“Together through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”
– Lady Galadriel to Frodo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Late in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Lady Galadriel speaks to the novel’s protagonist, Frodo Baggins, about how she has fought the “long defeat” for literal eons. For a second, it’s not obvious what the exact applicability of Galadriel’s words is for the Fellowship. It is only when you consider where this statement appears that it becomes clearer. Wedged between the loss of Gandalf the Grey in the Mines of Moria and the death of Boromir on the banks of the River Anduin, the long defeat signifies the noble but potentially doomed struggle the Fellowship has undertaken. Characters must sacrifice themselves for a cause they believe in but whose conclusion is by no means assured. In short, to fight the long defeat, characters must embrace “hope without guarantees.”[i]
Under Tolkien’s conceptual lens of the long defeat, evil is unlikely to be fully eradicated; it can merely be contained or held temporarily at bay. Yet the philosophy of the long defeat is not one of unyielding pessimism or all-consuming despair – quite the opposite. The long defeat instead valorizes the steadfast determination to try, to make the effort, as well as small yet powerful acts of humanity. It characterizes such acts as deeply meaningful despite the unlikeliness that they can significantly alter a long-term trajectory. In a way, it essentially functions as the antithesis to Nelson Mandela’s statement: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” often quoted ad nauseum by foolhardy optimists. Unlike Mandela’s line, where instances of corruption are unimportant in the unstoppable march toward a more just world, Tolkien views the human experience as being in irrevocable decline. Yet the author does not discount that the long defeat does not provide fleeting glimpses of heaven on earth – or that it can set the stage for a final victory.
Watching Bo Burnham’s recent comedy/musical special, Inside, it’s difficult to not see the overlap between the comedian’s and Tolkien’s worldview. Over 87 minutes and 20 songs, Burnham explores a variety of themes. But easily the most potent are his own struggles with anxiety, the burden of trying to make meaningful art, as well as their connection to climate change and our dystopian internet culture. For some, this is likely a bleak experience. Yet the true effect of Burnham’s special is refreshingly hopeful albeit brutally honest. Similar to Tolkien’s iconic Fellowship, Inside, and particularly its closing numbers, “That Funny Feeling” and “All Eyes on Me,” grapples with the long defeat. It argues that attempting to push back on the forces of darkness is deeply meaningful, even if it cannot necessarily prevent our inevitable demise.
To dissect Inside and how it pertains to Tolkien’s long defeat, we must touch upon the composition of the special. “It starts playfully, packed with clever lines,”[ii] but at around the halfway marker, there is a profound shift to a more somber and even despairing tone. The second half parses not only how Burnham’s mental health was and is being damaged by the ongoing pandemic, but also how the cynical, numbing effects of our capitalistic culture have rendered us incapable of dealing with or perhaps even understanding the most pressing issues of the day.
The song that most poignantly sums up this quality is titled “That Funny Feeling.” “The all-too-honest ‘That Funny Feeling,’ [ … ] captures how desensitized we’ve become to the constant wave of national traumas and concerns filling our feeds. It’s not that we don’t care — we’re just tired,”[iii] says Skylar Graham of The Duke Chronicle. Graham gets it half right. Our world is fatiguing and enervating – but this is far from accidental. The world is not a fluke. There is an intentionality to its mechanizations and the information we’re fed day-by-day.
With “That Funny Feeling,” Burnham does indeed evoke current or impending traumas. But his preoccupations are more squarely focused on how our capitalistic culture is desperate to continue projecting a happy, benign face despite these horrors. The reason it does this is fairly simple: It is either complicit in them or directly responsible. The information we are fed every day is designed to intentionally distract us from the system’s culpability in our social and cultural death spiral. It is crafted to virtue signal while perpetuating an exhausting world where every social, economic and political element or experience is brutally reduced to a profit motive.
An effective analog for understanding this is the 1991 novel American Psycho and its subsequent 2000 film starring Christian Bale. In both the text and Mary Harron’s brilliant movie, Patrick Bateman’s serial killing is framed as a satire, a conduit for the vicious capitalism of the 1980s. His ghoulish behavior reflects the era’s commodifying lens, where all of human life is his to own, control or destroy.
However, the text and film are also an indictment of a society’s inability to ameliorate its intrinsic savagery or perhaps even recognize it. The story pairs orgies of violence with orgies of consumerism as Bateman endlessly waxes on infinite consumer products while inflicting infinite atrocities on those weaker than him. This produces a numbing effect on the reader and viewer – where both proclivities run together. Bateman is also routinely confused with other people (as every male in his social class looks roughly similar to him) throughout American Psycho, which arguably enables his behavior and suggests the primacy of the hegemonic culture in perpetuating and protecting itself: a type of see no evil, hear no evil mentality.
