I’m problematic

interior photo of a room that is old and beginning to fall apart. the paint and wallpaper are peeling and there are broken wooden slats in the floor.

cw: talk of suicide, mental health issues, and being a white person

I watched Bo Burnham’s INSIDE for the first time a little while after it came out, and it hit me square in the feelings. Not just existential-dread feelings, not just climate-disaster feelings, but also feelings I have about being a white person in a society that raised me to ignore people that weren’t like me as a matter of course and as a matter of self-protection.

Before I get started on what will undoubtedly be a self-absorbed piece trying not to be a self-absorbed piece, please watch the following video because it is much smarter, better explained, and overall more interesting than anything I have to say about this topic:

‘Bo Burnham’s Inside and “White Liberal Performative Art”‘, a video essay by F.D Signifier

I watched the above video (click here if you can’t see it) and immediately afterward I watched a video of a white woman, ranking the songs in the special from Existential Bop (least life-ruining) to Life Ruining (obviously life-ruining), and there was something so … predictable about a white woman explaining her visceral reactions to songs from a special after I had just spent thirty-six minutes watching a black man — F.D Signifier — talk about the phenomenon he’s identified as underpinning the special: White Liberal Performative Art. Much like INSIDE, I am going to need to rewatch F.D Signifier’s video again at least a couple of times in order to grasp what he’s talking about, because I think I got some of it but definitely not all of it. I might talk about philosophy but that doesn’t mean I understand it.


The special itself, which is on Netflix (and right now Netflix is problematic because of their response to the feedback about their Dave Chappelle comedy special) is not just music. There are spoken comedy bits in between songs and there is a lot of interesting camera work that I found fascinating, and there’s also Bo’s hair, which continues to grow throughout the entire special and is particularly interesting when the last song in the special, “Goodbye,” is filmed when his hair is the shortest, which means he recorded “Goodbye” at the beginning of the process of creating and shooting and singing and producing. I don’t know if that’s meant to be a clever pandering to people that notice things and think they Mean Something, or if it’s meant to indicate that the entire special loops in on itself like a moebius strip of existential dread, or if it doesn’t mean anything except that his hair is short and he wrote the show before shooting it, even though overall the special almost feels like he’s writing it as he thinks of it. Which is also a thing that many people, specifically white people in this context, tend to do: we speak before we’ve thought about what we’re about to say.


When I’m not listening to the songs on Spotify, I’m watching the special on Netflix again, or I’m thinking about watching it again while the songs loop around in my head as near-constant earworms. I’m not going to deconstruct each song, just a few of the ones that have affected me the most.


This first song is one of my most favorite:

If you’d have told me a year ago
That I’d be locked inside of my home (ah, ah, ah)
I would have told you, a year ago
“Interesting, now leave me alone”

Sorry that I look like a mess (Ah, ah, ah)
I booked a haircut, but it got rescheduled
Robert’s been a little depressed, no
And so, today, I’m gonna try just

Getting up, sitting down, going back to work
Might not help, but still, it couldn’t hurt
I’m sitting down, writing jokes, singing silly songs
I’m sorry I was gone

But look, I made you some content
Daddy made you your favorite, open wide
Here comes the content
It’s a beautiful day to stay inside

‘Content’ by Bo Burnham

I’m a chronically ill person that is allergic to the outside. Well, that’s true, and also incorrect. I have MCAS, Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, and what that generally means is that certain factors — symptom triggers — flood my body with histamine, so I experience what is an allergic reaction or even acute anaphylaxis, even though I am not actually allergic to the things that set off the MCAS flare. I realize this doesn’t make much sense, but I promise that the difference matters to me and to the way my doctor and I have created my treatment plan. Everyone with MCAS has a different experience and a different specific symptom trigger list. A selection from my list is as follows: direct sunlight, humidity, extreme heat or cold, pollen, bad air quality, and mold, which are abundantly prevalent in Michigan almost all year. The only season that’s comfortable for me (usually) is autumn, because the sun is not as direct, the temperature is in a comfortable zone, humidity is at a low level, and leaf mold is much less significantly present than the pollen of spring and summertime.

