nternet culture has changed the way that we perceive memes and trends. While original memes were static images that featured a photo and a caption that were funny and relatable, current meme culture now encompasses a variety of mediums, niches and languages. From short-form videos to specific quote tweets, memes are an always-evolving form of communication across the Internet. Now, memes mean different things to different people, but tend to center on three things: relatability, humor and nostalgia.
Recently, audio trends and audio memes have gained popularity thanks to the rise of TikTok. The app encourages people to partner audios with original content, resulting in lyric snippets as punchlines, dances and more. Many musicians, television programs and celebrities have found success promoting their music through TikTok. Now, that includes the creator known for his musical style of comedy, Bo Burnham.
Bo Burnham is a comedian, musician, director, screenwriter, multimedia artist and more. Starting on YouTube at the age of 16, Bo Burnham created comedic bits and musical sketches built on observational humor and wordplay that analyzed the relationship between creator and audience. After releasing many comedy specials over the course of a few years (including Words, Words, Words, what., Make Happy), Bo Burnham took on different creative roles. He created a television series for MTV called “Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous,” released a book of poetry, wrote and directed the critically acclaimed film Eighth Grade, and more.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Over the course of the nation-wide quarantine, Bo Burnham was working on a new project, later-revealed to be the new Netflix special Inside. In its most bare essence, Inside. is a self-critiquing musical commentary on mental health, parasocial relationships, socio-economic crises and more, written, directed, filmed and produced entirely by Bo Burnham in his Los Angeles house.
In the subsequent weeks after Inside.’s release, many things happened: Bo Burnham got critically praised for the themes of isolation, depression, expression and the Internet depicted in Inside. The songs from Inside. started dominating radio charts both internationally and domestically. Then there’s Inside.’s influence on TikTok.
Although the release of Bo Burnham’s Inside. was a surprise to everybody, the real shock came from the response it got on social media platforms such as TikTok. TikTok already has a history of generating viral content from creators, whether the content is a trend, a prank, an audio or a dance. Most notably are audios on TikTok, which users can upload as original tracks from artists or as mashups of existing audios to create more engaging, creative sounds that can then be partnered with existing trends to make more conceptual content ideas. The TikTok website even has a section dedicated to research about how brands are driving engagement thanks to popular audios on the platform, showing that music is a tried-and-true way for artists, brands and marketers to reach a new audience.
We’ve seen TikTok help artists like Dua Lipa achieve mass popularity with tracks like “Levitating,” but the fame is generally kept to a couple of iconic bits. Bo Burnham’s Inside. changed everything––instead of one or two trending audios, the majority of the music used in the Netflix special has been chopped and skewed into dozens of different iterations across the vastness of TikTok. In fact, over the past week, every piece of content that I’ve seen has been a trend, dance, mashup or reaction to a Bo Burnham track from Inside., like the audio shown above.
How can a person achieve such a level of virality on TikTok when musicians are only getting one or two hits?
Here’s the thing: Bo Burnham did something different.
TikTok has created an entire culture around the type of people active on the platform, resulting in different methods of communication and connection between users. The memes present on TikTok explore all sorts of elements of the personal experience, hinging on relatability between each individual user to generate wide-spread virality. When you see some relatable content, it’s easy to inject your own personal experience into that same sentiment––thereby recreating the same meme trend with your own spin. The more that users see themselves in each others’ content, the more they will recreate the content, leading to mass spread and awareness.
This is exactly what happened with Bo Burnham’s Inside.
The special was shot during the global pandemic of COVID-19, and echoed extremely similar sentiments that a majority of the world were experiencing at the same time. Although the experience portrayed in Inside. was entirely Bo Burnham’s, the feelings resonate with many.
That is why the audios have been so successful as separate pieces of music from the special. Once uploaded to TikTok, a global platform that reaches billions of users, the sentiments Bo Burnham shared through the audio snippets from Inside. were also shared with a new audience: Gen Z. For Millennials that grew up listening to or watching Bo Burnham, his content is nostalgic. For younger audiences that weren’t exposed to the same level of previous content, Bo Burnham was funny, anxious and relatable in a way they had never experienced.
Now, users across the world are creating content using audio snippets from Inside. Whether they’re commenting on the paradoxical nature of creating content using an audio condemning content creation, or following a punch-line trend using lyrics from a song about isolation, TikTok is obsessed with Bo Burnham.
This proves that alongside nostalgia, relatability is a very powerful tool for connecting with others. When it comes to memes and trend culture, being easily relatable is the cornerstone of creating authentic content. As more people can see themselves in your content, they will be more likely to recreate it, leading to viral potential through the sheer reach of replication.
Although Bo Burnham might not have intended for his audios to go viral on TikTok, it happened. And because it happened, Inside. has resonated with millions of users in a special way. That kind of connection is unique, and extremely rare––uniting us all in a brief moment under the solidarity of inside.