Supplementing this are Bateman’s attempts to project a shiny veneer of pure human decency in parallel to his bloodthirsty antics. Consider the embedded scene below where Bateman is at a dinner party with his vapid yuppie pals. Halfway through the meal, he inexplicably launches into a speech about all the problems of the world and why it is morally imperative that people from his social circle take a stand for the marginalized masses.
“Well, we have to end apartheid for one.”
What is interesting about this story beat is not just its obvious irony, as, let’s face it, Bateman and his acolytes would eat the marginalized either figuratively or literally, but that Bateman seems as if he may believe his inane posturing (or at the very least would like to). In fact, when Evelyn, Bateman’s girlfriend (played by Reese Witherspoon), questions why he adheres strictly to having a job when he is rich enough to not work, he tersely responds that wants to “fit in.” And later, when Evelyn suggests that Bateman may be less than a bastion of human decency, he appears genuinely rattled and distressed, stammering, hilariously, “No, I’m, I’m in touch with humanity!” Evelyn, by the way, has no idea about Bateman’s serial killing and is reacting merely to his rather coarse ending of their relationship.
“I know my behavior can be, erratic sometimes.”
It isn’t hard to see the similarities between a literary figure like Bateman and the corporate sociopaths that run our world in reality. Anyone who has lived through the last few decades knows that corporations have become experts at spinning mythological stories of their virtue, values and social responsibility. All of this belies their monstrous true natures. Every donation they make, every free night at a museum they sponsor, every statement on racial equity they deliver is all a pretense, a smokescreen, an elaborate ruse to hide that they exist solely to make money, limit liability and crush competitors. They are not your friends, nor are they a universal force for good. In reality, they are killers – either figuratively or quite literally – and have been cannibalizing the country for decades if not since its very inception. And like Bateman, the mythologies spun by these corporations are so powerful and all-encompassing that they, themselves, believe in them. As tempting as it may be to think this, the suits operating the levers of power in corporate America are not diabolical mustache twirlers; they are distressingly and mundanely human.
Over 30 years after Ellis’s book and 21 after Harron’s film, the capitalism within “That Funny Feeling” functions in a broadly similar way as its 1980s iteration. Both versions continually stymie critical thinking about the dire straits facing society, which are occurring not despite of capitalism but because of capitalism. And both attempt to manufacture desire by making commodities into something more than their material properties, transforming them into a reflection of how the consumer wants to feel about themselves.
Yet 2021’s form of capitalism also differs greatly from the 1980s, in that it is a far more powerful and insidious variety. While American Psycho‘s main character and setting are still defined by wealth and the status that such wealth allocates, its version of capitalism is quaint, cute, innocent, a feckless dinosaur compared with how the system works today. “That Funny Feeling” highlights capitalism’s transition to the information age – with its outrage culture and attention economy – and describes it as, well, capitalizing on the core of the human condition rather than just selling commodities to humankind.
Burnham depicts contemporary capitalism as having successfully wormed its way into our fears, desires, nostalgias, social movements and addiction to social media instead of simply selling us disposable material items that are still separate from what we recognize as ourselves. In short, while American Psycho‘s capitalism is still ubiquitous and hypnotic, it remains external, temporal, something to own and then, someday, maybe, let go.
We can see the relative weakness of 1980s capitalism in the most moving vignette of American Psycho, where Bateman is at least able to imagine a different life, a better life, one not reduced to being a mere conduit for or expression of his time’s dominant ideology. Patrick’s imaginings are the product of his periodic social and/or romantic interactions with Jean, his secretary and one of the rare figures who doesn’t comfortably belong in the upper crust. The relationship between this somewhat ill-matched couple is fascinating, as Jean awakens something in Patrick where he has to consider that he is not just a brand, not just lifestyle, not just an ideology, but something terrifyingly more: a human being capable of his own agency and responsible for his own actions. This suggests that despite the fearsome ubiquity of the decade’s materialism, American Psycho‘s capitalism is not an absolute or all-powerful force. The capitalism that encircles Bateman, influencing his thoughts, driving his actions, is still restricted largely to objects: items to purchase – or not.
Below is the full passage in question, which transpires shortly after Patrick concludes his date with Jean and muses about what their potential life together might look like. In this fantasy, they are depicted as being carefree, innocent almost, basking in what passes for the natural world within New York City. Most importantly, the dominant specter of capitalism, a hegemonic force that defines both their lives, and, to varying degrees, their very beings, is unable to fully touch them here. They purchase something, yes, but the item is recognized for what it is: a material and ultimately disposable object – not a reflection of self.
“[In] the back of the cab on the way across town to my apartment, I imagine running around Central Park on a cool spring afternoon with Jean, laughing, holding hands. We buy balloons, we let them go.”[iv]
Conversely, the capitalism of “That Funny Feeling” is internal, eternal, something to “live,” to embody, to actively cultivate, making it far more alluring, impactful and entrenched. Let’s look at how the song tackles these various ideas by taking it verse by verse. The first stanza is relatively light; yet it introduces the song’s style of pairing hints of horrific societal breakdown with the complicit, bloated corpse of late-stage capitalism.
