Anyone who scoffs at the idea that Bo Burnham’s Emmy-nominated Netflix quarantine special Inside might have something politically interesting to say needs to at least give a listen to his provocative ditty, “How the World Works.”
In this surprisingly sharp tune, Bo assumes a kind of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood persona at the keyboard, welcoming us “kids” to sit down and hear a musical lesson about the title theme.
The first verse follows through on this neighborly promise, offering a melodic portrait of the natural world around us in terms of its organic everyday interdependence and cooperation. From the bee in the flower to the squirrel by the tree, Bo sings: “The secret is the world can only work…When everything works together.” It’s the kind of happy tune, so far, that you can see being sung to little ones all over, since, after all a cooperative ethos is apparently allowed for children, at least when it comes to stories of the animal world.
BO: “Every single cricket
Every fish in the sea
Gives what they can
and gets what they need.”
Ah…What could be better? (Almost sounds like some communist utopia I read about once…)
Verse Two then has Mr. Bo introducing us to a special visitor sock puppet, Socko, (Burnham here adds ventriloquism to his bag of talents). Low budget as he may be, Socko brims with Sesame Street enthusiasm from Bo’s left hand. But the words he speaks are a bit, well…different.
BO: Where ya been, Socko?
SOCKO: I’ve been where I always am when you’re not wearing me on your hand. In a frightening liminal space between states of being! Not quite dead, not quite alive. It’s similar to a constant state of sleep paralysis!
Apparently oblivious to Socko’s existential dread—his tone after all is seemingly all smiles—Bo pipes along, inviting Socko to share his thoughts on the day’s topic. Does Socko have anything he’d like to share with the kids at home about how the world works?
At first, Socko demurs: “Boy, that sounds complicated…. I wouldn’t say anything that you probably haven’t already said yourself.”
But Bo insists. And so Socko hops in for Verse Two. The lyrics here deserve quoting at length:
“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! “ (Emphatically exclaimed!)
“The global network of capital
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
the interests of the pedophilic corporate elite.
“THAT is how the world works,
That is how the WORLD works.
Genocide the natives—say you got to it first.
That’s HOW…..It works.”(Sung with harmony)
Sure, I might swap a word or tweak a phrase (maybe substitute “predatory” for “pedophilic” to help distinguish the critique from QAnon or Pizzagate—but then again, there was Jeffrey Epstein!), but this is actually not a bad 100-word account of how the world “works,” from a Marxist revolutionary-type perspective. (For evidence supporting the MLK– FBI connection, see William F. Pepper’s An Act of State: the Execution of Martin Luther King.)
It would appear that Mr. Burnham—or someone in his inner circle—has been listening to the contemporary left, maybe even reading a bit of Marx during lock-down?
If Burnham left it here, this alone would be note-worthy. Is there another Netflix special with such a moment? Can you name another catchy tune cute enough to charm the kiddies and slip by the mainstream censor while smuggling in such subversive talk? A cartoon or musical comedy rendition that allows a kind of smart Marx-y radicalism to speak in a way that doesn’t resort to transparent mockery or blatant misrepresentation?
But the song does more. Socko’s verse provokes discussion and then argument between puppet and puppeteer. And it quickly becomes clear that Bo can’t handle the truth spilling from his left hand, at least not once it gets personal. At first though, Bo seems sympathetic.
BO: “That’s pretty intense.”
SOCKO: “No shit.”
BO: “What can I do to help?”
SOCKO: “Read a book or something. I don’t know. Just don’t burden me with the responsibility of educating you. It’s incredibly exhausting.”
BO: “Sorry, Socko. I was just trying to become a better person.”
SOCKO: “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.”
Here Bo’s friendly neighbor persona turns ugly.
BO: “Watch your mouth, buddy. Remember who’s on whose hand here.”
SOCKO: “But that’s what I’ve been—Have you not been fucking listening? We are entrenched in a…”
BO: “Alright, alright.” (Starts to pull Socko off hand—sending him back to the paralytic abyss.)
SOCKO: “NO. PLEASE, WAIT. I don’t want to go back! I can’t go back. Please. Please. I’m sorry” (Socko begs. He is broken. Bo reasserts his hand.)
The main action at this point is Bo’s turnabout into what one Reddit critic calls a “Bopressor.” (For the past month Reddit has seen a lively, smart, and often quite left-tending discussion about “How the World Works” here, involving hundreds of comments.)
