Olivia Rodrigo, Bo Burnham, and the Yearning of the Self-Conscious Imagination

For the launch of our series Binge-worthy? James Smoker looks at the ‘self-conscious imagination’ through the work of Olivia Rodrigo, Bo Burnham and Coleridge. For this series, we asked authors to write about artworks they had kept returning to during the pandemic, and to consider whether bingeing the arts is a mindless pursuit, showing a lack of imagination and self-control, or if there can there be a more meaningful, spiritually significant dimension to this practice. For the first article in the series, Smoker uses Rodrigo’s pop music, Burnham’s comic Netflix special, and Coleridge’s poetic musings to explain how art can lead us toward ‘an existence that holds more than hollow routines and doom-scrolling’ in times of angst and apprehension. 

January 2021 heralded the breakthrough of music’s latest mega popstar. That month, Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Driver’s License’ debuted at number one on the Billboard charts. Within a week of its release, the song broke Spotify’s record for the most song streams in one day, then broke its own record the next day. Anticipation was high for her album release in May. When it debuted, critics declared that Sour not only met but exceeded expectations.

What surprised listeners was that several of Rodrigo’s songs had a bite that her first single did not. Bold guitar riffs recalled 90s alt rock and punk, while her lyrics chronicled the pain and fury of teenage breakup. Yet Rodrigo was not just taking out her anger on outward objects. Her frustration was directed inward too, expressed in glimpses of self-reflection. One song, ‘jealousy, jealousy,’ opens with the lines,

I kinda wanna throw my phone across the room
‘Cause all I see are girls too good to be true
With paper-white teeth and perfect bodies
Wish I didn’t care…

Later, the chorus expands the confession,

Co-comparison is killin’ me slowly
I think I think too much
‘Bout kids who don’t know me
I’m so sick of myself

Her description of scrolling Instagram and comparing herself to other lives, the curated images and relationships of her peers, is an experience familiar to many of us who spend too much time on our smart phones. Yet Rodrigo is not just experiencing jealousy in the song—she is watching herself experience it. Her frustration is not just that her life does not measure up to another’s. It is that she knows she should not care at all, that this is a losing game, and yet cannot help herself. Her angst might find its most vivid expression in the album’s first track, when she explodes in a mix of self-loathing and deprecating humour,

And I hate every song I write
And I’m not cool and I’m not smart
And I can’t even parallel park

* * *

Nine days after Sour’s debut, Bo Burnham released his comedy special Inside on Netflix. Burnham found fame in 2006 by posting clever songs and skits on YouTube. He went on to several successful stand-up tours but took a break when he began experiencing extreme panic attacks. Burnham turned from stand-up to film, eventually directing the acclaimed coming-of-age film Eighth Grade (2018).

Inside is a return to the songs and ironic commentary that marked his earlier work. Yet it was also unlike anything he had done before. Inside was filmed over a year of isolation during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The special is mostly musical, with songs that skewer everything from the very specific aesthetic of a white woman’s Instagram, to painfully awkward attempts at sexting in lockdown, to reflections on problematic jokes Burnham made in his earlier (and maybe even current) videos.

Burnham was stuck in isolation like the rest of us. Unlike most of us, he turned on his camera, set up elaborate lighting rigs, sang songs, and invited his audience to watch him ping-pong between inspiration and despair. Yet Burnham is not only a performer; he is also with us in the audience. Throughout the special, he watches himself, questions himself, doubts himself, mocks himself.

