Frank Ocean and pop music's online identity in 2012



Frank Ocean at Lollapalooza
To say Frank Ocean had a great year feels like an understatement. The R&B crooner and Odd Future member is responsible for making one of 2012's most celebrated albums, Channel Orange, which cast a pretty big shadow over pop music that, at times, it felt like Ocean was the only person besides Kendrick Lamar and Chief Keef who released any new music this year. But Ocean didn't just dominate music—he's also responsible for one of the best pieces of music writing.

Ocean inspired plenty of great music writing, but that's not what I'm talking about—Ocean managed to put together some memorable writing work this year outside of penning the lyrics for Channel Orange. As Grantland's Steven Hyden wrote in his "Year in Music" article, "The year's most notable music writing came from non-music critics." Hyden focused on a couple pieces that sparked heated online discussions about the state of the industry: Emily White's NPR post about music ownership and Damon Krukowski's Pitchfork feature on music streaming. Those articles are certainly among the most notable pieces of music writing, but Ocean topped them with a short Tumblr post detailing the first time he fell in love with a man and the confusion and struggle surrounding those feelings.

Given Ocean's fame, that article went viral shortly after he posted it back in July, and it launched countless think pieces about sexuality in popular music—specifically hip-hop, which is confusing considering Ocean isn't a rapper. Notability aside, Ocean's writing is as touching and heartfelt as his music, and his post is worth a read. Many news stories about this particular post stuck to reporting the basic content of Ocean's announcement and glossed over certain other details, namely the writing program Ocean used for the piece—TextEdit.

Ocean's post is peculiar because of its formatting: it's a screen shot of the TextEdit file in which he unloaded his thoughts and feelings about his sexuality for all the world to see. While it's odd that Ocean didn't just copy and paste those words directly into his Tumblr, there's something to be said about his posting method and use of TextEdit. As a word processor TextEdit is as simple, clean, and easy to use as, well, Tumblr—it's unburdened by all the annoying formatting bells and whistles of, say, Microsoft Word—the writing experience is just about putting the words on the page. TextEdit is a great tool for creating that first draft of a blog post or a feature, or just recording the idea for any piece of writing, long before all the hyperlinks and edits come into the picture. (Full disclosure: I wrote this post using the program.)

With that in mind, TextEdit can also be seen as the one computer program that comes the closest to being a private analog diary. TextEdit's format encourages users to fill the white block of space without a filter, no matter how raw and personal it is. Frank Ocean's words about his sexuality are certainly personal, and his choice to express himself using TextEdit and publish an image of that file underscores the point that he's writing with complete sincerity.

Ocean's actions stands in marked contrast to Michael Brutsch, aka (former) Reddit user Violentacrez, the man Gawker called the biggest troll on the Web. Before Gawker revealed his identity, Brutsch was infamous for creating and moderating a slew of controversial subreddits that hinged on upsetting people. Brutsch is obviously an extreme example of how people use technology. And using anonymity to create, well, anything, is hardly novel: pop music has long been home to folks who create music under the guise of anonymity, closely guard aspects of their private lives, or craft a public persona that's distinctly separate from their identity. Take the final chapter of Noisy's excellent documentary on three solo black-metal musicians, One Man Metal, which begins with the musicians behind Striborg, Leviathan, and Xasthur discussing corpse paint.

Jef Whitehead, who makes evil-sounding music as Leviathan, said it best: "The whole thing of wearing the corpse paint, it helps me remove the human factor." All three musicians featured in One Man Metal are known for keeping nearly everything about their personal lives as private as possible, letting their music speak loudly for their public personas, which hasn't necessarily gone well for Whitehead. When the news broke that he allegedly assaulted his then-girlfriend in a Chicago tattoo parlor last year, the online metal community churned out some pretty nasty rumors about the incident. (In June Whitehead received two years probation and time served after a Cook County judge found him guilty of one count of aggravated domestic battery.) While Whitehead sounds demonic on Leviathan, his time in One Man Metal proves that the project doesn't account for his entire personality—out of all three interviewees in the series, Whitehead opens up the most about the difficulties he weathered in life. He sounds vulnerable throughout the documentary, which teases out the "human factor" behind a musician who has long been so guarded.

Most musicians aren't nearly as reserved as Whitehead, but in an age where people are encouraged to share every intimate detail of their lives via social-networking sites, it's given some artists precedence to manufacture their own opulent images. Riff Raff in particular has carved out an outsized persona that largely defines online celebrity—someone who is famous in part because they say they're famous—and has created a body of work that's let him evade the kind of authenticity arguments that have dogged others (Lana del Rey, anyone?). Which makes Frank Ocean's Tumblr post all the more remarkable, because he put himself out there in a way that most people, famous or not, might never consider doing.

Add a comment