“Stunning 8K-resolution meditation app
In honor of the revolution, it’s half-off at the Gap
Deadpool, self-awareness, loving parents, harmless fun
The backlash to the backlash to the thing that’s just begun”[v]
These allusions depict a system attempting to propagate itself by any means possible. The lyrics also refer to the larger cultural dynamics in which our corporate overlords exist and encourage. It is a world of perpetual outrage and backlash amplified either directly by technology giants or indirectly by other behemoths seeking to leverage social, economic or political activism to make money under the guise of solidarity.
The second verse is longer and darker. With each line, we gain a deeper sense of capitalism’s long reach.
“The surgeon general’s pop-up shop, Robert Iger’s face
Discount Etsy agitprop, Bugles’ take on race
Female Colonel Sanders, easy answers, civil war
The whole world at your fingertips, the ocean at your door
The live-action Lion King, the Pepsi Halftime Show
Twenty-thousand years of this; seven more to go
Carpool Karaoke, Steve Aoki, Logan Paul
A gift shop at the gun range, a mass shooting at the mall”[vi]
Burnham’s lines show how good this economic force is at distracting us from the dangers it poses and conjuring up money where the well should have almost certainly run dry. It either plays to our penchant for nostalgia (the live-action Lion King), commanders our finite attention (Carpool Karaoke, Steve Aoki, Logan Paul) or, again, engages in meaningless virtue signaling (Female Colonel Sanders, Bugles’ take on race). All the while, we remain too distracted to grapple with the disaster that lingers in the background: climate catastrophe fueled by the rapid industrialization capitalism requires (The whole world at your fingertips, the ocean at your door) and that the system’s “easy answers” cannot address – as they were never intended to.
The final line is a perfect summation of all of this. The words “A gift shop at the gun range, a mass shooting at the mall” couldn’t more aptly describe a country where every aspect of life represents an opportunity for profit. With an issue like gun ownership, which is highly inflammatory and deeply emotional, we can see how the system latches onto core elements of identity to perpetuate itself – regardless of the toll or the lethality. It is, merely, another venue for profit, hence the evocation of a gift shop. The fact that immense carnage is the typical result (a mass shooting at the mall) of this process is simply incidental, unimportant when compared to profits – a mentality reflected in the gun lobby’s successful blocking of even the mildest of reforms.
The song’s third verse communicates the thematic peak, exploring how our corrosive, capitalist culture drives the average person insane, particularly if they make any attempt to understand it. In this world, Burnham argues, chaos is legitimized, reality is fantasy, summer is fall and quiet or still moments involve actively contemplating your own annihilation.
“Reading Pornhub’s terms of service, going for a drive
And obeying all the traffic laws in Grand Theft Auto V
Full agoraphobic, losing focus, cover blown
A book on getting better hand-delivered by a drone
Total disassociation, fully out your mind
Googling derealization, hating what you find
That unapparent summer air in early fall
The quiet comprehending of the ending of it all”[vii]
Reading Pornhub’s “terms of service” is the perfect entry point into the type of mind our capitalistic world creates. It is emblematic of a lot of what has gone wrong with our internet age, in addition to our ongoing propensity to look to capitalistic entities for guidance when they are the ones who have led us astray.
Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with pornography, but it is hard to argue that Pornhub has been an overly positive force in today’s society. For the uninitiated, the website functions in a way similar to Facebook or YouTube. It is an aggregator of so-called “free content” that thrives on clicks, accrues revenues through ads and considers it unnecessary to police itself due to a psychotic embrace of Section 230-influenced nihilism. The site having so-called “terms of service” is deeply ironic. They are superfluous, window dressing. Once more, it is meaningless posturing, an attempt to paint a capitalistic entity as being a responsible actor when in reality they are the equivalent of an arsonist. It’s hard to sell that you’re a morally scrupulous organization when your actions are so clearly lacking in integrity and where it is painfully blatant that you have no care or consideration for the content you host or the people it affects.
The confusion this world elicits becomes even clearer in the song’s next section. These lines further the idea of someone’s mental health spiraling into the abyss as they struggle to discern a real drive from a digital one (Grand Theft Auto V) or attempt to ground themselves through self-help only to have their book delivered via drone technology. This crippling mental erosion eventually concludes with Burnham speaking to “dissociation,” “derealization” and being “fully out your mind,” a manic state that can only be quieted by thinking about the death of all mankind.
