Invading Bo Burnham's Process: A Critique

Culture Apr 17, 2024

During a late night reverie I came upon a video where a user transposed Bo Burnham’s All Eyes On Me. The track itself is part song, part performance, part rant and richly authentic and direct. Burnham laments retiring from comedy due to panic attacks, and the dire timing of lockdown severing his opportunity to step back on stage. It comes as the crescendo to an eighteen month project that is performance and authenticity at once: the simulacra and simulacrum entwined. The auto-tune transposition renders the honesty obscured in some immaterial way. By not hearing Bo’s actual voice the performance becomes a simulation of his performance, and in so doing, safe for him to be honest. The corollary then is that we as an audience understand through this structural mechanism of obscurity that Burnham has a need for remove. It’s a kind of schematic honesty: by employing the auto-tune, Burnham admits to us he needs this vector to say what he needs to say, he needs the remove.

So it’s fitting that the top comment on the video all eyes on me - bo burnham transposed to his original voice simply reads: It almost feels like an invasion of his privacy to hear him semi-raw. This comment has haunted me for months. I sat on my laptop on Christmas day, writing my novella, thinking about this comment. I saw The Whitlams in Perth and lay in bed, thinking about this comment. In an effort to get some sleep and rejoin you, the people, we’re going to follow the prey to ground.

The precision of the comment caused my initial obsession. It carves in needlepoint my exact feeling after hearing the first few lines of the transposed performance. There is a kind of unpleasant intimacy that worms through the base of your skull: this is something I should not be seeing. The same itch on the back of your palm when a couple you know lets slip two or three lines of an argument reopened on the drive over. That there are aspects of people that are interior and sacred. The same interiority that makes me wince when I see Burnham being filmed at a Phoebe Bridgers concert as she performs one of Burnham’s songs.

Under this sensation, the vagueness of the claim is compelling. The commenter says “feels like” when trying to direct their response - not declarative. Uncertain. Emotive. They are scratching at the shape of the thing, an indelibly Burnham action that informs his work from Make Happy onward.

More than all, the comment represents a simple understanding of the cosmic praxis at the heart of Bo Burnham’s art. To transpose this song is to misunderstand the point of All Eyes On Me. The central thesis that positions the demand for attention against the performance of an authentic self. The very heart of Burnham’s work on display: that in being a performance that’s planned to the letter, to the breath, to the second, the comedy is implicitly dishonest to become honest. Burnham asks you to look at the film strip and observe the negative instead. And so to render the film and negative as one is to miss the point… entirely.

This act serves to flatten the work. In removing a part of the artifice it makes it more “raw” and “real” man. Which fails to comprehend the work itself. Fails to appreciate underlying mechanisms of Burnham’s Inside. An increasing trend as younger generations demand authenticity stripped of purpose and vector. The very same concern of modernity articulated in Burnham’s film Eight Grade.

Because the truth is uncomfortable. There is no key that solves Burnham’s Inside. No underlying theory that once understood, declares which parts are honest and which are affectation, because the absence of an answer is the point. It’s about how you feel. How you react. What ideas you place in conversation with the work, and what new thoughts you synthesise as a result. How it informs your view of the world.

In removing the auto-tune, the video attacks Burnham’s work in a mild, unnoteworthy, unknowingly insidious attempt to render the complex into the simple. The important, demanding questions that stain life’s windshield are wiped away at any cost, leaving nothing but an empty space, a lonely room.


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David McNeill

David McNeill is the author of Maynard Trigg and editor-in-chief of ZeroIndent. He's a dedicated storyteller with a background in literary analysis and comms.

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