Comment: Frank Ocean and the language of love

No man in Frank's position has written songs about making out with guys, and his rise to this challenge will be the measure of this extraordinary artist.


Words by: Charlie Jones

Frank Ocean’s announcement about his sexuality earlier this week needs to be talked about not in terms of how he will be treated in the world of R&B, but in terms of the effect that this will have on his music. As a mainstream artist seeking to maintain and possibly increase his popularity, and as a thoughtful lyricist whose autobiographical writing will evidently seek to chart his sexuality and sense of identity, Ocean finds himself in a tricky position for which there is literally no precedent. How he evolves as an artist, and the ways he can find to remain popular, hinge on the language that he will choose to work in, or rather on the musical idiom that he adopts to present himself to us as a gay or bi man.

In his beautiful and heartfelt coming-out letter, it was the allusions to language that struck me: how Ocean was manifestly struggling to find ways to voice his feelings. Writing about declaring his feelings to the man who did not return them, he says: “I wept as the words left my mouth. I grieved for them, knowing I could never take them back for myself.” Indeed. Ocean was confronted with a problem familiar to most gay people, of how to state themselves in ways that feel true, that are accurate and sincere, in a world where what you are trying to express is not the norm. Gay people have to re-present themselves to the world, in a sense, since the otherness must apparently be voiced, and explained, to friends and family. The problem that Ocean now has, which is one very unfamiliar to most gay people, is of constructing his image, of baring his soul, not merely as a man but as an artist who is accustomed to singing about his life. This will be the measure of him.

In another delicate, insightful moment from his letter, Ocean writes about the sentimental songs that he would listen to as a teenager to console himself from break-ups with girlfriends he thought he was in love with. Listening to them, he says, he “realized they were written in a language [he] didn’t understand yet.” Again, this is something that most gay people will recognise: the sense of dislocation upon hearing music that talks about experiences you do not recognise, that do not speak to your perception of the world. Ocean clearly wants to change this with his next album, ‘Channel Orange’, by writing in a language that he does recognise, that describes his situation. But the problems are twofold. First, the biggest problem is that there is no immediate precedent for him to draw on – of which, more later. The second biggest problem is that once he starts writing in his own idiom, he runs the risk of losing followers, since his appeal rests on people finding a kinship with his music, which could be harder to discern for a heterosexual listenership once he starts singing about making it with fellas.

You, enlightened reader, quickly: name a love song by a man, for a man. Quick. I’m a fully paid-up homo and I can barely do it.

A quick skim of Twitter confirms this: for every enlightened tweeter such as ‘Oxford Comma‘Δ ✈™’ who recognises that “It is possible for Frank Ocean to be a lyrical mastermind and a fag at the same damn time” (aww), there is a ‘PHILosopher’ eager to tell the world: ““I dnt have a problem wit Frank Ocean being bi but listening to his songs and knowing he is talking about a male gets weird pretty quick”. Clearly this chap is no Wittgenstein, but beyond an initial reaction of discomfort towards his apparent homophobia we should actually ask if he doesn’t have a point. You, enlightened reader, quickly: name a love song by a man, for a man. Quick. I’m a fully paid-up homo and I can barely do it. Rufus Wainwright has a few – Danny Boy, Harvester of Hearts – and Perfume Genius also sings about love affairs with men. But these two men are working in a totally different vein to Ocean – one of them (Wainwright) constructing his vernacular from a combination of folk, opera and Tin Pan Alley, with allusive lyrics that often demand a queer reading, and the other taking a leaf out of Antony & the Johnsons’s singing style plus the tradition of confessional indie, to create his own idiom.

Ocean works in a genre, R&B, whose very heart and soul boil down to charting the heterosexual experience – the rituals of courtship, the mechanics of sex. Think Usher, D’Angelo, Chris Brown, Lionel Richie, even Luther Vandross: mm-hmm girl, this party gonna last all night long, we’ll take it nice and slow girl, etc. Also, Wainwright, Perfume Genius, and most other male gay artists whom you might want to namecheck as examples of people succeeding in music – Owen Pallett, Jonsi, Ed Droste, and before them the Pet Shop Boys, Arthur Russell and Mark Almond – are all relatively minor concerns compared to the increasingly high profile that Frank Ocean now has. Quick reminder: he has written for Beyoncé, Justin Bieber and John Legend, worked with Nas and Pharrell Williams, and last year guested on two songs on ‘Watch The Throne’ by Jay-Z and Kanye West, the two biggest hip-hop stars of all time. He is signed to a pretty major label with Def Jam. The only parallel I can think of for Ocean’s experience is Elton John, bizarrely – but you have to imagine Elton John daring to come out before his second album, and actually writing songs about men instead of having his straight song-writing partner pen songs like Your Song, which aren’t about anyone. Or anything. Say it with me one more time: there is no precedent for what Frank Ocean has done. The mind boggles.