The song ends with a repetitive series of lines assuring us that, although the world has become overwhelmingly bleak, there is little we can do in response. In fact, the sorry state of the world is our destiny – and an overdue one at that. Whether it’s with pandemics, climate change or the precarious state of Burnham’s headspace, we’ve all been living on borrowed time. The only relief we can hope for is simply that human beings are aware of time’s passage and have full knowledge that nothing can truly last.
“Hey, what can you say?
We were overdue
But it’ll be over soon
Hey, what can you say?
We were overdue
But it’ll be over soon
This scene lays out so much of Tolkien’s long defeat philosophy – not to mention the way it overlaps with “All Eyes on Me” and Inside. Both the real-life comedian and the fictional hobbits grapple with the prospect of surrender, and both, at least temporarily, flirt with the idea of retreat to something beyond the reach of the dark trends imperiling their respective worlds. For Merry and Pippin, that place is represented by the bucolic serenity of the Shire, while for Burnham, it is more intangible. It is a place he refers to repeatedly during “All Eyes on Me” as “inside,” a location set apart from the world as we know it, free from its respective concerns. Both figures, the real and the imaginary, feel this desire due to the suspicion that they are fundamentally outmatched by the forces amassed against them. But both eventually conclude that they have no real choice but to soldier on – even if they are likely doomed to failure.
So, is Burnham’s desire to retreat due merely to how he feels about the fallen world of “That Funny Feeling”? Not exactly. While the song’s message about the horrifying nature of our society, as precipitated by capitalistic scum operating its levers of power, is indeed deflating, there is more to the story. Many of Inside’s themes factor into Burnham’s fragile headspace, and the brilliance of the album lies in how they compound upon one another ahead of “All Eyes on Me.” Some of these include Burnham’s mental health, his ambivalence toward performance and the difficulty of authentic engagement in our chaotic media landscape. By reviewing what these themes are and when they pop up, it becomes more understandable why “That Funny Feeling” serves as the final push for the artist to fall into an existential nadir. They shake his confidence in his ability to help fix some of the world’s various systemic crises by creating meaningful art. And by the time “That Funny Feeling” comes around, Burnham’s initial hope for his special, that it would or could “save the world with comedy” has been fully abandoned.
But let’s back up. Burnham establishes this hope, this mission, during the special’s second song – aptly titled “Comedy.” The inverse of “All Eyes on Me,” “Comedy” is a deeply ambivalent yet still optimistic tune. It conveys Burnham’s hope for his special, acting as what he believes its thesis will be. But it also expresses skepticism that he should be making a comedy special while the world is in its current state of pure chaos:
“The people rising in the streets. The war, the drought. The more I look, the more I see nothing to joke about. Is comedy over? Should I leave you alone? ‘Cause, really, who’s gonna go for joking at a time like this? Should I be joking at a time like this?”[xi]
Yet “Comedy” still ends triumphantly, where Burnham sings that he is, in fact, going to triumph over self-doubt and create a comedic work of art of some utility and worth to our crumbling society:
“Healing the world with comedy. Making a literal difference, metaphorically. And yes, most likely, they’ll pay me, but I’d do it for free. I am healing the world with comedy.”[xii]
All this humorous self-aggrandizement is long gone by the time “All Eyes on Me” take place. It is replaced by a dead serious resignation that he has failed in this mission. This can be seen most clearly by juxtaposing the aesthetics of both songs with one another. Where “Comedy” was manic, consisting of multiple scenes sharply edited together, “All Eyes on Me” is slow and simple, with only a couple of cuts throughout the song’s entirety. Where “Comedy” included a final shot of Burnham moving with a sense of precision, his form crystal clear within the frame, “All Eyes on Me” depicts him in a nearly identical shot, the major difference being that his body is swaying slowly back and forth, unfocused and washed-out by blue light. Finally, where “Comedy” featured Burnham singing wildly in his normal voice, “All Eyes on Me” includes Burnham deploying a voice moderator, which deepens and slows its tone considerably, suggests an overwhelming sense of depression.
But there are a variety of other songs between “Comedy” and “All Eyes on Me” which showcase Burnham’s erosion of faith in himself. In “30,” for instance, Burnham discusses how, while he’s still very young, he’s already slipping into irrelevancy with younger generations: “I used to make fun of the boomers; in retrospect, a bit too much. Now all these fucking zoomers are telling me that I’m out of touch?”[xiii]
Supplementing this encroaching irrelevance is modern screen culture. Burnham is acutely aware how the rise of smart phones has laid waste to any hope of sustained engagement with a given audience. He alludes to this directly with the song “Don’t Wanna Know”: “Do I have your attention? Yes, or no? I bet I’d guess the answer. But I don’t wanna know. Am I on in the background? Are you on your phone? I’d ask you what you’re watching. But I don’t wanna know.”[xiv]
He also addresses the way our contemporary internet has contributed to this problem with the song “Welcome to the Internet,” where everything is available “all of the time,” meaning, of course, that nobody can focus on anything: “Could I interest you in everything all of the time? A little bit of everything all of the time. Apathy’s a tragedy, and boredom is a crime. Anything and everything all of the time.”[xv]
Such songs signal where Burnham is heading by the time “That Funny Feeling” rolls around. His self-esteem and/or self-confidence is already crippled, evident in how he quips half-seriously at the beginning of the song “I can’t really, uh, play the guitar very well, um, or sing, so, you know, apologies,”[xvi] before proceeding to do both very well. Burnham is lost in a malaise, and “That Funny Feeling” offers such a searing portrait of the planet’s myriad problems that the feeling of impotence, despair and resignation feel axiomatic.
