On Ambient Grief
Bo Burnham puts his finger in the air and finds a pulse on “That Funny Feeling”, 2021’s track of the year.
It feels bad. This? *motioning broadly at everything* Feels bad.
We’re in year two suspended in amber. How have you been spending your time? Are you doing pushups? Are you running? Learning to grow food? Becoming self-sufficient? Are you holding your breath? How long can you stay under water when the flood comes? Have you chosen a side in the revolution?
Are you scrolling? Are you consuming? Do you like what you’re consuming? Does it feel like popular culture is meaningless? And yet, in that meaninglessness there’s somehow more meaning? The signal is the noise? The art is the ad? The ad is the art? Have you talked to your therapist?
Are you alone? Do you feel alone?
It feels bad. This? All of this? It feels bad.
It feels like the end of something. We just can’t agree on what it’s the end of. I have theories. Maybe you have a theory. Maybe you haven’t thought that much about it. But whether you have or you haven’t thought about it, you’ve felt it.
It’s the ambient grief of our era. It’s division. It’s gridlock. It’s mass death events that happen, but they’re happening to someone else. It’s a politician that’s been elected to enact change telling you to demand change or nothing will ever change. Motherfucker you’re the guy who has the power to make the change! Why do I have to make the change?
But the machine of capital continues to turn. As time goes on, it’s becoming more and more apparent that the only real choices, or power, or agency, that we have, is how we respond as consumers. When confronted with this pervasive powerlessness, the only thing that matters is how you feel about it all. And that’s, well, a funny feeling.
Of course it’s been like this for a while now. But the growing urgency of a dying planet being met in equal force with disaffection and ambivalence on the part of everyone with the power to fix it is bringing it all to the forefront.
I watched Bo Burnham’s Inside at the worst possible moment that I could have. My wife was away for the weekend, I was hungover after a great night that sapped every last bit of serotonin from my brain. Forcing an existential crisis was not really what I needed, or maybe it was.
“That Funny Feeling” is one of the quieter, more understated moments of the special. It’s a campfire song. It’s common folk. But it’s an articulation of modern malaise, that ambient grief, that hasn’t been distilled to that degree before. The imagery within it is devastating in its specificity, funny at times, hard to hear but vital. It hits like Father John Misty at his peak, or maybe Randy Newman at his most sincere.
It’s at this point where I’d like to pause and talk about the subjectivity of the narrator. As a white man writing about the art of another white man, these are privileged problems; End Point Problems. Other more marginalized groups have much more immediate concerns. But that’s kind of the point. Even if you’re able to overcome the problems six inches in front of your face, you’re still left with the ingrained problems behind it all. Or maybe you feel it all at once.
I’m rambling. And maybe I’m catastrophizing a bit too much. The song isn’t hopeless, per se. It’s more resigned to the inevitability of it all. If anything, there is hope in the end of something. Particularly when taken from the perspective of American myopia. The end of this empire isn’t the end of history. But it is a lot to process.
There is also some hope in processing this all together. We’re defining something collectively. “That Funny Feeling” is kind of a companion piece to another great work of 2021, Adam Curtis’ essential documentary series Can’t Get You Out of My Head (in my opinion the best TV series of 2021). Once we agree on what it is we’re up against, we can begin to counter it.
Anyway, we make our own joy, and hope, and meaning; and it’s not out there, yet. You’ll find it if you look, and I want more than anything for you all to find it. So here’s to seven more years of this. I’ll see you on the other side.