A parallel for him does present itself, and please bear with me because it is not at first glance a positive-sounding one: Amy Winehouse. Winehouse wasn’t gay, nor a man, nor black, but what she did succeed in doing was to carve out a persona, a deeply personal way of expressing herself within the vernacular of pop music while building on the relative success of her first album to achieve actual superstardom. She did it, as we know, by setting the lyrics about her torment (“I stay up, clean the house/ At least I’m not drinking/ Run around just so I don’t have to think about thinking”) against astringently pop-sounding music with ‘retro’ soul leanings. It was a way for her to write honestly about herself, knowing that the melodies and Mark Ronson’s orchestrations would nurse her lyrics into a presentable form.

Ocean’s coming-out may mark the greatest single step forward for black music since Gaye and Wonder re-negotiated their contracts with Motown

Two final parallels, and they’re enormous: Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Ocean’s coming-out may mark the greatest single step forward for black music since Gaye and Wonder re-negotiated their contracts with Motown so as to make the personal, political and sexually charged music they had to create as artists, rather than be performers and writers for hire. As we know, Marvin Gaye released ‘What’s Going On’ in 1970 and in 1972, with Music of My Mind, Stevie Wonder embarked on his run of six great soul albums leading up to Songs In The Key of Life. Gaye charted inner city angst and began to write about sexuality without any of the pop stylings previously required of Motown artists, with the accessible choruses and cheery innuendoes; Stevie Wonder got hold of a Moog and did everything from castigating Nixon over and over to singing touching, horny love songs or honouring the heroes of the civil rights movement. Wonder, crucially, created very much his own language, borrowing from funk, gospel, soul and the singer-songwriter touches he had picked up from Bob Dylan and the folk movement, and adding splurpy keys to everything to present everyone with his ‘innervisions’. Creating a language that did not exist before from the ashes of the soul they once sang, Gaye and Wonder took their audiences with them, because the force of their departure, and the strength of their writing and identities were such that they were immediately obvious to all.

Ocean is fortunate in that, although there is no firsthand predecessor for his move, he had already started to chip away at the genre he is an exponent of. Post-Kanye West, with his endorsement of homosexuality in 2005 and his albums whose writing took on increasingly personal accents, touching on his troubles and vulnerability (the classic “I’m so self-conscious” line), R&B has been able gradually to turn away from the swagger and bluster that was becoming increasingly tiresome. This isn’t to say that the Ushers and Chris Browns of this world aren’t still huge – but with his Odd Future collective, Frank Ocean had already begun to essay songs that dealt with normality, with the reality of being a young man, with an unvarnished black experience. Tom Breihan, reviewing Ocean’s song Novacane for Pitchfork in June 2011, notes the song’s naturalistic touches, the way it dramatises a moment where Ocean is high on drugs but touchingly wishes he weren’t: Ocean’s insights and no-bullshit assessment of his behaviour really make the song, he says, and he concludes that “_Novacane_ is a song about personal connection but also about all the stupid numb human shit that gets in the way of personal connection, which means it’s probably the most honest song about personal connection on the radio.” Ocean’s emotional honesty, his unusual turn of phrase, his sense of himself, clearly ring true to a great listenership, and these are the strengths that can help him carve out a queer persona in song. This acuity is there in his coming-out letter, too: in a few light touches, Ocean paints a heartbreaking scenario of unrequited love, and of the agony it gave him. Of the bliss that love brought him, he says simply: “Days would glide.” It is a lovely phrase, unusual; three words that will ring true to anyone who has been in love. Of the pain it brought him, he says: “I’ve screamed at my Creator, screamed at clouds in the sky.” Again, these are feelings that resonate, conveyed unfussily and sincerely.

Nevertheless, the problem remains that performing in R&B as Ocean does, and wanting to be open and sincere, he will find himself confronted with the problem of singing male love, possibly of hymning male sex. He may lose listeners. He may gain others. But the fact is that Frank Ocean is not interesting because he is any old black gay American man (although that is also interesting): he is interesting because he is a black gay American male artist. Perhaps he will eventually retire from the spotlight and make unpopular, exciting music for a reduced group of admirers, like a queer black Scott Walker; perhaps he will blaze a trail and carry with him the whole world of black music, bringing acceptance and joy wherever he goes. With his announcement earlier this week, he has certainly shown that he wants to be counted with the greats, whose decisions and music transcend their obstacles and time. We await him.

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