Strangely, Burnham’s resignation in “All Eyes on Me” does not manifest as total inertia or anything similar. Instead, Burnham resigns himself to letting go of expectations – both for himself and those he perceives coming from his fans. While all pop culture figures likely feel some pressure to cater to their fanbase or market forces, Burnham’s “parasocial” relationship with his fandom is particularly significant. It also helps explain why he holds such high expectations for himself and his art, and why, when he believes he can’t fulfill them, his fall from grace is particularly spectacular.
Burnham has long been preoccupied with “parasocial” phenomena – both its positive and negative attributes. The term refers to how viewers “devote time, energy, and emotion to celebrities and ‘content creators’ like YouTubers, podcasters, and Twitch streamers — people who do not know they exist.”[xvii] Burnham, who himself got his start by uploading content via YouTube back in 2006, has an acute understanding of this type of relationship, returning to it again and again in his work. There is doubt that he feels both enlivened by it but also burdened. Look at the concluding moments of his special Make Happy, which “closes [with] a song called ‘Handle This,’ and includes lyrics like: “The truth is, my biggest problem is you / [. . .] A part of me loves you, part of me hates you / Part of me needs you, part of me fears you / [. . .] “Come and watch the skinny kid with a / Steadily declining mental health, and laugh as he attempts / To give you what he cannot give himself.”[xviii]
“All Eyes on Me” is basically an experiment with Burnham relinquishing what he feels is his end of the bargain in these parasocial relationships. In doing so, he can keep the love and adoration fandoms slavishly give to content creators. Yet he no longer needs to do the incredibly difficult work of meaningful content creation – his signature since the beginning of his online career. He can retreat inside to join “other ‘corporately owned pop stars’ [as they] prey on young fans’ desire to feel loved by writing […] lyrics vague enough [that] anyone can feel like it was written specifically about them.” In doing so, he starts to resemble a Steve Aoki and Logan Paul, the two cultural figures specifically called out in “That Funny Feeling.” Burnham clearly views such figures as sucking up all the air in the room without contributing anything that makes the culture or the world better. If anything, the Aokis and Pauls of the world are little better than our capitalistic overlords. They commandeer the limited attention of viewers while big business and bought-off politicians successfully destroy the country and world at large. It is Burnham’s resignation to being an inferior musician or giving an inferior performance that lies at the heart of the song. Every element of its production feeds the notion of Burnham allowing himself to transform into an attention-hungry brand rather than a legitimate musician or comedian. Hell, just look at the song’s title itself: “All Eyes on Me.”
Burnham’s transformation into one of these figures begins with an interlude of him commenting on how long Inside has taken to come to fruition. You can feel his frustration in this scene, his suspicion that what he has created will inevitably fail to live up to his expectations of himself and his fans. The special then transitions to a shot of Burnham sitting in front of a mirror, commenting on his eroding mental health before breaking down in sobs. Behind him, we can see the reflection of his camera, which is pointed directly at the mirror. The camera begins slowly zooming in on itself, moving past his left shoulder until we’re literally swallowed up by the camera’s lens and the screen goes black – visually suggesting that we’ve been transported into the comedian’s distressed mind.
Accompanying this movement, we slowly begin to hear what sounds like a crowd of people attending a concert. They’re cheering loudly, and after a beat, we hear Burnham’s voice begin to address the crowd:
“Thank you, guys. Thank you very much. Thank you. You guys have been incredible.
Thank you. I couldn’t have done this without you guys. I couldn’t, really. I…
This last year has been … You know, there have been times that, um…
But just knowing you’re here, you know, feeling you here with me. Um… Yeah, thank you.
You know, I hate to ask because, uh, you’re given me so much. But… I need you to do one more thing for me. Can you do that?”[xix]
Anyone who has ever attended a concert recognizes these stock phrases – which suggest an intimacy and authenticity that isn’t there. It represents an instance of Burnham playing with his parasocial connection to his fans. Viewing the opening of the song through this prism, the spoken word segment begins to resemble a preface for what Burnham is intending with “All Eyes on Me.” It signals what type of performer he has resigned himself to being and the type of performance he has resigned himself to giving.
