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Bo Burnham: Inside - Existing in a Digital Purgatory

For the majority of its duration, “White Woman’s Instagram”—a song penned by Bo Burnham for Inside, his self-produced Netflix comedy special—follows the same basic structure as Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”: a list of vaguely related concepts interspersed with an infectiously catchy chorus. For example:

“Latte foam art. Tiny pumpkins.

Fuzzy, comfy socks.

A coffee table made out of driftwood.

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 third verse, however, features a jarring twist on the formula:

“Her favorite photo of her mom.

The caption says:

‘I can't believe it;

It's been a decade since you've been gone.

Momma, I miss you;

I miss sitting with you in the front yard.

Still figuring out how to keep living without you.

It's got a little better, but it's still hard.

Momma, I got a job I love and my own apartment;

Momma, I got a boyfriend, and I'm crazy about him.

Your little girl didn't do too bad.

Momma, I love you. Give a hug and kiss to Dad.'”

It’s a sobering reminder that there are actual human beings on the other side of every social media interaction. “Influencers” and “e-celebrities” are not solely defined by their heavily-filtered photographs and vapid “philosophical” musings; as easy as it is to mock them for their shallow materialism and obsession with “clout,” they are still people—they have families, hopes, ambitions, anxieties, and regrets.

Of course, this epiphany is swiftly forgotten with the very next line: “A goat-cheese salad.” Such is the fickle nature of the digital age.

Although it would be an exaggeration to claim that Inside is about the internet, it’s certainly a major recurring theme, from the songs (which elevate such mundane tasks as sexting and FaceTime conversations to epic proportions) to the various skits and sketches (which adopt the styles of popular YouTube formats, such as “Reaction Videos” and “Let’s Plays”). The film was, after all, created during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when laptops and smartphones served as the only genuinely “safe” windows to the outside world—an avenue of escape that soon became a claustrophobic prison in its own right.

Burnham expresses this fundamental paradox most clearly in “Welcome to the Internet”, which personifies the World Wide Web as a cross between Mephistopheles and a sleazy used car salesman. While the offer of unlimited access to “everything all of the time” is initially tempting, it demands a steep toll (“Show us pictures of your children, / Tell us every thought you think”). Additionally, too much exposure to the information superhighway quickly leads to sensory overload; the whiplash-inducing tonal dissonance of the lyrics is humorous (“Would you like to see the news / Or any famous women's feet?”) and disturbing (“Here's a tip for straining pasta, / Here's a nine-year-old who died”) in equal measure—and as the tempo of the music gradually increases, it veers into outright horror:

“Here's a healthy breakfast option;

You should kill your mom.

Here's why women never fuck you;

Here's how you can build a bomb.

Which Power Ranger are you?

Take this quirky quiz.

Obama sent the immigrants to vaccinate your kids!”

There’s a remote possibility that this relentless barrage of mental imagery isn’t universally relatable, but I’d wager that it comes pretty damn close. It’s definitely reminiscent of my own browsing habits during quarantine: binging each week’s newest streaming “content,” reading about the latest protests (which usually ended with either incidents of police brutality or justified use of force, depending on the news source), and passively watching clips of VTubers and video game speedruns. When one is deprived of any semblance of a daily schedule, “everything all of the time” is a bottomless pit—a ceaseless, joyless, emotionally numb cycle of clicking, consuming, and moving on to the next link.

A digital purgatory in which one ceases to truly live… and instead merely exists.

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