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The Musical Narrative of Bo Burnham

Written by Tanmay Jain

The pandemic, while choking the film and TV industry on one hand by having theatres and productions shut down, on the other hand, has managed to become the muse of several artists. And even after the healthy saturation of the landscape with pandemic-related media, Bo Burnham’s Inside manages to stand out as a brave piece with great music, great cinematography and just the right number of mental breakdowns. Even though the piece seems like the random musings and singings of a tortured artist, one can try and map the journey of Bo’s mental state and the narrative of the “comedy” special through its music.

The special begins with the song “Content”, a light and quick recap of the situation leading up to the special. While having a classic Bo lighthearted approach, it is sung with a flat face and for the most part in the darkness, as a sort of obligatory prologue before the title screen. The first act is inaugurated by the optimistic and energetic “comedy”, marking Bo’s journey that begins with his optimistic approach towards his problems. “Face Timing with my Mom” depicts his frustration and distanced relationship with his parents, “How the World Works” is obviously about the countless overwhelming messed up things in the world, “White Woman’s Instagram” again is about the pretentious, fake and empty social structure of social media. All these songs take a critical but mostly comedic take at all these problems eating away at him, this act ending with “Unpaid Intern”. The content of the song vastly differs from the music in terms of tone, to belittle the importance of the topic and reduce it to a joke.

Starting with “Sexting” and “Problematic”, the second act of the film begins with the tension rising as the issues are confronted in a more upfront manner. “Problematic” is focused on himself and his issues with an apologetic tone. The rising tension of him making himself more and more vulnerable and exposing himself to the issues leads up to the mid-point of the special with the song “30”, where we see his peak vulnerability; the song being performed mostly in nude and ending with a suicide reference. The vulnerability is so apparent that he even literally wipes the screen clean after the song before becoming another one. “Don’t Wanna Know” and “Shit” continue the second act with this trend of topics being more and more apparent and darker.

The third act of the special beings with “All Time Low” is a quick piece frequently contrasting in a tone that describes his anxiety in vivid detail. Then comes, “Welcome To the Internet”, the second-best song of the album. A song that starts out fun but ends in despair. Bo returns to talking about the Internet and backs away from his issues, which continues in the next song “Bezos 2”, after focusing on himself for a few songs. These songs come up right after each other back-to-back and in between Bo confesses to thinking he’d never finish the special as he won’t know what to do if he did. He tries to return and undo his journey in the second act and return to making songs about the world before inevitably coming to terms and having to confront his demons.

The narrative had taken its natural path and now comes the resolution. Bo has gone from joking about, from singing about, and then from running away from his issues to confronting him in the song “That Funny Feeling”. This is one of the only two songs in the album which does not have contrasting music, indicating the lack of denial and no longer depreciating the importance of his mental health issues. In between these two songs, he breaks down crying saying “I am not well.”. The next song “All Eyes on Me”, the best song in the album, is a surreal celebration of his acceptance and his issues indicating that he will no longer run from them.

The special ends with the song “Goodbye”, as a sort of epilogue, similar to “Comedy” in the beginning, but a lot less energetic. One line from the song sums up Bo’s journey throughout the special and through his songs: 

“Look who’s inside again, went out to look for a reason to hide again”

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Tanmay Jain

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