Bo Burnham: Inside

This is the album of the year.

But it was released as a Netflix comedy special.

“Hey man you may have seen it but for something truly beautiful check out Bo Burnham’s Inside – it’s truly art”

I got that iMessage at 10:48 last Wednesday night, a time when most people are afraid of sending texts for fear of waking someone up. You remember Larry in that “Curb” episode talking about the cut-off time, right? But when you’re wowed, you need to share.

I told Christopher that he was the second person that day who recommended it.

So I went home and fired it up. That’s the power of personal recommendation. There was a review that morning in the “New York Times,” but I didn’t go beyond the headline, I’d never heard of Bo Burnham, I have limited time and unlimited input, I’ve got to separate the wheat from the chaff, which is what Bo Burnham talks about in this special, modern life.

The biggest album of the decade is “Hamilton.” Most people still have not seen it, but you’d be stunned how many people know it. By heart. Both youngsters and oldsters. And yes, one can call it hip-hop, but the truth is the lyrics are so interesting, so clever, saying something, that one is drawn to it. Sure, the story is important, but not that important, the music works on its own, the songs are catchy, you want to listen to them over and over again. Not in a club, you don’t dance to “Hamilton,” it’s a pure listening experience, frequently alone.

Bo Burnham’s “Inside” is “Hamilton” But instead of being about what happened two hundred plus years ago, it’s about what is happening today.

Do I expect “Inside” to be as big? No. But if it had started out as a stage show…

Those were the best selling albums of the early sixties, original cast recordings of Broadway musicals. And then the Beatles came along and…covered “Till There Was You.” That’s from “The Music Man.” Yes, the Beatles had roots, they had to play multiple sets a night in Germany. And when they got their chance, they were poised and rehearsed, and had honed their songwriting chops.

And over the last fifty years, popular music has strayed from the basics. Melody, pre-chorus, bridge… They’re often nowhere to be found.

But you can find them in Bo Burnham’s songs.

So, Bo Burnham wrote and recorded and shot “Inside” during the pandemic, it took over a year. He did it all by himself, just like Paul McCartney, but even more like Todd Rundgren. They could play, it wasn’t about exhibiting their chops but what they could do with them. “Goodbye,” the closing number, before the coda of “Any Day Now,” has the feel of Todd’s “Just One Victory,” which closes “A Wizard/A True Star.” Not in the lyrics or the melody, but the concept. It’s a summing up, a way to end the project.  Bo, like Todd, is pushing the limits, not giving the audience what it wants, but what it needs.

What’s it like being a millennial today?

Well, there’s the ‘net and social media and drought and climate change and…we’ve been waiting for someone to address the issues of the day in a palatable manner since…the turn of the century, with the ramping up of hostilities with Iraq.

But we got nothing. Because music turned into the domain of lowest common denominator denizens who desired to make dollars more than art. And sometimes they go together, but that’s when you let the art speak for you, when it’s not about creating a brand with extensions, but a body of work.

Like “Inside.”

In the first song, “Content”…Burnham utilizes the word that is anathema in today’s hit parade. Burnham is living in the present, not some fantasy world detached from the listener. As a matter of fact, he’s just like the listener, albeit with more talent and more determination and persistence. Burnham has paid his dues for over a decade, don’t expect to get great, insightful music from the barely pubescent, certainly not from a track built by committee. To deliver this truth, you’ve got to do it all by yourself.

Burnham sings a song about FaceTiming with his mom. There’s a huge difference from growing up yesterday as opposed to today. Boomers spoke to their parents once a week on Sunday, when the rates were low. Today’s children are in contact with their parents every damn day, they never break away, that’s the norm, as well as never losing contact with everybody they ever knew, they can just go online and find what they’re up to.

There’s a song about being an unpaid intern:

“Who needs a coffee, ’cause I’m doing a run

I’m writing down the orders now for everyone

The coffee is free, just like me

I’m an unpaid intern…”

“You work all day, go back to your dorm

And since you can’t afford a mortgage you just torrent a porn

“Cause you’re an unpaid intern”

I’ve never heard the word “torrent” in a song, but if the younger generation wants content behind a paywall, that’s how they acquire it.

