Inside The Wall
INSIDE The Wall
hunter mawn '23
Both Bo Burnham’s Inside and Pink Floyd’s The Wall serve as a genius masterclass in concept pieces which portray isolation for their respective generation. Inside is the sole work of Bo Burnham, who shot, edited, and starred in his own comedy special filmed in a single room over the course of a year. The Wall is the brainchild of the Pink Floyd’s frontman and bassist Roger Waters who, after spitting on a fan during a liveshow, began to envision a massive wall separating himself from his audience and the rest of the world. This culminated into their most ambitious concept album, The Wall, which stars the fictitious character of Pink, acting as a surrogate for Waters (both Pink and Waters’ dad died in WWII, both went to a boys Grammar school, and both became rock stars). Although the comedy special and concept album may seem to differ, looking beyond the surface reveals many common threads between the two.
The beginning of both these pieces are “in media res,” which is to say they both feature our characters in versions of themselves we won’t see again until much later. A fascist dictator version of Pink (with his eyebrows shaved off, something he does later) ends the song “In the Flesh?” by urging the listener to “find out what’s behind these cold eyes” by “[clawing] your way through this disguise” And so he tells us to come see what’s behind his wall, not unlike Burnham finishing his first song “Content” by exclaiming that “It’s a beautiful day to stay inside.”
Both Burnham and Waters show the role of corrupt figures of authority, overbearing mothers, and relationships in their characters’ lives through the course of the first half of their respective pieces. Starting with corrupt figures of authority, Burnham gives us "How the World Works." In this comedic song a sock puppet on Burnham's hand, Socko, gets a little too radical in his beliefs for Burnham’s family-friendly agenda and despite pleading for forgiveness, is ripped off of a now angry Burnham’s hand. This serves as an apt metaphor for online creators, with Socko being the creator and Burnham being the media platform company. Likewise, Waters examines corrupted authority through his experiences with school in “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2”. He describes his teachers beating the students who expressed creativity. In both songs, the only way that the teacher/Burnham holds any power is because without them, the subject would be jobless, whether through a diploma or a payroll dependent on the internet.
In both “Mother” and “FaceTime with my Mom (Tonight),” our characters’ mothers cause them significant strife. This evokes a sense of frustration in our protagonists, expressed by the way they contradict themselves in their songs. Take these four lines, two from Inside and two from The Wall, respectively:
“These 40 minutes are essential / I'mma FaceTime with my mom tonight”
“I’ll waste my time FaceTiming with my mom”
“Mama’s gonna keep baby cozy and warm”
“Mama’s gonna make all of your nightmares come true”
This back and forth struggle over how they should feel about their mothers’ presence in their lives provides no help to their already deteriorating mental state. Of similarly little help are the women in their lives.
Nearer to the end of each piece's former half, broken relationships parallel the brokenness and dysfunction of each protagonist’s life. Both songs “Sexting” and “Young Lust” see things going great for our hero at first. However, things go wrong for Pink and Burnham as their fleeting pleasures quickly dissipate. Pink (after embracing the hedonism of rock stardom and repeatedly cheating on his wife) calls her only for a man to pick up, revealing she is now cheating on him. Burnham, while he may not get a cheating wife, instead gets thoroughly depressed in the aftermath of talking with a girl over text. Through these three common elements of both pieces–corrupt authority, overbearing mothers, and disjointed relationships–Burnham retreats further “inside” while Pink builds “the wall” higher.
The main character then reflects backwards, explaining the present through the past, claiming that it has failed to live up to what it promised to be. In the case of "Vera" from The Wall, Pink blames the ideal of hope for after the war, representing it through the pop singer, Vera Lynn, most famous for her hit “We’ll Meet Again.” In "Welcome to the Internet" from Inside, Burnham blames the internet, choosing to portray it as a snake oil salesman who manipulates his clients towards a sinister cause. For both Burnham and Waters (and supposedly Pink, too), the concept they blame once had incredible amounts of potential. They were supposed to bring joy and make our characters' lives easier, but instead they’ve crumbled to the ground due to greed and to larger forces beyond their control. Now that his wall is fully built, or he is fully retreated inside, all our character can do is reminisce over what could have been, and lament over what now is not.
As each piece rounds the corner towards its climax, our characters delve into a deeply meditative song that struggles to describe what they are feeling. Pink sings to the audience during “Comfortably Numb”, “I can’t explain / You would not understand / This is not how I am,” and Burnham gently sings the song’s title in the chorus as he tries to explain “That Funny Feeling.” These songs, remarkably, are the only songs in their respective albums that do not either seamlessly transition into the next or abruptly cut off. Instead, both of these songs slowly fade to silence before the next one picks up. This gradual fade out represents the state of our characters at this point. They are surrounded by the pure ignorant bliss of the outside world and they could care less about that fact. The state they are in now seems infinitely fixed, hence the gradual fade out.
In what can be easily argued as the climaxes to both of these pieces, our characters’ worst versions of themselves take complete control and we see what exactly this persona looks like at its rawest. Burnham (in “All Eyes On Me”) embodies the modern-day celebrity while Pink (in “In the Flesh”) becomes a fascist-celebrity hybrid. Here we see the extreme amounts of self-imposed isolation, either by surrounding themself with a wall, or retreating further and further inside. This isolation causes them to become that which they hated most, that which caused their lives to fall apart in the first place, showing a deranged and cyclical nature to self-deterioration. For Burnham this is the vapid celebrities that dominate the landscape and whose image and ego is only heightened by the internet. For Pink, this is the fascist dictators who waged wars against freedom, wars that killed his father.
In both the final song of Inside and the final song of The Wall the story is resolved… maybe. On the contrary, there is evidence for a cyclical plot in the last second of “Outside the Wall”. After the calming instruments have played for a while, a faint voice says “Isn’t this where–” perfectly aligning with the beginning of the album where an equally faint voice says “–we came in?” (the instrumentals flow seamlessly as well). Whether this bridging between the album’s end and beginning is interpreted as Pink himself building a new wall all over again, or the Pinks of the next generation building their own wall, it leaves the listener with an uneasy feeling. Inside’s final piece, “Any Day Now,” goes on for a full minute with the same repetitive melody and lyrics, monotonously chanting “It’ll stop any day now. / Any day now, any day now.” The song is a clear note on Burnham’s poor mental health, which we hoped he had just overcome. Thus “Any Day Now” also gives the viewer an uneasy feeling.
Those who feel bummed out by these endings have every right to do so, I certainly did in both cases. However, these stories are not non-fiction, but realistic fiction; they are not historical records, but art, and the piece itself cannot heal the condition of suffering, only the listener’s choices can put an end to the harsh symptoms of the modern world’s critical mass of social isolation and disconnection.
This is the very essence of art: to enlighten and to edify the individual. Each of these pieces do an incredible job of speaking to all generations whether as a microcosm of the individual living in that generation, or a macrocosm of Roger Waters’/Bo Burnham’s current society. The feelings portrayed in each song are universal, breaking barriers of time and culture. And so these pieces leave us looking inward. We ask questions not of the special we just watched, or the album we just listened to but questions of the life we have led and the life we are yet to lead. Are we taking steps to take our wall down, or are we building it up? Are we opening ourselves up to others, or just retreating further inside? Which version of Pink will we choose to be?