How Frank Ocean's Sexual Openness Could Help Liberate His Fans
In music this year, the moment that has meant the most to me didn't happen while playing a record or attending a show. It happened while reading a Tumblr. On July 4, when Frank Ocean posted an open letter at his website in which for the first time he referred to his relationship with another man, I was reminded why pop matters, after all.
Hip-hop remains one of the few genres where homosexuality is still taboo. A memorable 2008 book by former MTV executive Terrence Dean painted a picture of a gay hip-hop underground that read like an Edmund White novel: the complex interweaving of secrets and codes brings to mind the paranoid and besieged community of homosexual New Yorkers before the Stonewall Riots in 1969.
Four years on from Dean's book, if the situation has changed at all it's been at a glacial, almost imperceptible pace. Hip-hop's willful ignorance toward homosexuality has always been its least defensible blight (though some women might rightly disagree). So it wasn't your typical Adam Lambert moment when Ocean, who first gained notoriety as part of the somewhat gay-bashing Odd Future, revealed the details of his relationship and heartbreak.
Here's an excerpt from Ocean's letter. The prose is extraordinary:
4 Summers ago, I met somebody.
I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that Summer and the Summer after, together. Everyday almost. And on the days we were together, time would glide. Most of the day I'd see him, and his smile. I'd hear his conversation and his silence. Until it was time to sleep. Sleep I would often share with him. By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless.
There was no escaping.
No negotiating with the feeling. No choice. It was my first love. It changed my life.
Sure, there's a lot of cynicism to explore with the circumstances surrounding Ocean's big reveal. And I feel it's an important part of my job to raise an eyebrow at his timing. For starters, why did Ocean's letter coincide with the promotional build-up to his excellent new album, Channel Orange?
But it's petty to dwell on such conjecture. More interesting than any calculated publicity ploy, Ocean's letter reminded me of the great empathizing force pop music has sometimes flexed in my own life. For the record, I'm not gay. (As Charlie Chaplin said several years before the United States entered the second World War, when asked if he was Jewish, "I'm afraid I don't have that honor.") Though I was raised in an environment that would have been unforgiving had I liked men. The stigma my upbringing attached to homosexuality meant it required an effort to empathize with a lifestyle most people around me spoke of with eye-twitching hatred. As pathetic and silly as it might sound, my acquaintanceship with the work and biographies of gay and lesbian pop stars was one of the keys to my breakthrough.
Ocean's letter made me wonder just how many other listeners who grew up in reactionary environments were eventually set free from prevailing attitudes -- about sexuality, race, and you-name-it -- because some pop star was able to humanize another perspective for them.
Despite what some critics often say, pop and rock music is never just about the music, man. Nor should it be. As far back as the 1930s when the likes of Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart unveiled escapist worlds on both stage and screen for a downtrodden public, pop music has always been a tool for the imagination that helped us think in terms of both what is possible and what is maybe already there around us, but slightly out of view.
The birth of rock 'n' roll in the 1950s coincided with the blossoming of some social seeds sown earlier in the century by Dr. Freud (among others) and reaped in the '40s by Dr. Kinsey (among others) -- a liberation of the libido, or at least how we think and talk about this essential part of our species' strange way of being. It's impossible to imagine such moments as Elvis's 1956 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show living on in our shared memory as little more than a curio (Tiny Tim before Tiny Tim, let's call it) without the visceral sexual charge the nearly 60-year-old footage still exudes for us. In this single performance, sex and sexuality were lodged into the brains of a mass TV audience comprising 60 million viewers in an unshakable manner I feel we're still coming to grips with. There were teenagers who grew up really fast that late summer night.
This is what pop does best. It's the beat more than the melody, and it's the image more than the personality: pop opens up our lizard-brains until our rationale begins to nod along. As a popular art, it has always prodded us to break down social barriers and inspire frank talk about the most crucial and intimate aspects of our lives.
As real upheaval tends to, pop began to work on our convictions rather messily -- crudely, even -- with more a will to incitement than a mission to enlighten. Early rock singles are filled with silly (but, in their own way, dazzling and crisp) metaphors and innuendos: "Good Golly Miss Molly"; "Great Balls of Fire"; the name "rock 'n' roll" itself. But as the language and iconography of rock evolved, so did the conversations and insights it provoked.
I grew up 40 years after Elvis played Sullivan, in a tiny town in Indiana -- a community proud of its small-mindedness. On the surface, the variety of people I knew as a kid wasn't very wide. There were fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, teachers and priests, people behind the counters at fast food restaurants and people behind the register at the grocery store. Most of the folks I passed by on a daily basis were a little beaten down by their lot. This was plain enough for even a six-year-old to see. What was less obvious was why these familiar strangers behaved in this curious way. Now I look back and see what they really despised was the appearance of another person seizing control of their life -- their fate, their identity, their whole being. They distrusted anyone who didn't appear similarly resigned to their drain-circling defeat of an existence. There in small-town Indiana, self-actualization was taken as a personal affront to not-quite-worked-out value systems like "God" and being "down to Earth." They were a profoundly frightened people (though, to be fair to Hoosiers, I later found out people are the same everywhere, only more or less cagey about their fears).
I shudder to think how I would have developed had pop music not been available to me. It was through artists as diverse as Dusty Springfield and Stephin Merrit that I slowly grew an empathy for a way of being that my community forbade me to imagine, let alone approve of. It wasn't because the gay artists I liked sang of gay themes, because by and large they didn't. It was the force of their talent and their expression and the way the two combined legitimized their feelings for me. It's impossible to listen to Springfield's dagger-sharp rendition of "Anyone Who Had a Heart" and discount to source of her passion, or call her ill, as most of the people I grew up around would have. I like to think Frank Ocean will have a similar impact on millennials who, as I write this, are stranded in all the world's shit towns.
Such gestures as the one Ocean made earlier this month are always a little suspect when they come right before the release of new product. But in Ocean's case, it's more than fair to drop the charges of exploitation. After all, this is what pop stars should do; this is their job description:
1. Sell records.
2. Stir revolutions in the heart.
[The Upsetter is a weekly column exploring music news and pop history from a perspective that is both bewitched and bothered. Here, Andrew Stout will explode the old clich√©s of rock journalism to make room for some new ones.]