The song’s overarching style and lyrics support this feeling of resignation. A deceptively simple tune, “All Eyes on Me” apes the styles of far less ambitious artists than Burnham. For instance, it contains only a few verses – a stark contrast to many of the other songs on Inside, which are densely written and include many different verses. The three or four verses that “All Eyes on Me” does include, not to mention the way Burnham repeatedly cycles through them, have a strange trance-like or hypnotic effect, beckoning you to join him in his headspace.
The lyrics themselves display a similar trend. Over and over during “All Eyes on Me,” Burnham wails a variation of, “Get your fuckin’ hands up. Get on out of your seats. All eyes on me, all eyes on me,” as well as “Heads down, pray for me. Heads down now, pray for me.”[xx] Just like the interlude, it’s hard to think of a pop concert where you haven’t heard these phrases, and at this point, they feel almost parodic.
A bit later in the song, though, Burnham transitions from these canned expressions and commands to something more substantial. He shows that, while he may want to resign himself to the lowest common denominator, there is another part of him still yearning for meaningful output and authentic connection. He shares a vignette detailing his long-running struggles with anxiety – something that preceded the global pandemic and lockdowns, and which marred his stand-up career five years ago:
“You wanna hear a funny story? So, uh… Five years ago, I quit performing live comedy, because I was beginning to have severe panic attacks while on stage, which is not a good place to have them. So I quit. And I didn’t perform for five years, and I spent that time trying to improve myself mentally. And you know what? I did! I got better! I got so much better, in fact, that in January of 2020, I thought, “You know what? I should start performing again. I’ve been hiding from the world, and I need to re-enter.” And then, the funniest thing happened…”[xxi]
While making this shockingly candid admission, crowd sound effects can be heard reacting to various beats in the story, laughing with abandon at a situation that isn’t all that funny. The message this sends regarding parasocial relationships is unmistakable: In sharing such a vulnerable moment, Burnham is reduced from being a fully realized human to mere entertainment. He is, in a sense, a joke, a spectacle to experience and consume – not know or truly emphasize with. This whole section of “All Eyes on Me” serves as an effective call-back to an earlier Inside song, “White Woman’s Instagram.” In that tune, Burnham mercilessly parodies the Instagram-posting habits of its titular demographic, riffing on the pumpkins, lattes, foam art and flowers that constitute it before discussing a searing post about a woman grieving her deceased mother. What both songs accomplish is establishing that “we cannot know the full extent of someone’s inner world,” either through social media or any type of media. In the end, even the “emotional post was, ultimately, still Content™.”[xxii]
It is perhaps for this reason that “All Eyes on Me” changes tracks again. After his spoken anecdote, he briefly starts cycling through his stock commands again until suddenly exploding with the below verse:
“You say the ocean’s rising—like I give a shit
You say the whole world’s ending—honey, it already did
You’re not gonna slow it, Heaven knows you tried
Got it? Good, now get inside”[xxiii]
After this blistering verse, he quickly cycles back to the song’s “get your hands up” refrain before suddenly becoming enraged. Screaming at us to once again get up, he springs at the camera, lifts it over his head and begins spinning around. The diegetic crowd effects, which had last been heard during his spoken antidote, slowly come back in, whooping and cheering, gradually growing in volume. Right as these effects swell to its peak, Burnham lets loose a hysterical sounding laugh before he drops the camera and the song ends.
