by Tavia Nyong’o
19- year-old Christopher Breaux fell hard for another straight boy who couldn’t love him back, confessing his love in a car parked in front of the girlfriend’s house. But the queerest song released so far by the artist now known at Frank Ocean isn’t an ode to boy-on-boy lust, but a corrosive satire of American marriage in the era of Kim Kardashian and Newt Gingrich.
“American Wedding” has attracted the pecuniary attentions of The Eagles, whose radio staple “Hotel California” the track is based on. But the real story isn’t about the sampling wars, but about a scapegoat generation struggling to make lives amidst the crumbling infrastructure of the American dream.
Now that marriage equality has become the shorthand for considering gays fellow human beings, the exploration of what the institution actually means has become more crucial than ever. On this score, Ocean’s take down of the idealised couple form:
She said, “I’ve had a hell of a summer, so baby, don’t take this hard
But maybe we should get an annulment, before this goes way to far.”
“American Wedding” is from Ocean’s internet mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra. On Channel Orange, Ocean is rarely thinking about conventional marriage, gay or straight. But he is always “thinking bout forever,” as the title of the opening track has it, and peeling back the skin of those of us who aren’t. The ass-backwardness of the Eagles’s response to Ocean’s cultural stocktaking is best captured by NCWYS in the SoundCloud comments to “American Wedding”:
If you older people think that the younger generation is out of control and doing everything incorrectly then you should absolutely love this song, but you don’t.
Aptly enough, Frank Ocean often also composes lines that run on a breath that suddenly stops short. An unforgettable one comes in “Sweet Life,” a sharply observed reverie of black-picket-fence California dreaming, when Ocean asks “So why see the world, when you got the beach?” He elongates “world” to contrast with the punched out “beach” in a way that tells us everything we need to know about Ocean’s mournful acceptance of a sun-ripened cruel optimism. That single line makes the extended parody of decadence and parental neglect on “Super Rich Kids” almost superfluous, except for the self-conscious scene setting it adds:
We’ll both be high
The help don’t stare
They just walk by
They must don’t care.
This is the way Ocean inherits the past: not by respecting tradition, or Don Henley, but by staring down the foreshortened horizons and complacent inequality that the frantic pursuit of wealth or happiness brings.
Not that he is lecturing, mind you, although Sierra Leone, sex work, global warming, and the hijab all make appearances in his rapidly expanding oeuvre. He is singing over the soundtrack of history, blunting its force with tried and true teenage tactics of insult, grandiosity, and desperate need. At 24 he isn’t quite old enough to know that he shouldn’t care, which is why he can gloat over “expensive news” on a pricey widescreen one moment, insist “my TV aint HD thats too real” another. On Channel Orange television is his angel of history, a flickering window on the mounting wreckage of the past as he is blown into the future.
The future Ocean is helping shape includes but cannot be reduced to one of its key aspects: the prospect of a progressively expanded honesty about and acceptance of same sex desire. Despite his Tumblr post comparing the intensity of homolove to “being thrown for a plane,” the theme of Channel Orange is less sexual orientation than chemical disorientation. Recreational substance abuse resurfaces in almost every song, often as a metaphor for a relationship gone wrong. Or is it the other way around? Is addiction now the core, common experience we are struggling to give sense to, turning to romantic clichés like “unrequited love” in a desperate search for a familiar language?
Frank’s oceanic feelings on Channel Orange crash in waves that obliterate distinctions between gay, bi, or straight. Some of the ostensibly straight songs, except for their pronouns, feel suspiciously same-sex. And when heterosexuality is foregrounded, it never resolves any confusions, it only produces new ones. The artistic showpiece of the album, the ten-minute long “Pyramids,” is an afrofabulation of ancient Egypt and postmodern Las Vegas, centered on a woman dressing for her job as a stripper, while her man looks on, waiting for her to “hit the strip … that keep my bills paid.” The song is drenched in delusions of the good life in a “top floor motel suite,” lateral cruising confused for the upward mobility that is now as rare as water in the American desert. Ocean has a heartfelt respect for his Afrocentric queen — “we’ll run to the future shining like diamonds in a rocky world” — but the feeling tone of “Pyramids” is closer to Janelle Monáe’s “Many Moons” than Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time.” Monáe and Ocean share premonitions of a near future where a multicultural one percent rests at the opulent social apex, with brown, black and some beige bodies at the botttom “working at the pyramid” just like the slaves who built the original ones.
Where CNN anchor Anderson Cooper justified his belated coming out in terms of the reporter’s obligation not to get in the way of the news, Ocean knows better. At 18 he fled Hurricane Katrina for Los Angeles. But as Fred Moten might say, “I ran from it, and was still in it” pretty much sums up the black experience in America. Channel Orange starts in a similarly fucked up atmosphere — “A tornado flew around my room” — and ends with “Forrest Gump” the most oddball portrait of same-sex love since “Johnny Are You Queer?” A campy three-legged race featuring Tom Hanks’ dimwit but fleet-footed hero, “Forrest Gump” boils Hollwood sap down to a lubricious bump and grind:
my fingertips & my lips
they burn from the cigarettes
you run my mind boy
running on my mind boy
This is dark camp, nostalgic kitsch repurposed by a generation whose thefts seemed premised on the canny awareness that anything original they create could be stolen. But don’t confuse Ocean’s approach for postmodern pastiche or retromania, despite his affection for old cars and the vocal stylings of Prince and Donnny Hathaway. On his first appearance on broadcast television, Ocean scaled the national media echo-chamber down to a backseat taxicab confessional, sharing his universal angst at a human level rarely captured by the contemporary celebrity coming out:
“Bad Religion” leaves it strictly unclear whether it his taxi-driver’s effusive Islam or his own devotion to the cult of true love that is more stunning. Confusing spirituality with a therapy designed to sand our sharp edges into shape for this world, he is awestruck in a way that has little to do, in the end, with either islamophobia or homophobia.
“Bad Religion” dances on the impossible “and” in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, the book where Freud psychoanalyzed the oceanic feeling of cosmic oneness felt by natural mystics as a form of prenatal regression. Thrown from his hometown by the unnatural calamity of antipoor and antiblack racism, Ocean is entitled to feel as bleakly about the human prospect as Freud did. That he doesn’t isn’t a sign of blinkered piety so much as a restless appetite for even the worst in himself and others. Even a curse, after all, probably couldn’t hurt him.
When Ocean greets us as “human beings spinning on blackness,” he invites us into that cab alongside him, sidling up in an undercommons of prayer and malediction, where the singular soul brushes up against the dark night of the universe. Maybe that’s why a conventional coming out, with its endless reiterations of the transparently obvious, seems beside the point. Frank Ocean isn’t like you or me; he isn’t even much like Christopher Breaux any longer.