Tumbling With Frank Ocean


Reconciling groundbreaking contemporary art with the mother of all contemporary distractions.

Frank Ocean changed his name from Lonny Breaux because he was inspired by Frank Sinatra and the original Ocean’s Eleven, of which Sinatra was a star. It’s a powerful name. Last year I named an iTunes playlist “frank” and part of my brain still insists that this refers to Sinatra, a mainstay in my house growing up, played usually at night, in the tightly clutched hours between dinner and bed. Sinatra’s music could make me feel like I was on the ballroom of a cruise ship, or in the booth of a dimly-lit restaurant sipping a cocktail, never mind that it would be a decade before I would really know the pleasure of a cocktail.

I remember listening to Sinatra at about age nine, and understanding for the first time that a singer’s tone made a musical note sound completely different from another person singing the same note. Sinatra was, in effect, playing an instrument. His voice wrote a new dialect out of a familiar language. I want to say, It takes some balls to appropriate Frank Sinatra’s name, but being a follower of Ocean, mostly via Tumblr, for the past year and a half, the only thing I can really say is, Of course. Ocean, for all his varied artistic aspirations and peripatetic curiosity, doesn’t make big decisions whimsically, and he owns this moniker. I also enjoy Lana Del Rey’s music, but her new name, while reaching for a similar idea, falls short, at least to my ears. “Lana Del Rey” is an atmosphere, and a welcome one, but “Frank Ocean” is a philosophy.

Revisiting distant pages of Frank Ocean’s Tumblr today, reading the blog as a standalone entity, I noticed an old post where he published a picture of his bed accompanied by the caption “where the magic happens.” Today, trying to look at this through fresh eyes, I thought how privileged we are to be at our computers, peering down at the white bed of this big star, and the white walls, and the white nightstand with the couple of tinctures and tiny lamp on it. I didn’t notice many of the elements in the picture the first time around, when the post was just one entertaining thing in a sea of many other things. Now, especially after Sunday’s Grammys performance, which gave us a new (and big) dose of Ocean on which to affix our gaze and imagination, it’s about: Ooh, what does Frank Ocean keep next to his bed?, when before, Where the magic happens was just a joke, and I was glad to scroll through Tumblr and pause on it, and appreciate it.

I started following Frank Ocean on Tumblr not because of his music, exactly, but because his blog reminded me of what I loved about Tumblr. He specifically reminded me of Firmuhment, one of my favorite bloggers, who hasn’t posted in nearly a year, but a few years back, during the so-called heyday of Tumblr, would often scan his handwritten missives and post them as photos. He conveyed a similar avidity about art and humanity as Ocean does, and seemed, like Ocean, to own his wounds, to brave his scars. I followed Ocean because that’s all I want from this crushing wave of information, to get a new understanding of the point of a creative life by experiencing other creative perspectives as I get pummeled by the wave and come up for air (and then presumably get pummeled again). I don’t want to wait for the autobiography of Frank Ocean, and I don’t have to.

As a piece of media that I watch and admire, Frank Ocean’s tumblr is here to stay. But like most, I am forever tweaking, taking away and adding to the list of people and entities that I follow online, feeling always overwhelmed and often anxious that I am missing out on someone or something, big or small, fleeting or long-lasting, that could inspire me. We should not be here, on the Internet, just to watch other people do things. But it’s OK, I think, if the watching is an education for us, nurturing the things that we would like others to watch us do. The trouble is: how do you know what is going to affect you? What will be epiphanic, and what will be a waste of time?

Because of Facebook, I recently discovered the poet Jenny Zhang. I was so bowled over by her that I actually became depressed that I had not known about her sooner. I had to go back through the archives of Rookie, Glimmer Train, and other publications she’s written for, to read her essays, poems and fiction in a big, hungrily consumed clump. But better late than never, and I had to stop and give credit where credit was due. Without this behemoth network, without this steady stream of stuff, I would not have found this very significant morsel of stuff that had an immediate influence on me and probably will continue to for a long time. And, it goes without saying, I would not have found Frank Ocean.

Ocean soaks up art and, to some degree, pop culture, like a sponge, and yet it all seems to stay obediently at the periphery of his vision, waiting to be snatched up to help solve the “math problems” that are his music — or not. He is, of course, a watcher, a “spectator,” to borrow David Foster Wallace’s preferred term for this. Any artist must do some watching; the vision needs some outside sources to inform it. According to Tumblr, Ocean watches, among untold other things, old movies, not-so-old movies, old music videos, cats falling off balconies, and promotional videos about strange vessels. He plays video games and reads biographies of long-dead famous people and republishes the poems of long-dead poets. There is an aspect of his blog that is surely audience-driven, but we don’t know how much is audience-driven, or when it is, and it doesn’t really matter. Recently he took a screenshot of a tweet he almost published, capturing the gnawing self-consciousness that social media causes most of us to feel, regardless of whether we’re followed by two or two million people. But it can feel like such a haven, too. Posts like that, a screenshot of a tweet that never was, are what make it feel like a haven.

Here is a particularly poetic Ocean on modern technology and publicity vs. privacy:

AVOID SURVEILLANCE. EJECT THE DRIVE. reformat them and burn them. employ your memory again. hahaha. yea right. f–k, the age we’re in. if i were a young man in the 70’s i probably would’ve worn bellbottoms too..odds are there’d only be a few personal accounts or a sun burned photo to prove it. to the young human in these times..mind your silhouettes. them shit’s will be high def than a bitch when you’re reminiscing in the future. you couldn’t get off the grid if you tried.