But we might also note that Socko here starts to sound less like an effective radical proselytizer and more like the “woke” social justice warrior; less clear-eyed comrade than a judgmental Robin DiAngelo. Socko leaps to criticize Bo’s self-involved response to his account of systemic and collective injustice. No doubt he scores a fair point—Bo’s persona throughout Inside is put forth ironically and hyperbolically as a kind of naïve “white savior,” one which Burnham then repeatedly undercuts throughout the program. But (as Reddit has been discussing for weeks) this scolding from Socko is still probably not the best way to win the Bo’s of the world to the revolutionary cause. Granted, the impulse to tell the “privileged” to take responsibility for their “own” (re)education is an understandable one, especially for those exhausted by first-hand oppression and struggle. But what other way does a wealthy white person have on-hand to begin relating to such giant social problems? One has to start somewhere, right? Is moral improvement or self-actualization that tries to align itself with the movement for change such a terrible thing? It’s a starting point—however irritating or inadequate it may seem to the worn-out veterans of the struggle. And at least one would hope that the Sockos of the world have a few specific books ready to recommend to the white liberals curious to learn more, even if there motives remain suspect.
Thus, while Socko’s explanaton of “how the world works” stands uncorrected—Bo offers no intellectual counter-argument, no ironic anti-radical third verse—Socko’s pedagogical method for changing the world does come in for irony. None of which justifies or obscures what comes next. With his own positionality called into question, Bo’s do-gooder idealism falls away and he turns bully.
BO: “Are you going to behave yourself?”
BO: “Yes what?
SOCKO: “Yes, sir.”
BO: “LOOK AT ME…
At this point the chorus kicks back in, gleeful and catchy as ever. Both master-man and puppet-slave face front and sing out, in harmony, united again.
BO AND SOCKO: “THAAAT IS how the works…”
It’s almost as if there has not been any disharmony at all. Except for a brief side-bar interjection before the chorus wraps:
BO: “I hope you learned your lesson.”
SOCKO: “I did and it HURT–”
BO AND SOCKO: “THAT IS…”
SOCKO: “It’s how it works…”
At which point Socko still gets sent back to liminal dead life space anyway, with a soul-sucking black hole smother scream of torture and vanishing objection.
Is there another catchy piece of pop culture that renders so neatly the basic Marxist notion that the ‘ruling ideas of an epoch are those of the ruling class’? A more memorable pop cartoon meta-critique of how and why critical voices get stamped out in corporate media (even in places like Netflix itself)? Of how the controlling “hand” dictates the limits of permissible speech for the Sockos (and, might we add, the Vanzettis) of the world? The spat effectively confirms the truth of the second verse by dramatizing the kind of authoritarian suppression that Socko was singing about. We see dramatically how the appearance of surface “harmony” can be maintained, by silencing the underlying reality of political-economic-existential domination. (Indeed, such “perfect” harmony becomes the sign of that very domination.)
Alas, singing out the truth is not enough to save Socko from that truth’s gravity. Nor is apologizing and promising not to rebel again enough to keep the Marxist muppet from being sent back to the abyss when the master is done with his services. And yet, the very ironic drama of Socko’s suppression underscores the truth he gives voice to, raising the question of how much more such truth we would be hearing from the myriad voices across our popular culture if not for the ever-present threat that outspoken radicals can be cast out into the paralyzing soul-sucking abyss of cultural non-existence?
All of this of course raises questions: What is Burnham’s (here distinguished from the character Bo) relationship to Socko? How does the voice of Socko stand with respect to Inside in part and whole? Is this Marxist puppet’s rebellion just another chance for Burnham to display his well-known genius for mimicry and mockery? Or is there something more going on here? (Again, the extensive Reddit threads suggest that many viewers are taking the ideas presented quite seriously.)
In “How the World Works,” Bo Burnham plays the puppet-master (the Bo-geoisie, we might say), but in another sense isn’t he also a Socko? A cultural worker eager to tell more radical truths, yet hemmed in by the threat of having his microphone cut off and sent back into the liminal abyss if he forgets “who’s on whose hand” and speaks too honestly or directly?
Beyond Burnham’s own views, we can also ask how this song is resonating in relation to the listening and watching audience—the “kids” at home—amidst the current world situation in which we find ourselves? Not just in terms of the Covid-19 crisis—I mean, who hasn’t felt at least a bit at least metaphorically trapped in a “liminal space between life and death” sometime over the past 18 months?—but more generally in terms of structural and historical forces and crises that Counterpunch readers here probably don’t need listed by me.
Is the viral popularity of this song a sign of our times? And of what kind? A sign of silly and sophomoric internet humor taking a new turn? Of millennial pop stars developing new consciousness or curiosity? Of Covid quarantine radicalizing former liberals with the pandemic’s stark exposure of extreme social precarity and inequality? Or is it just a sign of performers following a shifting audience, colonizing and commodifying mock radicalism like any other meme? Is this a tool we can use? An opening for further exploration?
For what it’s worth, my hunch is that under contemporary conditions, such rad-ironic pop tunes, which might have warranted dismissal in earlier times, now have the potential to reach a broader mass audience, and to be put to use in new ways. As we seek ways to connect with newly radicalizing millennials, and to keep each other sane in insane times, Bo Burnham’s Socko deserves a place in the radical backpack. We’re going to need a healthy sense of humor, irony, and plenty of good music if—against all odds—we are to ever reach that world where someday all people on earth (not just mythical cartoon animals) “give what they can, and get what they need.”