The Muse (Art & Culture)

“Say What Now?”: Frank Ocean and Separating Lyrical Content from Musicality

Frank Ocean single-handedly generated something like a tidal wave throughout the music world recently after posting a letter on his Tumblr page that detailed his past love for and romantic relationship with another man.

By now, many of us have probably read and/or listened to commentary praising Ocean’s honesty and bravery and analyzing what his confession means for the world of hip hop (commercial hip hop anyway), which is often characterized almost ad nauseum as being offensive to women, hyper and stereotypically masculine, and homophobic. So, acknowledging that Ocean’s “coming out” could indeed have a significant influence on hip hop music and culture, I want to discuss how listening to his new album Channel Orange made me think about how, why, and what the public filters, accepts, and rejects when listening to music.

While listening to Ocean’s album and texting a friend of mine back and forth, I asked him if he had heard the album yet. He said that he hadn’t. I then asked if he was one of those people who had decided to boycott the album due to Frank’s “revelation.” He said that he wasn’t, but that he would have to be “selective”  about which songs he listened to on the album. When I asked what he meant by that and why, he explained that he did not want to listen to a guy sing about another guy.

Ironically, at that point in the conversation, I had just finished listening to the song “Forrest Gump,” a song which is clearly directed towards another man and uses affectionate terms like “boy.” To be perfectly honest, although I support the right for same-sex couples to feel, love, and act however they want, I was initially taken aback upon first hearing the song. I had honestly never heard anything like it before–a man singing a romantic love song for another man.

However, the song forced me to think about how same-sex couples typically relate to music. For example, everyone enjoys listening to a good love song that expresses sentiments that they can relate to or even sentiments that they cannot yet relate to but to which they hope to be able to relate some day.

As a black woman, I can’t imagine what life would be like without a classic Mary J. Blige track to cry or sing along to when I need it. Yet, until listening to the “Forrest Gump” song, I never stopped to think about if or how Mary’s use of masculine pronouns like “he,” “his,” or “him” or even terms like “boy” might affect the ability of a lesbian to fully relate to or feel comfortable with the song because that lesbian’s reality was not directly being depicted. The same might be true for a homosexual male who listens to Usher’s Confessions album after a break up. So, while I might have been temporarily unfamiliar or uncomfortable with Frank singing to another man, I realized that this inability to directly relate might be someone else’s constant reality.

Of course, one does not have to be the same gender or sexual orientation as a singer in order to enjoy or relate to a song. When I’m listening to Stevie Wonder sing “My Cherie Amour,” he says “girl” but I can still relate to the sentiment. I might change it to “boy,” if I sing the lyrics out loud, but probably only if I were singing it to someone in particular or to an audience. Otherwise, I’m just appreciating the song and the gender behind the sentiment is not really a big deal.

Yet, my friend argued that he did not want to hear the songs Frank addressed to another man because he did not agree with the content. Still, I wondered, assuming that the problem that he had with Frank’s content was not an ideological one (like opposition to same-sex relationships) then why could he not separate the song’s content from its musicality?

I pointed out that many women separate content from musicality all the time. If we did not, most music would never sell. I choose to believe that many, if not most, women do not agree with, cannot relate to, or do not support songs that say “Shawty dance like a video vixen/Said her man be on that bull**** pimpin”” or even ones that say “Ladies, if you love your man, show him you the flyest/grind up on it, girl, show him how you ride it,” but they like the song.

Regardless of whether that’s a good thing or not, they like the beat, the sentiments that express their current mood, or whatever. They separate the content from the musicality. A song is a song and they can appreciate its different elements separately, whether they agree with all of them or not. So what makes listening to Frank Ocean singing about another man different? My friend argues that women are just naturally more accepting of musical content that they don’t personally support, but are we really? And, if so, why is that?

Challenging homophobia in hip hop (and media and art in general) can open doors for challenging all forms of gender-based oppression, like patriarchy and misogyny, if we learn to make positive and conscious decisions about our representations of ourselves, and most importantly one another. Just as listening to the Channel Orange album forced me to consider how same-sex couples respond to their relative omission from much of media and art, maybe the consideration of these other viewpoints can finally lead to some changes in the representations of women and other minority groups in these artistic arenas and in society in general.

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2 thoughts on ““Say What Now?”: Frank Ocean and Separating Lyrical Content from Musicality

  1. I am not unlike your friend you refer to in this article. As I don’t ever remember having this convo with you yet, I’m 99% sure you’re referring to someone of a similar opinion to me. I agree with everything you’ve said and can’t wait to discuss this with you during our next conversation.

    With that said, speaking only for myself I can say that growing up heterosexual and black in the SF Bay Area, despite having gay relatives I harbored a lot of relatively innate homophobia as I could not understand what could possess someone to not enjoy the kind of sex I would enjoy as I got older. I was very child like in that mentality. Anything not like me was “too different” to appeal to me. As I’ve grown up and matured mentally, I realized how pompous that mentality was and grew to be nearly completely accepting of all gays (even gays can be bad people sometimes. Though they tend to be friendlier on average. Haha).

    This Frank Ocean situation should be the catalyst for a necessary evolution of Hip-Hop culture. The uncomfortability (highly unlikely this is even a word. If it isn’t officially, I’m making it one henceforth) of young black men such as myself have for some of Frank’s music is do to not being comfortable with the visualization of homosexual male sex. I can’t speak for all of us but I’m a listener that visualizes music the way art lovers “visualize” other sensory details of their favorite works. While I’m comfortable enough in my sexuality to hear a song of his about another man and not be offended by it, it is still unusual for me (the individual typing all of this) to be listening to a song about the male artist’s masculine amore. Women are usually much more accepting of these things because they chose to be insecure over more “important” things, like looks. Haha.

    Although I can listen to his music with no qualms I can’t fault the many young men who can’t. I only hope their growth and maturity concerning homosexual people eventually rivals that of my own.

    Long winded? Yes. Real? Definitely. I’m just a opinionated Shout Gangsta that was inspired by an incredible writer to type.

    • I can definitely understand and appreciate evolution. It’s necessary. And thank you, SG, I appreciate your support and I’m glad to know my words moved you to respond. That is the greatest compliment there is.

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