“Mind your silhouettes.”

In a GQ interview with Amy Wallace published in December of last year, Ocean attempted to explain — although why should he have to? — why he published his TextEdit story about his first love on Tumblr in the lead-up to the release of his proper debut, Channel Orange. “If I’m going to say this, I’m going to be better than all you pieces of shit,” he recalled thinking. “What you going to say now? You can’t say, ‘Oh, they’re only listening to him because he said this.’ No, they’re listening to me because I’m gifted, and this project is brilliant.” No doubt he has revised this stance since that interview was conducted; he’s become increasingly urbane as his star has risen. But here’s the stance I want him to take: as a fan, my reading was that nothing could change the fact that Channel Orange was a beautiful and unnerving piece of work, and what was so calculated about a Tumblr confession that described the inspiration for so much of what was on the album? Without the relationship in question, Channel Orange would not exist. Frank Ocean would not be the same, nor as fully-formed an artist. When he was first starting out as a songwriter in L.A., he told Wallace:

I had to elevate. I was looking at it like an athlete then — like I just wanted to be better than everybody else. I hadn’t gone through anything emotionally yet. I had never been in love. I had never been heartbroken. When that happened, that’s really what changed everything. That turned me into a real artist. It made the difference between somebody hearing something of mine and being like, “Wow, this is a fresh approach,” and somebody hearing something and crying, you know?

Even the title of the album was inspired by that relationship, as he told his Tumblr followers last year. The Tumblr confession was a conduit to people’s discovery of the album and Frank Ocean in general, just like Twitter was a conduit to you discovering this article on Thought Catalog. The content of the conduit was love. It’s unfortunate that the hoopla surrounding the post had to do with, as the New York Times Magazine calls it, “pronouns.” But this is where we are. The confession was something to be applauded and speculated over, not accepted as what it simply was — an expression (in the more scientific sense of the word) of love. Catharsis, to which the soothing blue-gray world of Tumblr can be so welcoming.

Ocean lives in Los Angeles, at least for now, and has for the past seven years. He has said it was not meant to be a permanent move. I relate to this, the feeling of getting dropped into a big American metropolis by long-established forces. A big American metropolis seem like the “easiest” place to do what artists want to do. But Ocean’s Los Angeles and its surroundings, a growing body of words and audiovisuals that he’s not always responsible for (some of it is photos included in magazine profiles, for example, or photo outtakes from video shoots, but a lot of it does seem to end up on his Tumblr), is one of my favorite depictions of the city.

One photo might show him sitting on top of the city on a typically hot, smoggy day, the light impossibly white, and no other signs of life visible save for Ocean, off in the background. Another post might be a grainy video of Ocean performing a ditty at a small keyboard in his spartan bedroom. The city is a highly industrious place and a place almost defined, at least by outsiders, by its weather, by what Ocean has called “menacing sunshine,” but it can feel so peaceful, so still, so quiet, and so pleasantly haunted by the many iconic things that have come to fruition there, on a lot, or up in the hills somewhere, or in a basement studio, or a bedroom out of sight. As the musician Julia Holter said last year in an interview with Pitchfork:

One of the things I love about L.A. is its mysteriousness. Someone might be doing something great next door to you, but you have no idea because it’s full of all these enclaves. It might seem like a bad thing, but to me, it’s nice because people have space to really be themselves.

After the release of his mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA., Ocean’s Tumblr had a way of hinting that he was up to “something great” in his lonely house in Beverly Hills accrued with money from a few years of songwriting and producing. It’s hard to imagine Holter, who grew up in L.A., scrolling through Tumblr as she worked on her also-brilliant 2012 album Ekstasis. But she probably did. The Internet is, of course, a conduit to the great work that has come before us, and the great work that is happening right now in enclaves all over the planet. As Ocean, a 25-year-old raised on Google and social media, said to GQ:

I never think about myself as an artist working in this time. I think about it in macro. I feel like Elton John just made “Tiny Dancer.” He just made that shit like last night. Jimi Hendrix just burned his fucking guitar onstage. Right? Freddie Mercury just had the half mike stand in his hand in the fucking stadium. Prince was just on the mountain in “Under the Cherry Moon.” And I was there. That’s how I look at it. Like this shit just went down. You see the mastery that I’m surrounded by? How on earth am I going to take the easiest way?

And that is a totally invigorating way of describing what it means to be a millenial.

When Ocean talked more with Wallace about his Tumblr confession, he addressed the fact that people in the music industry might have advised him not to make the confession, had he bothered to ask them their opinions. He responded that, sure, he could just “keep dating girls.” But:

There’s so much upkeep on that shit. So much upkeep on a lie.

And there’s so much upkeep on an image. Crafting and maintaining an image today no doubt feels just as exasperating, but hopefully never as painful, as keeping up a lie. But because of social media, because of the fact that he mostly likes social media, Ocean can be his own spokesperson. There is no speaking “through a publicist” in Ocean’s world. It seems like additional work, but is it work if it happens to feed his actual work — the art? If it feeds his work there is no net loss. Loss only comes when haters and the perpetually starved online version of the media, spoiled by the amount of Ocean that Ocean is giving us, decide to push him over the edge for the sake of pageviews. A mere phrase posted to Tumblr by Frank Ocean, or Grimes, or whoever, is, embarrassingly, newsmaking in 2013. There’s a simple solution to that: stick to the primary sources. They’ll do more for us than spin ever will.

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image – [YouTube]