Clearly, Burnham has been profoundly triggered by the reaction to his spoken antidote. The exact reason behind certain elements of his reaction isn’t exactly clear, such as his laughter, but others are relatively lucid. By sharing his most personal experiences and having them received as mere fodder by the modern content consumer, the message conveyed is that not only does artistic expression not matter but perhaps nothing matters. And judging by his angry, almost violent reaction, the tension, the borderline antipathy he has long felt toward the creator/consumer relationship is behind his need to lash out and disrupt it. To gain clarity, just look at one more passage from Make Happy, where Burnham outlines how online artmaking and performance has become nothing more than an imprisoning, cyclical loop of creation and consumption:
“Social media, it’s just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform. So the market said, ‘Here, perform everything to each other, all the time, for no reason.’ It’s prison. It’s horrific. It is performer and audience melded together. I know very little about anything, but what I do know is that if you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.”[xxiv]
But what’s more important than the why behind Burnham’s outburst, are the details of what comes next. After “All Eyes on Me” ends and the screen cuts to black, the film opens back up on Burnham waking to a new day. Slowly peeling himself off his bed, he starts editing his work, before finally, solemnly admitting that his special is “done.” In the next scene, Burnham, now freshly clean-shaven after spending most of the special’s second half growing increasingly feral, begins playing the special’s musical finale, “Goodbye.” The song riffs on his artistic output throughout Inside and seeks to preemptively nip criticism in the bud. Acting as an extension of the parasocial themes of “All Eyes on Me,” the song functions as a dialogue with his audience. Burnham seems to want to defend his previous song and his inability to succeed in his self-appointed mission. He does this by turning verses from his previous songs back around on the audience, challenging them to do better if they can and to stop looking to him for any sort of input, contribution or deliverance from global concerns. For example, way back in “Comedy,” Burnham sings:
“If you wake up in a house that’s full of smoke
Don’t panic, call me and I’ll tell you a joke
If you see white men dressed in white cloaks
Don’t panic, call me and I’ll tell you a joke
Oh shit, should I be joking in a time like this?[xxv]
In “Goodbye,” however, the phrasing is inverted, directed this time toward the viewer and his fandom:
If I wake up in a house that’s full of smoke I’ll panic, so call me up and tell me a joke When I’m fully irrelevant and totally broken, damn it Call me up and tell me a joke Oh, shit You’re really joking at a time like this?[xxvi]
But despite these seemingly bruised feelings and lingering insecurity, Burnham sticks to his decision to end his special and is, eventually, able to leave his home for the first time. We follow him as he opens the door, but instead of emerging onto a busy street, we watch as he walks out into what looks like a sound stage with a house built on top of it. A spotlight shines on his body, and after a second or two, he appears to become uncomfortable or overwhelmed by the outside world. He whirls around and attempts to reenter the house – only to find himself locked out. The laugh track, which we last heard in “All Eyes on Me” comes roaring back at this moment, and Burnham, after pulling on the door a few times, eventually collapses to the ground, his hands coming up to shield his face from the spotlight’s blinding gaze.
Then the film cuts back to Burnham back inside the home where he shot Inside, watching the scene described above projected on one of his home’s empty walls. Bearded and scraggly once again, he stares harshly at his own visage. But right before the film cuts to black, a small smile perks up across his mug, conveying volumes about the performer’s feelings about his art and reemergence into the larger world.
What “All Eyes on Me” and the special’s remaining scenes articulate is that, while Burnham can experiment all he wants with resignation, with removing himself from tackling worldly concerns with his art, it’s inevitably an unsustainable project. Like Merry and Pippin, Burnham still decides to return to the world and release his artistic contribution to some of the most important conversations of the day. In a sense, he reconciles himself to his feelings of failure and come to terms with not being able to meet the sky-high expectations that he feels from himself and his fans. And most importantly, he can find a modicum of gratification from having made the effort in the first place. His smile in Inside’s final moments communicates that the voices both inside and outside of his mind, the ones that tell him he is not up to the task of confronting our epoch-defining crises, can at least be temporarily silenced. In that headspace, he can soldier on, even knowing that his contributions may not ultimately make much of a difference or have a direct correlation to systemic change.
Of course, it’s important to note, that the long defeat does not begin and end with personal or society-wide perseverance in the face of dire circumstances. No. Tolkien importantly leaves open the possibility that the long defeat can eventually give way to final victory. Tolkien even coined a term for such a scenario, “eucatastrophe,” an affixing of the Greek prefix “eu,” meaning good, to catastrophe.
But in Tolkien’s conceptual schema, final victory does not come about through something cataclysmic like armed warfare; instead, small instances of decency, joy, mercy, love and selflessness are what play a pivotal part in delivering eucatastrophe. In The Lord of the Rings, the purest example of this is Bilbo’s and Frodo’s decisions to both spare the life of Gollum and, later, to trust him as a guide to Mountain Doom – despite his obvious duplicity and monomania. In one of the best scenes in Jackson’s series, Gandalf (played beautifully by Sir Ian McKellen) speaks to Frodo in the Mines of Moria about Gollum – who has been tracking the Fellowship. Exhausted and frustrated with their dire circumstances, Frodo blurts out that it is a pity Bilbo hadn’t killed Gollum when he had the chance (a moment that transpires in The Lord of the Rings prequel, The Hobbit). In response, Gandalf looks back at Frodo aghast, remarking that it is the pity of Bilbo that could someday decide the fate of men.
Anyone who has watched the film series or read the books knows the exact moment where Gandalf’s words prove prophetic. As the Battle of the Black Gate rages outside Mordor in The Return of the King, Frodo and Sam enter Mount Doom to finally put an end to the ring of power. But right when Frodo is at the precipice and ready to throw it into the fires, he relents. He is unable to prevent the ring from taking hold of him. Attempting to claim it for himself, he is only foiled by the sudden appearance of Gollum, who steals the ring by force before ironically toppling into the volcano’s magma himself.
