Frank Ocean Seems Sincere, and Even if He's Not, It Doesn't Matter
The statement "based on true events" is a reassurance. The subtitle "a memoir" is like the "100% organic" sticker on a piece of fruit. Popular music, however, does not need these guarantees because they come built into the genre. Music is assumed to be autobiographical. A singer using the first person pronoun is not playing a role. Even if they state otherwise, their audience is unlikely to believe them. Singers and songwriters have often only escaped autobiography by taking on elaborate performative personas, such as David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust. Even then, their audience often assumes that character to be the singer's most authentic self. Veracity is perhaps not so central to any other art form.
On July 3rd, singer Frank Ocean published a post on his tumblr in which he described an experience of unrequited love, an experience he had when he was 19. That love happened to be for another man. The post has since been so frequently called his "coming-out letter" that the categorization has become shorthand for the story, whether or not it is accurate as a description. One week later, Ocean released his first major label album, channel ORANGE, for early, free listening on the same tumblr.
The two events now form an inextricable single text. It is near impossible to consider the album independent from the letter. Further, the letter was most likely a response to reviewers who heard lyrics referencing both male and female lovers on channel ORANGE and started rumors about Ocean's orientation.
However, words such as gay, straight, or bisexual don't appear in the letter. A reader skimming for the "coming out" sentence would be left empty-handed. Rather than allowing his readers to walk away with a label, Ocean forces them to engage with a specific romantic experience. He isn't a gay man or a bisexual man, he's an individual writing about a particular experience with another individual. Writing about it heartbreakingly, as it happens.
Naming one's sexual orientation doesn't just tell the story of one's past. It prescribes and promises the story of one's future. It says we know what's coming next, that love and sex, wanting and hurting, are things we can predict. But, as in the anxiously ignored truth of all our relationships, we only know what's happened already, and have no idea what we will want tomorrow. "Gay" and "straight" are promises of loyalty. They are categories, and categories reassure.
Reading an album in an autobiographical manner is equally reassuring. We have the answers. We know who the singer is, who he is singing to, what happened to bring this song into existence. Like the letter, the album refuses this comfort to its audience.
Much of the album, in fact, has little do with love or at least sexual love. It is as much concerned with critiquing lifestyle and addiction as it is concerned with chronicling the difficulties of love and lust with both men and women. Additionally, the tracks that could be referred to as the "heterosexual" tracks are intensely, aggressively heterosexual. In "Pyramids," the singer is watching his stripper girlfriend get dressed to go to work. In "Pink Matter," the title may or may not be an anatomically explicit name for all women. The album, much like Ocean's letter, refuses to cohere. Its strength is in that refusal.
The outpouring of support in response to the "coming out letter" has been overwhelming, from Ocean's colleagues, from critics, from the internet pulsing like a big heart. The negative reaction has been vitriolic and disgusting in equal and opposite measure. Buzzfeed recently collected and published tweets from former Frank Ocean fans comparing the singer to child-molester Jerry Sandusky. Target cited Ocean's release of the album for free on tumblr as the reason for suddenly deciding not to stock it in stores. However, the actual reasoning behind the decision remained questionable. Target, in its statement in response to accusations of homophobia, pointed out that it stocks albums by many openly gay artists.
But perhaps that distinction is the point, the source of the particular homophobic rage for which Ocean has been target. Perhaps this the same rage is behind those appalling "Frank Ocean got molested by Sandusky and liked it" tweets. An openly gay artist is at least a known quantity.
Anything without a category is threatening. Ocean's letter forces its reader to look at a portrait of an intimate relationship, without any mediating explanations or clinical terms. It is not the large idea of "gay." It is sitting in a Nissan Maxima, in the summer, with a man you love, telling him you love him, and having him pat your back and say "kind things," but not say that he loves you back.
The bare details of intimacy are uncomfortable to witness. This witnessing, this refusal of gestural category has perhaps frightened and triggered listeners more than a traditional coming out letter might have. If Ocean had simply said he were gay, homophobic listeners could have just put him over there with all the other fags. The vitriol we feel toward certainties we dislike is nothing compared to the vitriol we feel toward uncertainties we cannot dismiss.
The Sandusky-Ocean tweets assume not only autobiography Their authors assume that, as listeners, they are being addressed personally. One says in so many words that he feels like he's been molested because he listened to Ocean's "Thinking 'Bout You" while he was in the shower. This assumption, that one is the subject of a song just because one is the audience for that song, is not at all dissimilar to the assumption that just because someone of your same gender is gay, they must therefore be attracted to, and hitting on, you.
Songs are not about you, and the point of songs is not the identity of their subject. Autobiographical readings of pop music are unbelievably immature readings, about as immature as two teenagers calling each other "fag."
A less optimistic interpretation might call Ocean's letter a cleverly staged performance. It has after all contributed hugely to the album's popularity and reception. My sense is that this is wrong, that Ocean was as sincere as he seems, but I have no real way of knowing that. More importantly, it doesn't matter. The hunger for veracity, in the where-were-you-and-who-were-with sense, turns the listener into a parent checking in on a wayward child. Were Ocean's whole story fabricated, it would have the exact same impact it has now. The letter opens with the words "whoever you are, wherever you are, I'm starting to think we're a lot alike." Dissolving the expectations of autobiography in popular music is as useful, and functions as much to allow compassion through universal recognition, as does dissolving rigid categories of gay, straight, bisexual, etc.
"Bad Religion," the standout track in an album full of stand-outs, may have sparked this whole controversy with its male pronoun ("I can't make him love me"). This same track, however, is also where it transcends this kind of reading. The song ends with the plaintive repetition "it's a bad religion to love someone who can't love you." In the end it's love -- whether love is returned, of whether love is possible, is reciprocal, or whether it strings you along and breaks your heart --that matters and is worth stating explicitly to the world. Like Ocean's letter, "Bad Religion" depicts an experience that goes beyond male and female, same sex and opposite sex relationships. The experience is universal that it makes declarations of gender preference, of gay or straight, unnecessary, perhaps even laughable. If you require an album to be about you, a great album about unrequited love will always deliver.
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