who is he messaging?! Anyway, it works as a song but it’s not my favourite, I have to be honest. I like the message format and the emoji projections on the wall, not to mention Bo’s stylisation and the inexplicable earring that somehow really suits him. It pokes fun at the weirdness of some of the emojis you can use in the act, from a snowman to a Ferris wheel (“that’s pretty abstract.”) ‘Abstract’ pretty much sums it up. There’s also a great refrain to the tune of ‘Aye, aye, AT&T’.
This one’s a cute filler that isn’t necessarily shot as a performance, but rather as a series of takes. Bo shoots half the song cross-legged in front of a keyboard and mic on the floor before interrupting himself and doing it over again. Did he need to? Perhaps not, but performers can be perfectionists. My favourite line is in the chorus: “Well, well, look who’s inside again, come out to find just a reason to hide again.” Not only a catchy rhyme, but a bit of wisdom, shedding light on the panic about re-emerging after quarantine.
Later, the ‘Possible Ending Song’ borrows the refrain from ‘Look Who’s Inside Again’, and it’s distorted with a voice modulator as we see Bo caught in a spotlight at the piano, naked and with nowhere to hide like a mortifying nightmare. He seems to take it, though. What else is there to lose after a year-long pandemic?
I love this song. It wants to be sexy, like Duran Duran singing Hungry like the Wolf, complete with roar sound and gong sound effects. But it’s actually just Bo doing a home workout with an exercise bike, water bottle, and weights. Brilliant! The whole song is made up of power chords (the first + fifth of the chord only, skipping out the third) which makes it feel much more…well, powerful!
I loved the cross-shaped lights/shadows on the wall: this song is a full apology for all the offensive things he wrote and performed and did as a teenager and it’s a more mature reflection on consequences and legacy than his earlier stuff. My favourite line is really just the entirety of the bridge: “I’ve been totally awful…my closet is chock full of stuff that’s vaguely sh*tty…all of it was totally lawful, just not very thoughtful at all.”
Bo kneels before an open window, silhouetted in light, a Jean Valjean-worthy repentance that could have been lifted from Les Mis. (And a side note, if you remember the criticism of Zack Snyder’s Justice League that talks about Jesus Joker, you might notice the reference to a crucifix in shadows on Bo’s wall. I don’t think he meant it to be offensive or arrogant in the same way as Snyder did, though — rather the opposite, a state of supplication.)
13. Turning 30
Marking the milestone of turning 30, Bo films this entirely in his underpants, all inhibitions cast aside. The light effects with his iPhone are so creative and they accentuate the beats and add a bit of movement and rhythm visually, which if you ask me is just really cool. My favourite line is: ‘My stupid friends are having stupid children’ — why do that, when you can record yourself singing in your underpants on your 30th birthday for a Netflix special?
The only downside to this is the suicide reference right at the end, and then the disclaimer Bo puts in afterwards. I know he doesn’t mean it, but he also projects a video of himself convince someone struggling with their mental health onto another shot of himself with a phone as if he’s watching it back and trying to convince himself. To me that’s the hardest part to watch and why I worried so much for him and his viewers on the initial watch. So instead, I just enjoy it for the uninhibited sense of freedom Bo projects in the song.
Intermission/ Side B
After an intermission (it feels like we could all use a breather), we have a soulful song to the audience, asking if we’re enjoying ourselves. Would it be a Bo Burnham special without one? The jazzy vocals and single spotlight almost remind me of Gregory Porter’s performances and the use of major 7ths give the song a mellow, melodic town, so much so that you can’t help but sing along — the movement is infectious.
My favourite line here is “Is there anyone out there?” It must have been filmed deep in the pandemic, as the song almost resembles a castaway situation without any contact without the outside world, the song an SOS message in a bottle: is there anyone listening to a lone performer and his piano? We’ve also got Bo’s standard continuity joke, as the ending of the song cuts off before the final chords fade out: “I’d give away the ending but you don’t want to kn–” [cue: next scene.]
In the 466 days since I’ve started working from home, I think it’s safe to say there have been times when I have not been feeling my best. Far from it. And it’s been pretty much the same story for everyone. Will the lockdown ever truly end? Will we see the light of day again? With all this in mind, Bo said it best in his most upbeat possible song with the words “all day, all sh*t!”
The deep funk style – a spiky progression from C7th to D#, F, G – is once again at odds with the message of the song, but it’s short and perfectly grasps the mid-pandemic listlessness. Sometimes, the only thing you can do when you feel that bad is sing and dance about it with a fake audience, a remote control light show and a microphone like you’re at a solo karaoke.
As with Turning 30, I haven’t analysed the song that follows this, referred to as ‘All Time Low’, only because it’s in a segment with Bo talking about some of his mental health issues. There’s a song of about 15 seconds, and you can check it out in the film. I prefer Sh*t, though. It’s short, to the point, and perfectly captures the pandemic mood in a lighthearted way.
If you listen to both parts of this song back to back (see: 7. Jeffrey Bezos, Part 1), you can hear that there are slight changes in tempo and the key, so maybe they don’t make up a whole song because Bo wanted to experiment with tempos and styles. Anyway, he sings this one after a whole existential rant so it’s really a shock when it plays. Oh, and he’s wearing a massive wig and fur coat, so on first viewing, it looks as if he’s covered in moss.
