The Brilliance of "Welcome to the Internet"

I have recently become obsessed with the song "Welcome to the Internet" by Bo Burnham from his Netflix special "Inside". It is a masterpiece of satire, commentary, and creativity.

Why have I become obsessed with it? Well, I should specify that I have become obsessed with it again.

I watched the special back when it came out and thought the whole thing was amazing, but this song in particular (and "How the World Works" which is similarly brilliant but that's another post) stuck out to me. I ended up playing it over and over on youtube trying to learn the lyrics so I could sing it myself. I don't have quite the skill to pull off the Joker-like villain laugh Bo uses near the end, but I do alright.

So what is it about this song that makes it so brilliant as I have asserted? Well, here's a link so you can watch it and see for yourself. I'll explain after you watch it.

Alright, have you watched it?

You have? Great!

Wasn't it amazing? Dark, funny, extremely on point?

Bo has a rather great singing voice and he puts it on terrific display here. To my knowledge, this song--as well as the entire special "Inside"--was written, scored, lit, filmed, and edited by him. Alone. During quarantine. No one helped him, he did it all himself. That makes it oh so much more impressive (though I confess it is entirely possible and likely that he did actually receive help via online sources when he ran into technical issues or ran lyrics or segments past a second or third set of eyes to help him refine his work). Regardless, this is a genuinely masterful special and this song is most definitely a stand out from it. It is nothing short of brilliant.

The thing about this song isn't just that it's catchy--because holy crap is it catchy as hell. It's not just because the lyrics are genius because oh my dear sweet lord they are. It's because--like ogre, cakes, and parfaits--this song has layers.

Briefly, the lyrics: they are, as I've said, absolutely genius. It starts off kind of innocuous and by the second verse, it throws in this little thing about famous women's feet that doesn't really elicit that strong a reaction. It's funny, adding to the comedic nature of the song, though once you know where the song goes, you can see that it was hinting at the song's darker nature rather than being just a quirky, silly joke. As the song continues, the lyrics get progressively darker and more disturbing, talking about unsolicited dick-pics and then victim-shaming because it assumes the recipient (as is so common) is a woman and how she secretly likes it--as most guys who send the aforementioned unsolicited dick-pics will assert as a way to absolve themselves of any wrong-doing.

Then it goes further, saying see a man beheaded, sending a death threat to a boomer, even telling you to kill your mother and showing you how to build a bomb. It then goes on to saying "Can I interest you in everything, all of the time?" which truly does exemplify what the living personification of the internet would be like. It's so beautifully, hilariously, darkly accurate. I cannot stress enough how genius the lyrics alone really are, and I'm only scratching the surface. Did you catch that bit during the second verse where he says "There's no need to panic, this isn't a test. Just nod or shake your head and we'll do the rest."? That's exactly what you do on the Internet. Hit like or dislike, give something a favorite or a retweet or a reblog and the algorithm will help you find more things to consume, even if you didn't ask for it. Bo is the Internet. Bo is the algorithm. Both are one and the same. It has become self aware and is offering you something you cannot resist: anything and everything all of the time.

Let's talk about the actual music, the melody, the notes behind the lyrics. It has this sort of Vaudevillian circus organ vibe, which pairs well with the style of meter, the tempo, and the sort of tone of the song. It really does smack of that entire aesthetic, and it tells the audience "everyone who is trying to make a living off the Internet is a carnival barker".

For those of you who aren't familiar with the term, a Carnival Barker, as described by Wikipedia, is "a person who attempts to attract patrons to entertainment events, such as a circus or funfair, by exhorting passing members of the public, announcing attractions of show, and emphasizing variety, novelty, beauty, or some other enticing feature of the show." So they were basically very intrusive advertisers trying as hard as they can to draw you in so they can get you to pay money to see the attractions.

Bo is a carnival barker trying to grab your attention and draw you in to see the attractions, which everyone does on the internet. Come one! Come all! Come see the lion tamers! The trapeze act! The clown show! We've got the bearded lady and the contortionist! Marvel at the sword swallower and the fire eater! Don't forget to like and subscribe! Leave a comment! Support me on Patreon!

Bo is exemplifying this because he's telling you all the sensational things you can do on the internet, beginning gently with "mountains of content, some better some worse" and talk of the news, and then moving on to the darker material, appealing to the more primal impulses of the human id. Because depending on what digital circles you travel in, that is all the internet is: pure, concentrated, aggregated human id. It is a dark circus promising the greatest and grossest things you can possibly imagine, and plenty more that you cannot. With the addition of almost every verse, instruments get added, contributing to the carnival or circus like feel of the entire production. He is even illuminated in a brilliant spotlight, as if he's on a stage or in the center ring of a circus. A collection of tiny, green lights slowly swirl around to add a sense of whimsey and wonder. They also break up the relatively simplistic color palette at work. Early on they offer a sort of calming backdrop, but soon you're not paying attention. All you can think about is all the information the Internet is feeding you.

As the song progresses, and Bo starts throwing more twisted things at you, the tempo picks up, slowly accelerating. It creates tension, increasing anxiety and energy as he starts to rapidly fire all sorts of "attractions" at you. He's moving so fast that by the time you've processed one horrible thing he's said, he's already moved on to the next. It's overwhelming to the point where it keeps you from being able to properly comprehend each thing in the moment it's said, allowing him to cram more awful things in that slip right past you. You have to stop the song, back up, and listen to it again to catch everything (unless you aren't like me with my square brain and can process such a high-tempo song and understand fully everything that gets thrown at you the first time you hear it).