And you do low level work for your resumé. And the outfit gets free labor. Especially in the music business, where there’s a huge population of students wanting to get in…using unpaid interns is part of the business plan, people talk about it all the time…”We’ll get some interns to do that.”

And speaking of porn, there’s a song entitled “Sexting.” You may not understand sending nude pictures over the internet, but it’s de rigueur amongst the younger generations.

And Burnham turned thirty during the making of the special. He was born in 1990, contemplate that. And all of us who have reached that milestone know the mental anxiety of approaching it.

And there’s even a song about Jeff Bezos!

Burnham leaves no stone unturned, everybody’s fair game, he’s speaking English in a world of double-speak, we all know the truth, it’s good to hear someone say it.

Not that “Inside” is the easiest watch. Maybe you want to watch it in pieces. But the songs, you think if there were a soundtrack album, you’d play it in your car ad infinitum, you’d laugh, you’d end up knowing all the words.

Actually, a soundtrack album is being released this week!

Not that I expect any of the songs to make the Spotify Top 50…then again, Burnham’s already got a good number of tracks in eight digit territory on the Swedish streaming service. No, this is not stuff made for today and forgotten tomorrow, this is work that becomes embedded in the culture, that is a signpost, that most people know and never forget, it’s not product.

Not that this is Bo Burnham’s first rodeo, he’s been at it in excess of a decade. Starting on YouTube. Yes, that’s how long the platform has existed. You can make it and distribute it but don’t expect to be instantly famous, that takes more time than you think, Burnham skipped college to work on his art, that’s how much dedication it takes.

Like the rockers of yore.

Bo Burnham reminds me of no one so much as Frank Zappa. That initial LP, “Freak Out!,” was a blaze of social commentary/truth, with hooks, that one could not foresee. Sure, it took Zappa nearly twenty years to have an AM hit… But is that even what it’s about today? A radio hit? That’s not the only way to be known.

Burnham used to go on the road, but he had panic attacks, then after five years he was ready to hit the boards again…and Covid happened.

Yes, HE TALKS ABOUT HIS PANIC ATTACKS! Not for sympathy, like a Kardashian, or someone featured on TMZ, but because it’s part of his makeup. True artists reveal their warts and all, they don’t hold back.

Not that Burnham needs to go back on the road. Maybe he’s more like Steely Dan, the work is enough.

And one of the main reasons “Inside” is gaining so much traction is because it’s on Netflix.

Not everybody can be on Netflix. You can be on Spotify, but not Netflix. If you hear something’s on Netflix you know money was spent, that Netflix believes there’s an audience, you know it’s worth checking out.

Yes, Netflix is the curator, the gatekeeper, something we’ve been waiting twenty years for in today’s music business. Netflix can make a star, Spotify cannot. Spotify is just a distribution platform. Radio made stars. MTV too. But Spotify has not figured out how to do this. We just get endless playlists. How about a Spotify track of the week, just one, or one in every genre, that requires little effort to listen to, that we can all react to and talk about. But don’t expect this from the streaming outlet, it’s run by techies, not music people. Furthermore, they’re afraid of doing this, because if they do all the low-streaming artists will cry and go to the government and complain that it’s unfair. Life is unfair. Not everybody deserves to be heard or seen by everybody. But try telling that to creators.

Burnham wrote all the music himself, performed it and turned it into a visual statement, flipping the script on the old paradigm where the video came after… And he’s got no tattoos. Burnham’s got none of the trappings, none of the identifiers that both wannabes and stars employ to evidence their bona fides. It’s not how you look, IT’S ABOUT THE ART!

So, check out Bo Burnham’s “Inside.” Everybody’s got Netflix or access thereto.

Watch ten or fifteen minutes, that’s enough to understand what is going on. Maybe go back to it later, or watch it straight through. But one thing is for sure, your jaw will drop, to use the old cliché, it’s a breath of fresh air. NOBODY ELSE is doing this, NOBODY! Burnham is the road less taken. Sans all the b.s. of popular music today. He’s stripped it down to the essence, the songs themselves. Not that there are not great interludes in between…

Check it out, you’ll see.

Comments are closed