At only twenty years old, comedic singer-songwriter Bo Burnham sure has a lot attached to his name: millions YouTube views, a self-titled full-length album, a four-record deal with Comedy Central, performances spanning London and Montreal, a role in Funny People, the screenwriting behind an upcoming comedy film and oh yeah — a whole lot of controversy. Somehow this son of a construction company owner and nurse, this honor-roll graduate of an all-boys' Catholic high school who shot to fame filming YouTube videos in his bedroom just doesn't come off as “politically correct.”
His songs — which manage to insult everyone from white supremacists to homosexuals, ethnic minorities to Helen Keller and just about everyone in between — sparked controversy in March 2009. Students at Westminster College, where he was scheduled to perform, protested his concert, prompting an eventual confession from the school that they had booked Burnham without being aware of the content of his songs.
These “Bo Controversies” however reveal more about the offended than the offender. There is a difference between unprompted abuse and carefully crafted humor. Bo is not just some skinny kid from Massachusetts who's managed to make money from insulting people. His lyrics show that he is politically aware, knowledgeable about pop culture and well versed in both history and literature. In his song “Welcome to YouTube,” for example, he takes cracks at a whole host of celebrities ranging from the Jonas Brothers to Barack Obama and even Miss Teen South Carolina. He has a keen understanding of the hypocrisies inherent in contemporary life, and his skill is in exposing these failings. Bo's comedy is not vitriolic but satirical. Those who charge him with verbal abuse succeed only in revealing their own discomfort with acknowledging the very trends Bo helps expose.
This becomes apparent upon examining his lyrics. Take, for example, the song “New Math” with the lyrics, “What’s a bag of chips divided by five, that’s a Nike worker’s meal.” Is this insensitive or does it simply point out a truth few wish to acknowledge? Who should be more insulted by “My Whole Family,” a song where Bo’s family questions his sexuality in not so subtle ways? Homosexuals? Or the homophobia it makes fun of? In “Welcome to YouTube,” Bo critiques his own peers as “a generation of kids who don’t waste their time reading.” When we complain about how Bo is politically incorrect, is it because we are afraid of facing issues such as this one? And can we afford to do so? His stunning creativity is especially evident in “Rehab Center for Fictional Characters” — a song about Santa, a leprechaun, Tony the Tiger, the Easter Bunny and their various reasons for rehab. Is this song really that offensive? Or is it merely a clever satire gently mocking a society driven to excess?
So why the uproar over political correctness (or lack thereof)? Political correctness has devolved from a safeguard against racism, sexism and general prejudice into a security blanket used to save the necks of politicians when dealing with any statements remotely offensive but usually somewhat accurate. When we move from “crippled” to “handicapped” to “differently-abled” or from “Black” to “African-American” to “racial minority” — when we dilute our language to the point where it is inoffensive only to the extent of its imprecision — what exactly have we accomplished? Nothing. It is impossible to address the needs of any minority group when we refuse to identify those groups. This is not an excuse to resort to derogatory slurs, which are just as imprecise and useless as our most politically correct terms. Rather, we must recognize our failures and address them. Bo, if anything, exposes these flaws.
Yes, Bo is at times quite offensive. He has lyrics that make fun of Helen Keller, allude to the Holocaust only too casually, joke about slavery and objectify women. But, by ignoring Bo under the pretext of adherence to political correctness, aren’t we missing so much more? Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, he is also the product of our own creation. Anyone can post videos on YouTube, but getting that many views is quite a feat. Love him or hate him, Bo Burnham has something that speaks to this generation. Refuse to hear him at your own peril.