Hey everyone and welcome to the blog portion of the Surplus Conjecture Podcast, where we independently talk about the things we like to talk about, and also without you having to listen to us drone on for an hour to get to the point.
Almost a bite sized, solo podcast, but in text instead of verbal.
So not really anything like a podcast, I guess. Whatever.
Either way, today, I’d like to talk about Bo Burnham. For reasons I won’t get into now, we haven’t been able to make a full podcast out of Bo, but I (Sol) have been wanting to talk about him, and one piece of performance art in particular. It’s the finale to the wonderful “what.” comedy special, which Bo has made available for free on YouTube, and Spotify. And for ‘paid’ on Netflix. I highly recommend watching the whole thing, but for now I just want to focus on the finale.
It truly is a masterpiece in performance art; it blends depth, message, and form with creativity and showmanship perfectly into a very dense, very impactful piece that gets to the core of what Bo’s best work is all about. Watch it. Seriously. The whole rest of this article depends on you knowing what I’m talking about.
I just want to deconstruct this piece, in the ultimate show-off, art critic, smarter-than-you-for-noticing, hoity toity BS that you’re probably used to from me by now (assuming you listen to the podcast). But like, whatever man, its my blog. You clicked the link; don’t try and back out now.
So Bo starts with a bit of setup – I’m gonna end my show now, and I should have done it on a higher note, but what are you gonna do. Then he gets interrupted by the first of three disembodied voices (his own voices portraying characters (there is something deep about that fact on its own that points to the self loathing artist trope, but I’m not sure I’m prepared to follow that rabbit trail)).
The first voice is the valley girl/instagram girl trope. She went to high school with him and wants to use his fame for popularity. The second is the agent/manager Hollywood trope – completely out of touch with the actual art and artist, but only focused on how to ‘by the numbers’ build his brand. The third voice is the ‘dudebro’ trope who actually touches a moment of truth (comedy threes, inverted on its head?) – “I heard,” he says to Bo, “that you act all shy because you are really an introvert, and we shouldn’t expect you to act the same way on stage as you do off stage, but that makes no sense.”
Thus, Bo has set the premise. These are the caricatures which plague him in various forms. As he starts to walk away, trying to leave the stage, he is blocked by the voices.
And then comes the first moment of brilliance. He discovers he can use them. Control them. Use their endless voices on repeat to make something unique and interesting. And he takes the first moment of each sample, and pantomimes being a human beatbox, creating a truly catchy tune.
And of course he wouldn’t be Bo if he didn’t also take a minute to insinuate the Nietzsche-esq view of Satan and God. But its mostly played for laughs, and you remember that this still is a comedy show.
When he tires of the tune the voices are creating, he tries to fight his way out. I cannot imagine a more apt metaphor. And after he has tried and failed to fight his demons, the accusations shift.
“We think you’ve changed, bro.”
“We know best.”
It is the distillation of what each voice was originally talking about. This is the truth, from Bo’s perspective. This is what those voices are really saying. What they have always been really saying.
And again, in a moment that never fails to send shivers down my spine, he attempts to take control of the message.
It is an incredibly powerful moment. All pretext is gone, and the absolute truth is laid bare. “We think we know you.”
‘No,’ says Bo, with his body language, ‘you think you know me but you are wrong’. He even physically tries again, after masterfully controlling the voices, to stop them. His little hand gesture – it looks like or “cut”, or “stop”. Or, ironically, “safe” in baseball. He wants to be safe, wants to be free, but they will not stop. He has made something beautiful, but it has fully escaped his control. And it will not stop.
“We think we know you” drones on on infinite repeat. But Bo has another moment of brilliance. Instead of controlling what they say, let me use it. Take it even further and make it the backdrop to a song. If they won’t stop, I will make something pure and beautiful from it to spite them.
And for a moment, as the bass kicks in, and the pure joy of creation and expression provide relief, the voices seem to drown out. They seem to be muted, or at least dulled into the background. But no amount of music will ever really stop them.
But this has unlocked a new level of control. He can tweak how they sound, and fuse it with his creation to make something transcendent.
And as the dramatic crescendo of the song hits its apex, you can see the anguish on Bo’s face. The stress of performance, sure (it is a truly physical performance from start to finish, and mapped out through his mime work in a space you believe is real), but its more than that. It’s the struggle of Sisyphus; a weight Bo has to carry and struggle with no end ever possible. So he revels in the dance (“dance you fucking monkey” – a subtle reference to the scathing line from the intro), and takes whatever joy he can, resigned that this is his fate.
And so he ends without an escape, in a somewhat bleak ending if you subscribe to this meaning – yes, the voices will always be there. No, there is nothing you can do about it. Yes, the only way to even cope is to make something beautiful from it.
I’m not so arrogant as to propose a deep meaning for real life, but certainly the commentary on fame and celebrity is powerful. And with everyone and their dog trying to get instagram followers, or facebook likes, or subscribers to their podcast (hmmm… why does that ring a bell…), the takeaway that I … I guess ‘take away’… is to be careful what you wish for.
Celebrity has its downsides – one of which is the loss of agency and peace from the constant barrage of fans, people trying to make money off of you, and people from your past, all screaming at you “We think we know you.”