The twenty-four year old crooner and rapper Frank Ocean is a bonny lad with a honey voice. One does not care to hear a single word said against him, and there should be the most remorseless conformity in paying tribute to his latest LP, Channel Orange, which yesterday registered a virtually unprecedented 9.5 on Pitchfork Media’s Richter scale. Millions of people will invite Frank Ocean’s voice into their lives and homes; we will spend the summer learning everything about Channel Orange as if it was a beautiful new friend.
But to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of Frank Ocean’s homosexuality are greatly exaggerated. Earlier in the month, on Independence Day no less, the New Orleans singer-songwriter was forced to address escalating rumours that Channel Orange would contain openly homosexual lyrics. With journalists tapping at the closet door, Ocean released a draft of the “thank you” sleeve notes from Channel Orange, which confessed that his “first love” was for another man. This “coming out” was, from the offset, an exercise in damage limitation. Ocean reasoned that, “with all the rumors going round.. i figured it’d be good to clarify…,” but Ocean’s sexuality is not so much clarified as skilfully mystified.
In his beautifully but shrewdly written deposition, which is like a contract of homosexuality that is full of loopholes, Ocean seems to admit that he is “not yet” able to truly love women. He describes his apparently celibate “first love” with another teenaged boy, but he claims that this passion was “malignant” and “hopeless,” and that it was too delicate to belong in this world. He tried to speak openly about his feelings to his beloved, only to have his love kindly repelled. Years later, his beloved confessed his own “feelings” for Ocean, although it is artfully unclear from the consequent “peculiar friendship” what those feelings were.
The old tunes are the best. Morrissey wore his weary celibacy like a fabulous sequinned costume. Kurt Cobain once said that he would have probably been gay if he had never met Courtney Love, which is hardly the greatest tribute to womankind. The “you” in Michael Stipe’s lyrics was pointedly neither male nor female. Meanwhile, “urban” music has emerged from this sensation looking, frankly, ridiculous.
It is almost as if contemporary urban musicians have together accepted that they have a similar problem to Britain’s Conservative Party of twenty years ago, perhaps with Ocean as the RnB equivalent of Michael Portillo and Eminem as Norman Tebbit. It is indeed “brave” (Johnny Knoxville), “inspirational” (Rita Ora) and an act of “courage” (DJ Drama) for Ocean to agree to go through the excruciating ordeal of having millions of strangers offering him their unwanted congratulations and support; whilst it is equally embarrassing for contemporary celebrities to volunteer to make mandatory public declarations that they are not actually Nazis.
Ocean’s “first love” is initially recognisable as one of those exquisitely tender, pre-sexual teenaged experiences – a folie a deux between intimate boys – but if Ocean has been spared homosexuality, he is left an exile, unable to return home to heterosexuality. His first love has left him demoralised and abandoned on the scrapheap. He gives the general impression of being a chaste and chastened homosexual, only a sentimental gay. Just as Germaine Greer had argued that women repress their libido in order to exist within consumer society, Ocean is now, whether by accident or design, the homosexual eunuch.
Far from being brave, Ocean implicitly concedes that it is unthinkable that he could ever confess that he was openly gay and in a satisfactory gay relationship. Although he may have three sexualities balanced on his head “like steak knives,” the Daily Beast has ruled that, “the fact is, R&B singer Frank Ocean is bisexual.” Even though Ocean has recounted how difficult he finds it to love women, the media has decided upon “bisexual” – a word never once used in his deposition – in order to release a moderate, tasteful dose of otherness, which most consumers of urban music should be able to stomach.
It may be that urban music is still a tyranny of heterosexuality, in which everybody has to tell each other how they are fucking a different woman every night, rather as every Tesco employee has to wear a name badge. But it is actually a twofold threat to such a civilisation for one of its emerging leaders to admit that they are too weak or hopeless to love, rather than that they are merely bisexual. For Ocean professes to be not tearing down barriers or raising himself as a monument, but simply reporting the unspectacular nature of reality as he has found it. There may be more reality in his deposition than in ninety nine per cent of urban music. Life is always difficult; love is always compromised; everything is always embarrassing and painful.