“Bo Burnham” by jeneli via https://creativecommons.org/

This is most obvious when an early song, ‘Unpaid Intern,’ cuts abruptly into a reaction video. Burnham, poking fun at the popular YouTube format, gives us a reaction video to his own song. His commentary ranges from what inspired the song (it was ‘to carry on the tradition of songs about labour in the past to a song about labour exploitation in the modern world’) to the banal (he likes his beard). Then, when the song ends, his reaction video continues to play where the song was, and Burnham has to now react to himself reacting to the song. At first, he feigns confusion, then he decides to continue the reaction. His commentary turns negative. He notes that his explanation of the song is mere pretention: ‘Unpaid Intern’ doesn’t really mean anything at all, it is only a stupid song that he is pretending has depth. Then, a third loop of the reaction video starts. Now, Burnham must react to his criticism of his positive reaction to the song. He admits that his self-criticism is a defence mechanism; that he is sure everyone will see through him, and he is beating other critics to what he is sure they will say about his attempt at authenticity. Perhaps, he confesses, by being performatively self-aware, people will like him more.

Finally, Burnham has enough: ‘I don’t like looking at myself like this, I want this to stop. Stop it! Stop!’

* * *

Looking at ourselves like this can be an eternal spiral. In the myth of Narcissus, it is an endless, stagnant reality, where one is caught in one’s own reflective gaze for eternity. The trap of comparison and jealousy that catches Rodrigo as she scrolls social media predates the pandemic, but isolation and lockdown have exacerbated it. Stuck inside—alone, with family, or roommates—we have all the time in the world to not just watch the world, but to watch ourselves watching it. We have become sick of our own company. It feels like a curse. Burnham’s cry has become our own: I want this to stop.

And yet, what if this apparent curse of seeing ourselves, reflecting on ourselves, being self-conscious, was not only a curse? What if it could be a blessing, even the beginning of hope?

The Romantic poet, critic, and occasional theologian Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) asked just that. He was a man familiar with long periods of isolation. His severe episodes of depression and opium addiction kept him in bed for weeks on end. Moreover, he was obsessively self-reflective, writing over thousands of notebook pages as he tracked his thoughts. He often used these journals for self-analysis, sometimes with humour, sometimes with dark and bare loathing.

“Samuel Taylor Coleridge, portrait” by Books18 via https://creativecommons.org/

The editor of Coleridge’s notebooks, Kathleen Coburn, observed two senses of the word self-consciousness throughout his private writing. The first is when one is ‘marked by undue or morbid pre-occupation with one’s own personality.’[1] The other is the move ‘to make the transition from the fear and trembling of self-doubt and incompleteness…to emotional freedom, steadiness, and wholeness of vision.’[2] Coleridge often experienced the first. He doggedly pursued the second.

Even though these definitions seem antithetical to one another, Coleridge came to believe that the first type could lead to the second. In his obsessive self-reflection, he became keenly aware of his ‘self-insufficingness,’ an inability to fulfil his own longings himself. This realisation spurred him to look outward.

If a person remains unaware of the depths of their yearnings, ignorant to their incompleteness, they fade into what Coleridge called ‘phantom souls.’ They live entirely passively. He describes their existence in a series of poems called the Limbo sequence,

…where Time & weary Space
Fetter’d from flight, with night-mair sense of Fleeing
Strive for their last crepuscular Half-being—
Lank Space, and scytheless Time with branny Hands
Barren and soundless as the measuring Sands,
Mark’d but by Flit of Shades—unmeaning they
As Moonlight on the Dial of the Day— (Lines 2-8)[3]

Limbo is barren, silent, unchanging, meaningless. Its souls move in circles, and never towards something. Time itself means nothing, with crumbling clock hands, soundless sand in the glass, no sun to mark the dial, not even the scythe of death. Existence is merely that. It has no pleasure, pain, hunger, fulfilment, joy, or grief. But grief, Coleridge later wrote in an essay fragment, is ‘a Hunger of the Soul.’[4] Without hunger, we do not look for food.

