On Independence Day this year, Frank Ocean published a beautiful open letter to the Internet. In it, he claimed allegiance to no sexual orientation and eschewed labels, instead wanting to tell readers about a man he fell desperately in love with, the same man who broke his heart. To be able to pair such candor with a body of work that can sometimes be obtuse and abstract is a luxury we rarely get from our favorite pop stars, and perhaps this is why Ocean’s open letter plucked our heartstrings in such a way that the message resonated long after we stepped away from the computer. To call it a “coming out” would be to diminish the grandeur of such a missive; it would insist that Ocean had been leading a lie of a life before clicking PUBLISH on that fateful Tumblr post. That he published the letter on Independence Day resonates in a few different ways: He was free not only of the constraints of a heteronormative hip-hop culture, but those of an increasingly aggressive LGBT-driven pop culture as well. As liberations go, it — like his own music — was poetic.
So, what do we make of a music marketplace where Ocean is now a pop commodity being traded on his sexuality rather than the integrity of his music? It means that apart from possibly enjoying a substantial sales bump, the singer is going to have to figure out just how much he wants his sexual preferences to shape the audience for his music. Not that there’s any shame in being a queer artist — pop stars like Jake Shears, Rufus Wainwright, Sam Sparro, and Darren Hayes have minted successful careers by working in such a niche. But with such success comes the bigger question: Why shouldn’t talented musicians like Shears, Wainwright, Sparro, and Hayes — and potentially Ocean — get access to the same mainstream music consumers that their heteronormative pop-star peers enjoy?
Part of the problem is the ouroboros of LGBT media culture. It’s a closed circuit that trains its consumers to support a musician because of who he or she has sex with — and not only that, but specifically a media culture that draws distinctions between “coming out” and a one-time confession.
Further, Shears, Wainwright, Sparro, Hayes, and any number of other out pop stars are plying their trade in a pop music culture that’s more fickle than your average Top 40 culture. By being proud and out, they’ve found that they’ve had to ally themselves with the titans of LGBT media institutions and sell their music on such terms. If they choose at any point to flout the conventions of the LGBT media culture, queer artists run the risk of losing its support and, thereby, their main pipelines of distribution to fans.
Suddenly, the quality of a song or album — and Ocean’s channel ORANGE is spectacular in and of itself — seems irrelevant amid endless close reads of the musician’s sexuality. In the wake of the publicity explosion around Ocean’s revelation, we can’t ignore the chain reaction set off by critics and journalists who only determined his music was suitable for further discussion after he disclosed details about his personal life that disrupted the status quo. These writers have certainly exposed Frank Ocean to a different audience over the past few weeks: his name has become an easy invocation for consumers who want to appear progressive, queer-adjacent, and relevant in their listening habits. Over at NPR, Ann Powers has done a great job of picking apart the problematic responses by the media on Ocean’s letter.
But consider this: If we were to listen to channel ORANGE without having knowledge about the mechanics of Ocean’s heart, without having read his open letter, would that change the experience of appreciating his work? Would it alter or invalidate the substance of channel ORANGE? At this moment, Ocean is faced with a unique dilemma. While he’s removed this proverbial boulder from his chest and gained some politically correct listeners, he now he faces the daunting prospect of an audience comprised largely of fans who happened across channel ORANGE not in the pursuit of new music, but because he was identified to them as a brave, new queer artist.
And while Ocean’s been smart enough to shirk labels in interviews, the explosion of coverage around his sexuality may have even bigger reverberations for new artists who are enjoying a little more prominence in its wake by proudly and clearly announcing their own orientation. For example, let’s take a look at New York rapper Le1f, who identifies on his Twitter profile as queer. The merits of his single “Wut” can’t be overstated.
In leading with their personal lives, do artists who are already at a disadvantage when it comes to finding fans run a huge risk in pigeonholing or further alienating themselves when they come out as queer? To call Le1f, “That gay guy whose video has those hot shirtless dudes in Pikachu masks,” would be to cruelly dismiss his skills as an emcee. However, it wouldn’t be outlandish to expect some swath of music consumers — both supporters and detractors — to see things so reductively. After all, Le1f has made his queer identity a cornerstone of his aesthetic, and “Wut” is as steeped in gay camp as it is in geek culture.
However, to pigeonhole Frank Ocean — an artist who has never appealed just to one demographic — as “that gay (or bisexual or queer) Odd Future guy” would be to vastly underestimate his talent. For better or worse, Ocean’s identity is not necessarily at the forefront of his creative output. But after taking in channel ORANGE, we now listen with anxiety. Anxiety that a beautiful body of work by a man who seems destined for stardom could be limited and misunderstood and read solely for homoerotic undertones instead of celebrated for its universal appeal.