My favourite line is, of course, the slightly maniacal ‘Congratulations!’ at the end, congratulating… capitalism? If you listen to the album version of these songs on a streaming service like Spotify or Apple Music, you’ll notice that the ending has been recorded so that it rounds off nicely, but in the film version we just cut right away from the end of this section, as we do with ‘Don’t Wanna Know’. Again, the continuity joke, but it also gives the impression that this is just something that almost ended up on the editing room floor and has been thrown in for a bit of variety, the disjointed nature all part of the chaos of this special.
‘White Woman’s Instagram’, ‘How the World Works’ and ‘Turning 30’ all contend for second place for me, but this one is definitely my most played. It’s nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s cinematic, operatic, and as unhinged as you would expect from a circus, funhouse, or Disney villain song for the Internet. I’d watch a spinoff series just for this character. A tour-de-force of cinema and songwriting.
You might remember a precursor to this in the song Welcome to Youtube (and that was way back, even before his first comedy special Words Words Words.) In any case, what we have here is a full-length, more mature observation of the perils of the platforms where we consume and document so much of our lives. Given Bo’s famous love/hate relationship with the Internet, to which he owes him fame, everything in this song feels justified.
Although no introduction is given, we recognise immediately that a bespectacled Bo is playing a persona: a fictional gatekeeper to the Internet whose master plan is to entice users with the promise of endless fun while slowly driving them mad with the masses of unfiltered content (“Just nod or shake your head and we’ll do the rest.”) It’s sinister, it’s electric, and it’s enough to make you want to throw your phone into a fire.
My favourite line, and that of every single person I’ve spoken to about this song, is: “Anything and everything, all of the time.” After all, isn’t that the Internet? There’s a really insightful interlude where the persona breaks character for a second and explains how everything used to be so much more innocent and harmless before 9/11. It seemed that was the turning point at which the whole world went mad and barraged the Internet with content. The pure intentions of the platform mixed in with grossly inappropriate content are heartbreaking, sinister, and poignant. By the end, you feel like you never want to read a screen again (but then how would you talk about this song?)
On the face of it, this one doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, but when you get down to the nuts and bolts of the song, it’s about disassociation: the feeling of losing touch with reality. I think of it as a combination of all the unfiltered news and events we consume via media, both good and bad, leading to the feeling that everything is of equal weight and all of us are equally disaffected by what we see. My favourite line is the enigmatic: “Female Colonel Sanders, easy answers, civil war; the whole world at your fingertips, the ocean at your door.”
Unusually for Bo, whose main medium is the piano, it’s a welcome change to see him performing on the guitar, intimate like we’re sat round a campfire. He projects a flickering light and shadows of trees onto his curtain to even simulate a sense of this natural setting, and it just further reinforces the message that anyone or anything can be anywhere, while this sense of reality is slowly slipping away, yet we still desperately hold onto it.
18. All Eyes On Me
The finales to what., Make Happy, and Words Words Words are always showstoppers and the pattern continues with Inside. The famous Kanye rant in Make Happy always felt like such an event — I remember being so affected watching it for the first time. But, watching ‘All Eyes On Me’ (the Blue Song, as it’s affectionately known online, because of the filter), you seem to forget all about anything that came before it. Like everything he has produced has led up to this moment. The only way I can describe it is euphoric, some even likening it to a religious experience. It sounds strange, but I feel like Bo’s work is powerful enough to bring out both an emotional and creative response and this song is part of the reason for it.
Bo leads with an intro speech, almost like a preacher, but it’s the refrain, “Get your f*cking hands up”, that stands most in memory. It just broke my heart to hear this and I think it’s so memorable because it’s the rawest part of the film with all the emotions of 2020 on display. I think it’s the way that Bo uses a voice modulator and, most devastatingly, a sampled crowd to simulate being in a performance. How we miss being together.
This song follows the climax of the film and serves to decompress all the energy from the previous songs. Led by piano and strings, it has a series of chord progressions in the keys of E and F, musically just a semitone apart which is an unconventional move. Not unlike a Beatles song, it leads into key changes you don’t anticipate and making it sound fresh and reflective. My favourite line is: “When it ends, if it ever does” – because who knows how long Bo has been producing this film and, what’s more, how long it will take for the outside world to open up again.
He links back to a line from his opening song ‘Comedy’, with a slight alteration to the lyrics: “When I’m fully irrelevant and totally broke, I’ll panic, so call me up and tell me a joke.” You can also see from the double exposure (see image above) that he’d worked on this at the very start of 2020 and was clearly at the start of the creative process. Overlaying this is a closer image of him later in the year performing the song, and it gives it a multi-textured approach, making it feel much more complex.
The credit sequence song just eases us out of the show, like the house lights coming back on, and it’s just as well: after watching this film I think you just need to sit and think for a minute about what you’ve seen. The chords are very simple: an upwards progression of Bb – Cm – Dm – Em. The repeated line, “It’ll stop any day now”, pretty much does all the work here. It’s saying: don’t worry, it’s ok. After revisiting the entire emotional spectrum of 2020 in one film (breathe!) we can end on a hopeful note.
And that’s the end of the analysis! I hope you enjoyed it, but really, just go back and appreciate Inside and listen more closely to each of the songs next time you hear them. They’re incredibly fun to have learned and played, and Bo does it best! There’s a load to unpack, and to produce an entire film and album of this calibre, solo, is an accomplishment. I don’t know where Bo can go from here, but maybe in another 5 years we’ll have another film just as poignant as this.