* * *

Coleridge saw art as a source of hope in the midst of yearning. When he felt his creativity run dry, he turned to writing poems such as ‘Dejection: An Ode,’ ‘Work Without Hope,’ and ‘The Pang More Sharp Than All’ to paradoxically express his lack of inspiration. During one particularly dark episode, he wrote to himself in a notebook, ‘O let me rouse myself—If I even begin mechanically, & only by aid of memory look round and call each thing by name—describe it, as a trial of skill in words—it may bring back fragments of a former Feeling—For we can live only by feeding abroad.’[5]

Perhaps it is the same weary hope that finds Burnham turning on his camera once again, as he searches for inspiration to get him through another day of lockdown. It is there as Rodrigo lambasts her own song writing through song. It is there in many, many other works borne out of these endless months, as we have faced ourselves alone.

It is through this art of self-consciousness, in these examples told through humour and angst, that we find one another. Rodrigo’s songs have connected with a vast audience. Her listeners understand that desire to throw their phone across the room, to shout about the things they cannot do, what it is like to feel their own insufficiency. Meanwhile, Burnham’s audience laughs ruefully at his spiral of reaction videos. We know this pattern of confidence, doubt, pretention, and confession from our own self-presentation, jokes we make at our own expense, and the imposter-syndrome that haunts us like a phantom. Rodrigo and Burnham’s tightly wound self-conscious art is singular unto themselves, so personal, but their reflection also reflects us. Through particularity, at its greatest intensity, we find kinship.

It is through this art of self-consciousness, in these examples told through humour and angst, that we find one another.

Coleridge captured this paradox in two notebook entries preserved by Coburn. In one, he writes,

‘Unless a man understand his own heart, it is impossible that he should have insight into the Hearts of other men. And how should he understand his own Heart who is afraid or ashamed to look into it, yea even to look at it?’[6]

And yet,

‘Only by meeting with, so as to be resisted by, Another, does the Soul become a Self. What is Self-consciousness but to know myself at the same moment that I know another, and to know myself by means of knowing another?’[7]

To create art like Rodrigo’s, like Burnham’s, even as Coleridge did two hundred years earlier, is to resist limbo in a time when limbo seems to be all there is. It is to give attention to one’s own soul, recognizing our yearning, doubt, and insufficiency, and to cry out with angst (often leavened with humour) that this is not enough. It is the declaration of a step, even a pursuit, to an existence that holds more than hollow routines and doom-scrolling. It points to our hunger and compels us to find one another. Perhaps it will even put us on the path towards the one in whom we find our rest.

[1] Kathleen Coburn, The Self Conscious Imagination: A Study of the Coleridge Notebooks in Celebration of the Bi-Centenary of His Birth 21 October 1772, Riddell Memorial Lectures 44 (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), 1.

[2] Coburn, 2.

[3] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Limbo,’ Genius, accessed November 12, 2021, https://genius.com/Samuel-taylor-coleridge-limbo-annotated.

[4] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Shorter Works & Fragments, ed. H. J. Jackson and J. R. de J. Jackson, vol. 11, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 1438, 1451.

[5] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1808-1819, ed. Kathleen Coburn, vol. 3, 5 vols. (Princeton University Press, 1973) Entry 3420.

[6] Coburn, The Self Conscious Imagination, 33. Coleridge’s distinction between ‘look into’ and ‘look at’ may be a reference to his fascination of the relation between subject and object. In other words, we must not only look at ourselves through our subjectivity, but also consider ourselves as objects. Based on his other writing, I would go so far as to say that Coleridge is challenging his readers to consider themselves ultimately as objects of love, those who find their true selves before the only true subject, the “I Am.”

[7] Coburn, 32.

Author

  • James Smoker (Associate Editor) is at St Andrews as a doctoral student with the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts. He is researching the imagination and theological writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), with a particular focus on the darkness of Coleridge's own imagination, the poet's subsequent yearning for God, and his hope that, through this darkness, the imagination may lead one to approach the divine. James comes from Vancouver, Canada, where he most recently studied and worked at Regent College. He moved to Scotland with his wife, Siobhan, and three children. He also enjoys a breadth of fiction, poetry, and music, exploring where he lives, and making good food for friends (both actual and potential).

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