For Tolkien, then, evil is as much vulnerable to its own corrupt dysfunction as it is to direct frontal assault, and small acts can set the stage for improbable, last-minute victory. “To Tolkien, eucatastrophe could only come about if you had faced up to the inevitability of ‘the long defeat’ and soldiered on regardless.”[xxvii] Given the author’s Christianity, it is not difficult to see the parallels to the story of Christ, where there was “no precedent whatsoever in Jewish thought for a dying and rising Messiah. Surely, they must have grieved at the death of Jesus, and they may have even despaired. But despair was conquered along with death itself when, three days later, Jesus walked out of the grave. This, Tolkien calls the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation.”[xxviii] For that matter, it is not difficult to see the parallels to some of the existential threats Burnham tries to face down in Inside, such as climate change. Tim Beshara, writing about Tolkien and eucatstrophe in the context of climate change stated, “I don’t know what the eucatastrophe for resolving climate change might be; a technological breakthrough perhaps, or maybe even an outbreak of global political will to fix it, but I know without the ongoing slog of day-to-day climate activism we won’t be in a position for these miracles to happen.”[xxix]
In Burnham’s case, his actions may not feel like they will inevitably lead to eucastrophe. But that is only because we don’t yet know how his story as an individual or our story as a people are going to end. Still, just as Beshara points out, the worth of Burnham’s “All Eyes on Me” and Inside as a whole come from its depiction of the long defeat as keeping the possibility of eucatastophe alive. Nobody can know the future or the role we will end up playing; all we can strive for is staying alive and continuing to fight. The songs and the special as a whole track the dispiriting impacts of our modern consumeristic society and the dire straits it has pushed the human race. It underscores the powerlessness this engenders, how it inculcates a desire to give in and retreat inside – particularly if you do work where relevancy is always fleeting and parasocial expectations are always ineluctable.
Now, some may balk at the premise that any type of art could deliver society from our entrenched problems. To put it more simply, the notion that, at the end of Inside, Burnham’s more modest hopes for his special will change anything for the better is laughable and illusionary. Isn’t that right? Perhaps, but that does not negate the validity of his struggle, as illusion may be the very essence of the long defeat. Writing about the disturbing rise of the extreme Christian Right in his book, American Fascists, Chris Hedges quotes the Russian novelist Vasily Grossman to parse how small acts of humanity are true vanguards against evil. What’s more, Grossman describes how the more irrational the acts are the more powerful they’ll inevitably be. To fight the long defeat, then, would suggest that people need to accept a form of divine madness – a senselessness marked by “dumb, blind love,” even for a world that can be as brutish and ugly as ours. This is the very state Burnham seems to achieve at the end of Inside. As Grossman says via Hedges:
“I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it seems, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning. Human history is not the battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”[xxx]
Inside fully sells the value of fighting the long defeat no matter how irrational it may be. Regardless of its immediate impact or tangible effects, it still means something, as it keeps the possibility of systemic change alive. It inspires Burnham’s on-screen persona to emerge from the doldrums of his pandemic isolation and continue trying to positively and productively use his sizable platform and considerable artistic mettle. And it can inspire us as well, even when facing the raging inferno of our species’ self-immolation.
[ii] Bo Burnham: Inside, Netflix – a masterpiece about lockdown angst (theartsdesk.com)
[iv] Ellis, Brett Easton. American Psycho. Vintage Contemporaries/Random House, March 1991.
[v] Burnham, Bo. “That Funny Feeling” Inside the Songs, Republic Records, 2021, track 17.
[ix] The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, directed by Peter Jackson, starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen, New Line Cinema, 2002.
[xi] Burnham, Bo. “Comedy” Inside the Songs, Republic Records, 2021, track 2.
[xiii] Burnham, Bo. “30” Inside the Songs, Republic Records, 2021, track 11.
[xiv] Burnham, Bo. “Don’t Want to Know” Inside the Songs, Republic Records, 2021, track 12.
[xv] Burnham, Bo. “Welcome to the Internet” Inside the Songs, Republic Records, 2021, track 15.
[xvi] Burnham, Bo. “That Funny Feeling” Inside the Songs, Republic Records, 2021, track 17.
[xviii] Make Happy. Directed by Bo Burnham and Christopher Storer, 2016. Netflix, www.netflix.com/watch/798356483?.
[xix] Burnham, Bo. “All Eyes on Me” Inside the Songs, Republic Records, 2021, track 18.
[xxiii] Burnham, Bo. “All Eyes on Me” Inside the Songs, Republic Records, 2021, track 18.
[xxiv] Make Happy. Directed by Bo Burnham and Christopher Storer, 2016. Netflix, www.netflix.com/watch/798356483?.
[xxv] Burnham, Bo. “Comedy” Inside the Songs, Republic Records, 2021, track 2.
[xxvi] Burnham, Bo. “Goodbye” Inside the Songs, Republic Records, 2021, track 19.
[xxx] Hedges, Chris. American Fascists. Free Press, A Division of Simon & Schuster Inc., 2006.