Music Fridays: Frank Ocean Comes Out
For new Raw Story readers, a quick rundown on what Music Fridays are: The main thing is we have a party on Turntable.fm called Panda Party. All comers are welcome, and if you follow the rules, you are totally allowed to DJ! Anyone who likes music can DJ in Turntable; if you’re new to the (totally free) service, read the FAQ here.
Every Friday, this is what we do; I post an “come join Panda Party” post, and a bunch of folks come join. Some DJ and some don’t, but just hang out and listen to the music. The idea is to create a fun time to welcome the weekend that doesn’t interfere overmuch with our work time; we all got jobs to do, but we can all take a few seconds to pick a song or, if we don’t have that much time, vote for whether we like a song or not. Or even just sit in there AFK and enjoy the badass tunes picked by myself and Pandagon readers.
If I’m busy, I’ll often just toss up a link to the Panda Party and a video, but sometimes I do those things and also add a rant. If it has musical accompaniment, that is. Which—you’re in luck!—is totally the way it’s going to roll today.
The big national news this week in gay rights is that Anderson Cooper came out, but in my rarely-humble opinion, that coming out was utterly trumped by Frank Ocean’s coming out. This is for many reasons, including the fact that while Cooper is a pretty good anchor/journalist, Ocean is a straight-up genius, and so way more interesting to me. But it’s also the way they came out. Cooper was basically out; I was genuinely surprised that he wasn’t considered officially “out”, since he has lived openly as a gay man all this time. Apparently, I wasn’t aware that there was an extra level of coming out still required, and the surprised reaction of a lot of people nationwide still makes it clear that in much of the country, you’re sadly assumed straight until proven otherwise. Cooper’s explanation for why he was still officially closeted was a lot of frankly tedious references to “privacy”, which, while understandable due to homophobia, still grates because no one ever conceals that they have a straight marriage out of concerns about “privacy”.
Ocean, on the other hand, did something I’d actually say is unprecedented. Instead of coming out in the standard way, he wrote a touching blog post about the experience of falling in love with a man, who incidentally played him, but that part is basically irrelevant to the nuclear bomb that is the revelation that Ocean unabashedly loved and lusted after a man. Ocean didn’t own an identity. While much of the media had responded to this by calling him gay, it’s also possible that he’s bisexual or identifies as straight but had this single experience of same-sex passion.*
This is big not just because Ocean actually gave some shape and color to the experience of having same-sex desires that are strong enough to put you in an oppressed class, however. It’s also that he’s part of the hip-hop collective Odd Future, which is known for turning up the volume on pretty much all the tropes of gangsta rap, including the misogyny and homophobia. Despite all the talk in hip-hop about keeping it real, the art form has always been especially performative. Take, for instance, Dr. Dre’s career before he remade himself as a basically one of originators of gangsta rap with NWA.
The point isn’t to make fun of or embarrass Dr. Dre, who was a massive influence on my musical maturation process.(Plus, he spins some hot beats in that video.) The point is that embracing the “gangsta” persona wasn’t an expression of his authentic self, but a persona he put on to make an artistic statement and probably to sell some records. In fact, most gangsta rappers aren’t as hard as they pretend to be, and unfortunately, efforts to make the whole thing more authentic in the 90s ended in the tragic deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. Which, in turn, caused the hip-hop community to scale back dramatically on authenticity wars and especially on escalating beef beyond dissing each other in raps. The point was always to sell more records, not get people killed.
Odd Future repulses me, I’ll admit. I’m older and more sensitive than I was in the days when Snoop was saying that it “ain’t no fun” if his homies “don’t get none”, with strong implications of gang rape behind the lyrics. But I’ve been a hip-hop fan for a long time and know that the whole point of much of it is to act like you’re tougher and more masculine than you are. In fact, one of the reasons the Beastie Boys had a long recanting period about their misogynist and homophobic lyrics was that when they said those things, they were playing a part and had no idea that other people would take it seriously, as if it were reality. That realization caused them not only to drop misogynist lyrics from their raps, but to openly rap against misogyny.
I hope that Frank Ocean’s coming out—as gay, bi, or straight-but-not rigid—opens doors real wide to talk about not just sexual orientation and tolerance, but the problem of performing roles that are not us but we sell as “real” to sell records. To his credit, Ocean’s solo stuff has never been performatively heterosexual; in fact, one reason rumors flew around about him is that he switches pronouns when describing romantic partners in his songs
Also, he’s a fucking genius. R&B is a genre that struggles a lot, and has struggled to find its place in a world ruled by hip-hop and dance music. Ocean’s music reminds us that it can be the music that takes us back to our roots, reminds us with finely honed melodies about the heart beating under that hard exterior.
So come join us in Panda Party! After checking out Oceans’ genius.**
*This is my story, too. I had a brief, wrenching affair with a woman as a young woman, but have only been interested in men before and since, and so I identify as straight.
**I’ll say it right now; gays and lesbians are overrepresented in the annals of music genius. If you ever doubt it, ask me and I can prove it. I suspect music just straight up attracts creative outsiders.