The combination of quarantine measures and MCAS means that I’ve barely left the house for the past eighteen months. It has been difficult to be stuck inside. It has been a blessing to know that I’m safe in here, that my air purifier and ceiling fan and air conditioning and daily meds help me stay safe. And staying inside is also deeply upsetting, for both chronic illness reasons and for pandemic reasons. I don’t want to leave the house but I want to be able to leave the house. I don’t necessarily want to be around other people but I want the option to do so. Staying inside is a convoluted concept that I am continually working through therapeutically. My hair is a mess, literally because I can’t safely get it cut by the person I trust with my hair. My depression has deepened and my optimism has tanked. I’ve wanted to create content since March 2020 — I love writing and making things for other people to see or read or interact with — but it’s been almost impossible to do that while being in a worried, scared, traumatized head space. This song describes my life. I’ve only been able to start writing regularly again for the past month or so, which means that it had been almost a year and a half before I found my voice again.


A selection from this wonderfully awful song:

The world is changing
The planet’s heating up
What the fuck is going on?
It’s like everything happened all at once
Um, what the fuck is going on?
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?
I wanna help to leave this world better than I found it
And I fear that comedy won’t help
And the fear is not unfounded
Should I stop trying to be funny?
Should I give away my money? No!
What do I do?

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 at a time like this?
If you start to smell burning toast
You’re having a stroke or overcooking your toast

‘Comedy’ by Bo Burnham

I’ve skipped a lot of the lyrics that are about the self-reflective impulses of white people who know that society is fucked up for everyone that isn’t them, and how easy it is for us white people to get bored with either shutting the fuck up or trying to do better. We don’t suffer, at least not directly, so it’s as easy for us to ignore what’s either literally or figuratively on fire as it is for us to wake up and forget that it’s someone else’s birthday. (Yes I am generalizing all American white people together, because I think that’s one of many correct responses to this piece of art I am trying to interrogate)

I resonate deeply with the wish to “help to leave this world better than I found it.” I do my best, I learn from the mistakes I will always inevitably make, and I keep trying; but it is discouraging and sometimes seems like the only way to fix something — as if fixing it is even my fucking job or what is being asked of me — is to sacrifice myself, which is inherently selfish, I think. Who benefits from my self-sacrifice? My ego, mainly.

For about four years, from 2015 to 2019, I struggled to support and help my second oldest kid, who ended up being diagnosed with Cluster B personality disorder, although nominally his psychiatrists and doctors recognized that it was definitely borderline personality disorder along with a couple of other personality disorders that can be grouped under the heading of Cluster B. For four years, there were endless, sometimes weekly, trips to the ER or the police for suicide attempts, ideation, violent outbursts, self harm, illegal activity, and what seemed like honest cries for help. I had to quit my job in order to be available for the emotional and mental drain of taking care of him, and I wasn’t able to be present for my other kids the way I would have wanted. I poured love and effort into him like pouring water onto the ground: it gets wet but what’s the point? It does almost nothing for that person.

So when I hear a bit about joking when the house is on fire, I genuinely feel that, because sometimes the only way to get through something horrifying is to laugh. In a later song, the lyrics are flipped so that the singer is being trapped in a burning house and calling you up so you can tell them a joke; and the concept of taking trauma and letting it direct your ability to make an effort to make a difference in the world is, I think, one of the main things I took from those four years of hell.


This song got me right in the white-person feels. Socko the literal sock puppet contributes lyrics that are extremely true and peel back our intentional ignorance to that truth, even though a bit of it is sort of ridiculous and maybe extreme.

The simple narrative taught in every history class
Is demonstrably false and pedagogically classist
Don’t you know the world is built with blood?
And genocide and exploitation
The global network of capital essentially functions
To separate the worker from the means of production
And the FBI killed Martin Luther King
Private property’s inherently theft
And neoliberal fascists are destroying the left
And every politician, every cop on the street
Protects the interests of the pedophilic corporate elite

‘How the World Works’ by Bo Burnham

I don’t know about the FBI bit, but the rest of it? Ugh. Yes. I wish it wasn’t true but it is. The sock puppet is a clever, destructive externalization of ugly truth, and at the end of the song Bo pulls the sock off his hand, effectively silencing Socko because he can only exist when he’s being worn on Bo’s hand.

Do you feel bad yet? I feel bad.

That’s pretty intense
No shit
What can I do to help?
Read a book or something, I don’t know
Just don’t burden me with the responsibility of educating you
It’s incredibly exhausting
I’m sorry, Socko
I was just trying to become a better person

Why do you rich fucking white people
Insist on seeing every socio-political conflict
Through the myopic lens of your own self-actualization?
This isn’t about you
So either get with it, or get out of the fucking way

‘How the World Works’ by Bo Burnham

I feel bad AND it’s not anyone else’s job to teach me how to be better. That’s my job. Read the books, shut the fuck up, and interrupt my friends and family when they say a thing that I do know is a problem.


