This Is Not a One Man Cult
“Music is miraculous in that one can say everything in such a way that those in the know can understand it all, and yet one’s own secrets, those which one will not even admit to oneself, remain undivulged.” – Arnold Schoenberg
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It was by chance that I had the TV on late Monday night and caught the television debut of hip-hop artist Frank Ocean. Only half-paying attention, I heard Jimmy Fallon introduce his musical guest. I didn’t have time to process the name before the opening organ chords and the plaintive voice of a scrawny 24 year old drew my rapt attention for the next four minutes. On screen was a man expressing his love for another man – the same man who made news last week for the very same thing.
The blogosphere exploded last week when Frank Ocean posted a note on his Tumblr telling a story, from when he was 19 years old, about the love he felt for close friend. This was big news in the stereotypical masculine and somewhat misogynist hip-hop culture (a culture that Frank Ocean has contributed to in the past). And now, we were given the opportunity to hear the words direct from Ocean himself, singing “Bad Religion” in what was apparently a last-minute move by Fallon’s producers.
But is that what the performance of “Bad Religion” was about? Most of what I’ve read says that it was. I’m not so sure. Granted, the signs are hard to miss, from Ocean “coming out” last week (he never actually said that he’s gay) to the masculine pronouns. But “Bad Religion” is more than a gay love story. It’s about unrequited love, a near-universal emotion found in stories from Greek mythology to Nicholas Sparks movies.
Maybe we should be ecstatic that we heard a young guy declare, “I could never make him love me.” It’s a sentence that, as a gay man, I can relate to, as I’m sure countless other gay men and straight women can. But unreciprocated love isn’t just an emotion felt by gays or women; the pronouns in this song don’t matter. The universality of the message, the passion of the his singing – the melding of a blues and gospel confessional with contemporary hip-hop – that’s what made Ocean’s performance so noteworthy.
I know there are people who will disagree with me. Hell, there’s even a part of me that wants to exclaim, “Yes! A gay hip-hop artist singing about it on television!” and be done with it, QED. It’s a big moment for our nation and culture. But if we can look past the heteronormativeness in nearly every other love song ever written, we can look past the homosexual subtext of “Bad Religion.” We need to. Our society is no longer one where should have strict divides between sexuality, race, or any other cultural markers.
I can’t predict the future or fight cynicism. Maybe Ocean “came out” last week to generate buzz for his album; it’s likely the album won’t remain on top of the iTunes charts for much longer. But I think that on Monday night we saw the debut of an artist breaking away from his band and from behind the scenes of other artists, and reaching out by telling a story full of raw emotion. Doing so he pulled us into his world, and sometimes that’s exactly what we need music performances to do. Am I naïve enough to think that this performance alone will change our perceptions of homosexuality? No. But it was still a great moment to witness.