Social Media & the Precedence of Performance

Last night, I watched Bo Burnham’s “Make Happy” on Netflix. I was impressed most by a surprisingly vulnerable segment near the end:

But for real… what is this show about? It’s about…performing, I try to make my show about other things but always ends up becoming about performing. I started performing very young, as a teenager, you know, professionally, and, as a comedian, what you’re supposed to do, you’re supposed to talk about what you know. And what I knew always was performing, so to talk about traffic or laundry felt incredibly disingenuous, but I worry that making a show about performing would be too meta, it wouldn’t be relatable to people that aren’t performers. But what I found is that, I don’t think anyone isn’t [a performer].
A minute or so into this video.

He continues, after identifying himself as a “privileged” Millennial, one of the “lucky” ones who has been able to find an audience,

They say it’s like the “Me” generation, it’s not. The arrogance is taught, or it was cultivated, it’s, it’s self conscious. It’s conscious of self. Social media, it’s just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform. So the market said, “Here, perform everything to each other all the time for no reason. It’s prison, it’s horrific, it is performer and audience melded together. What do we want more than to lie in our bed at the end of the day and just watch our life as a satisfied audience member? I know very little about anything, but what I do know is that if you can live your life without an audience….you should do it.”

I’ve been frustrated by social media (I even felt compelled to write about it, here), but Burnham illuminated an entirely new perspective on, and frame for, that frustration for me. Before, I always thought of social media as a cause of, not as a response to, a desire/ demand to perform.

But it’s true! People flock to performances and to social media with particular expectations, and often with the expectation to be entertained. Yet if I approach a poem with an expectation to laugh or cry or emote anything in particular, I will be disappointed. This I think, is due to a theory I’ve developed in light of Burnham’s take on social media: that, poetry — though it is craft, sometimes contrived, and not to be taken always as truth-based — is the exact opposite of “performance,” even when it’s performed.

Real poetry (to me at least) is the kind that surprises. It doesn’t give me what I want or expect. It doesn’t meet my criteria of a “good” performance at all. In fact, it would miserably fail in this context. Expecting anything specific or predetermined from a poem is to close it off from yourself before you’ve even read it — to miss the poem, and the originating impulse for the poem, entirely.

Maybe this is why people conceive of poetry now as “niche,” non-mass-marketable. Non-relatable. “Non-profit.” It doesn’t meet society’s standards of entertainment or performance that have been developing at least since Burnham was born (and probably much longer). Somewhere along the way in recent human history, with technology and small phones and social media and dog face filters, poetry stopped delivering the entertainment value that it once offered people.

A brief look at Google Trends yields a 75% decline in organic “poetry” searches over the last 13 years.

There always seems to be a small spike during April, “National Poetry Month” in the US.

Could there be something to this theory, that poems as substance are inconsistent with the artifice of social media? (And that the rise of one led to the demise of the other?) A sort of incompatibility between the impulse towards poems and the impulse towards performance?

(Is this why it’s kinda awkward to freely share poems on social media?)

No matter the answers to these questions, there’s certainly a dichotomy that all artists, of any kind, have to navigate: market demand/ profitability/ popularity vs. vision/ integrity/ authenticity.

Burnham summarizes that struggle for himself as a comedian in his closing segment — surprisingly substantive underneath Kanye West-inspired, auto-tuned theatrics and rants about the small diameter of Pringle cans and overstuffed Chipotle burritos.

I can sit here and pretend that my biggest problems are Pringle cans and burritos. The truth is my biggest problem’s you. I wanna please you, but I wanna stay true to myself, I wanna give you the night out that you deserve, but I wanna sing what I think and not care what you think about it. A part of me loves you, a part of me hates you, a part of me needs you, a part of me fears you. I don’t think that I can handle think right now, handle this right now….they’re just staring at me, like come and watch the skinny kid with the steadily declining mental health and laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself.
About 5 minutes into this video.

This is what the best poetry, and art, does. Elevates the everyday, the mundane, and the specific so that we know we’re not so alone in our experience of life on Earth.

Bravo, Bo.

Trubadour wants to give you new poems you’ll like, based on your tastes. I want to create a space specifically for today’s serious poets and excellent poetry to flourish on the internet. Not social media. Not lumped in with other things. We’re trying to get off the ground and need your support. Please help by signing up to get our newsletters at trubadour.com? Thank you! :)

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