Then, you're hit with the chorus which is probably the single greatest part of the entire song:

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.

Bo burnham "Welcome to the Internet"

That is pure magic right there. Bo has cast himself as the physical personification of the Internet and this is exactly what that human-form Internet would say. The internet doesn't want you to be apathetic. It wants you to care. It doesn't care what you care about, or how you care about it. It just wants you to care at all, to care enough to keep engaging, to keep clicking and scrolling and swiping, so that you'll stay on the Internet longer. How can you be bored when you have the Internet at your disposal!? We can provide you with anything and everything you could possibly want! It's criminal that you're bored! The Internet is a carnival barker trying to entice you to watch one more video, click one more link, swipe one more photo, add one more comment. Like he said earlier in the song, "We got a million different ways to engage".

The whole thing reaches a fever pitch right before it gets to that chorus and you feel like you're kind of getting a handle on the song. You think you understand what it's doing. You think that now that you understand its game, you can resist the Internet's allure, perhaps pull away so you can finally go to bed, or get back to work, or spend time with your friends and family off of your electronic devices. You think you can predict it because the chorus repeats. You think "Okay I've heard this before, the spell is broken, but damn if it isn't catchy."

Then, everything stops.

Bo turns the little spinning green lights off and the song becomes slow, gentle, even a little somber. He says "You know, it wasn't always like this" and proceeds to wax nostalgic about what the Internet used to be. He talks about the age before 9-11, before the "War on Terror" and how the internet was little more than early-days online shopping, travel reviews, and simplistic online communities a-la AOL. That nostalgia is comforting. It's like a blanket Bo wraps you up in, reminding us of the "good old days" before the dark times of mass delusions about vaccine microchips and a certain letter-themed anonymous informant building a massive following of crazed people desperate for proof that their crackpot theories are right.

He lets us cling to that bright, beautiful time when we were much younger and the world seemed simpler. It wasn't really. The internet was still full of white supremacists, stalkers, child predators, and other horrible people. We just didn't think about them. Some of us didn't even know about them. Then as we grew up, we came to understand what was out there, and we longed for those ignorant times in the past. Bo's melody and lyrics here let us harken back to that bygone era, to feel comfort and safety in those memories. The lighting machine gives us this warm, welcoming cloud of colors that flow and move in a soothing sort of pattern, contributing to the tone of the song. He even gives us just a tiny little hint of a taste of what the Internet promised it could be, something hopeful.

Now look at you (oh),
Look at you, you, you.
Unstoppable, watch-a-ble.
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.

Bo burnham "Welcome to the Internet"

Right before everything stops, again.

Bo turns the lights back off, then the carnival melody returns in a slow, lone piano of just one chord per beat, no real complexity. It is unnerving and unsettling. Then Bo--the Internet--starts to laugh. It is here where first time listeners find out what kind of song this is. It's a villain song. The human embodiment of the Internet is a villain. Not only that, but it is a villain of our own making. That's why Bo was careful to say "and it did all the things we designed it to do", as if to say "yes, this is a bed of your own making, you created me, this is how you shaped me, molded me, crafted me, and now you must engage with me, could I interest you in everything all of the time?"

He laughs in a fashion that is actually pretty frightening. The first time I watched it, the laugh gave me honest to goodness chills. It is a heel turn that perfectly personifies how the Internet could have been something miraculous and wonderful--and in a great many ways it really is in that it has allowed so many people to connect and form supportive, glorious communities to share art, music, even financial aid--but larger portions of it were poisoned by the wrong interests and motives, thus shaping it into the monstrous entity that it is today: a monster we abhor, yet we cannot live without.

He laughs as if to mock us. The implied "What are you going to do, turn off the Internet? You know you can't live without me." is too loud to ignore. His refrain from before, offering us everything all of the time returns in a slow, creepy, almost drug-dealer style crawl of the voice, right up until he reaches the final "all of the time" in the first refrain of chorus after that chilling laugh. That is when the high energy tempo from earlier returns in full force.

Now he's accompanied by so many other sounds, voices, and visuals. The spinning green lights are back. The colorful clouds are back. The sound effects he had slowly worked in as he progressed through the horror attractions of the Internet's dark circus are back and used to great effect. While it's not the most overwhelming thing one can find on the Internet, it implies the idea of being overwhelmed by the Internet. It implies being bombarded with so much information, sound, flashing lights, and a thick soup of anxiety that you cannot crawl out of as if you're being consumed by the black sludge from The Pirates of Dark Water.

The 'dark water' that threatens to spread and consume the world in "The Pirates of Dark Water"

The nostalgia was only ever a temporary respite, intended to draw you in, dull your mind, act as the opiate of the masses to lull you into a false sense of security. Then, once you're wrapped up in that warm, secure feeling, the offer of everything all of the time suddenly seems far less repellant. If the Internet gave you this warm, comfortable thing, it couldn't be all bad, could it? I'll just scroll a little more, see what it has to offer.

Before you know it, you count yourself--as I do--among those who are "extremely online". The dark water has taken hold of you. You crave that siren's song.

Could I interest you in everything, all of the time?