This is a short one but, again, UGH. Ouch.

… Well, well
Look who’s inside again
Went out to look for a reason to hide again
Well, well
Buddy, you found it
Now, come out with your hands up
We’ve got you surrounded

‘Look Who’s Inside Again’ by Bo Burnham

Like I said earlier in this piece, I am inside a lot. A LOT. And there are times when what I’m doing is looking for reasons why I can’t do anything else or do anything about it, but there’s a creeping unease and a sense that there’s something wrong. If only I could put my finger on it, I could ignore it more easily.


Welp. So. I have thought of myself as an ‘elder millennial,’ because there are so many similarities between my thoughts and feelings and reactions and the thoughts, feelings and reactions of millennials. I recently discovered that I’m probably more Gen X than Millennial — I was born in 1978 — and these lyrics just felt like a punch in the gut. I grew up without the internet being ubiquitous. I played outside. I did farm chores. I was terrified of my father because he is an abusive shitbag (this has nothing to do with what year it was, it’s a universal experience of kids with shitbag parents). I watched Microsoft’s explanation of WiNdOwS in confusion, more than twice. I had a Juno email account where I received approximately zero emails. I started learning to code websites when I was in my very early twenties and already had two kids, to cope with my feelings when my first husband up and fucking disappeared. I was part of building the internet into what it is today, and at the exact same time I am kind of horrified at what it’s become. I’ve been on Twitter since 2007. What does that even mean? Does it matter??

The lifespan of a meme is practically nanoseconds compared to how long LOLcats and the ORLY owl and All your base lasted. My kids talk in memes, and I used to understand all the references, and now I understand about seventy percent of them, generously.

I’m just going to leave this here:

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

You know, it wasn’t always like this

Not very long ago
Just before your time
Right before the towers fell, circa ’99
This was catalogs
Travel blogs
A chat room or two
We set our sights and spent our nights
For you, you, insatiable you
Mommy let you use her iPad
You were barely two
And it did all the things
We designed it to do

Now look at you, oh

Look at you, you, you
Unstoppable, watchable
Your time is now
Your inside’s out
Honey, how you grew
And if we stick together
Who knows what we’ll do
It was always the plan
To put the world in your hand

‘Welcome to the Internet’ by Bo Burnham

So. Yeah. Maybe dial-up internet was a bad idea, actually.


The themes of these songs, along with Bo’s hair, become both increasingly depressing (and painfully truthful) and a fucking mess, because that’s what life is now, it’s a depressing fucking mess when you’re honest with yourself and stop pretending.

Are you feeling nervous?
Are you having fun?
It’s almost over
It’s just begun
Don’t overthink this
Look in my eye
Don’t be scared, don’t be shy
Come on in, the water’s fine

We’re goin’ to go where everybody knows
Everybody knows, everybody, oh
We’re goin’ to go where everybody knows
Everybody knows

Get your fuckin’ hands up
Get on out of your seat
All eyes on me, all eyes on me
Ay, come on, get your fuckin’ hands up
Get on out of your seat
All eyes on me, all eyes on me, yeah
Heads down, pray for me
Heads down now, pray for me
Get your fuckin’ hands up
Get on out of your seat
All eyes on me, all eyes on me

‘All Eyes on Me’ by Bo Burnham

What’s almost over? What’s just begun? What are we praying for? Where are we going? Let’s follow someone else’s instructions and fly this planet right into the side of a mountain so it can break and burn and become ashes.

Are you depressed yet? This special fucking ruined me, and I keep watching it, and I have some of the songs on my playlists, and I can’t stop feeling like part of me is alive inside the special because of how true and close to the skin it feels.

I don’t have the ability to explain any of this or dissect any of this any better than I have here. I really do recommend watching the video I linked at the beginning, because it’s much more succinct and is able to use a perspective that I can’t use because I’m me, I’m inside, I’m stuck in here and I’m trying to do better and sometimes it takes living inside my head for long enough to realize I’m being ridiculous so that I can stop doing it.

I’d love to know what you thought of INSIDE, if you watched it, or if you have things you want to say about it whether or not you watched it. If you’ve read this far, thank you and I’m sorry.

featured image is a photo by Nolan Issac on Unsplash

Nix Kelley
Co-parent to multiple kids. Writer. Death doula. Member of the Order of the Good Death. Seeker on the Path of Light. Queer, non-binary, & trans.


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