For Frank, social media is a tool he can employ to share his music the way he wants to, and pick and choose the aspects of himself he feels are important for his audience to know. He reveals himself on social media methodically so that who he is and his music can be interpreted by his audience; As time passes and you interact with Frank Ocean more through his social media, you learn about who he is as an artist and person, or at least the parts he wants you to know. His career path and complementary use of social media sets an example for independent artists trying to find their way to success, while the specific way he uses his social media demonstrates the fine balance between the good and bad qualities of social media. Furthermore, Frank does use social media, and what he chooses to display reflects the way musicians express their personal lives and beliefs to the world. Frank Ocean exemplifies how a new generation of artists, different than artists from a time without social media, have a different approach to independently rising to stardom, balancing their online presence, and using their platforms to spread messages important to them.
Frank Ocean began his career as a songwriter, someone behind the scenes, sharing his creations without true recognition. After hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and destroyed Lonny Breaux’s (Frank Ocean’s original name) home studio, Frank moved to the West to Los Angeles. He began as a ghostwriter for artists like Justin Bieber, Rihanna, and Beyoncé, and after meeting and working with artist Tyler the Creator and producer Tricky Stewart, he earned a contract with the record label Def Jam. Here he placed his hopes and dreams, but Def Jam simply did not live up to the challenge. Frank found himself caught in a deal with people unwilling to foster the incredible creativity he could bring to the label, and he felt forced to break away and make his album on his own. Inspired by a group of music misfits, Odd Future, Frank constructed an album, Nostalgia, ULTRA.
He self released Nostalgia, ULTRA, taking the internet by storm, and showing Def Jam what he was truly made of, and more significantly, what they missed out on.
With this action, Frank redefined what it meant to be a ‘real’ artist. As Yoh Phillips wrote in his article Road to Artistic Freedom: Frank Ocean’s Journey to Independence, “When Lonny Breaux became Frank Ocean and decided upon a path without assistance, something more than a name changed. The very idea of a traditional career and being under the thumb of a label was thrown away. He knew what it was like to be shelved, tasted the life of an artist trapped, and also saw the power in being an artist who does it alone, independently.” We see this in the world of self production today with the rise of services like SoundCloud, a platform that anyone can access and upload their music to for anyone to view for free. SoundCloud adds an element of officiality to an amateur artist trying to share his or her creations, creating an authentic sharing community like no other. Jenna Wortham, author of NYTimes article If SoundCloud Disappears, What Happens to Its Music Culture?, mentions the stars SoundCloud has generated, “a huge roster of successful artists who first emerged on SoundCloud, including the R.&B. singer Kehlani, the electronic musician Ta-Ha, the pop musician Dylan Brady and the rapper Lil Yachty, to name just a few.” It seems that with a platform like this and the accessibility to streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, people with no opportunities but self-promotion can’t be stopped. Frank Ocean is an example for many, for he knew that with the technology at his fingertips, and the creativity of his talent, he needed no one but himself to achieve the success he had always dreamed of.
On August 20th, 2016 Frank Ocean released his latest album, Blonde. After Channel Orange (Frank’s second album after Nostalgia, ULTRA) the years leading up to Blonde kept his fans on edge, for he released the album after years of hints, teases and various other clues on social-media. Through this process, it becomes clear that Frank knew how to cater his social media to his audience very well, for he repeatedly drew his fans in and kept them wanting more through a masterful use (to learn more about the release process of Blonde read my past post: “Personal Essay”).
With role models like Frank, who have already ‘made it’ using social media for promotion, amateurs look to social media as their path to equivalent success. For example, amateur artist Alyssa Chasing wrote about the role that social media has in the creation of her music for “on Facebook I can share my art updates with friends and family, on Twitter I can share links…on Instagram I can post pictures from my studio and get new fans each day. It’s incredibly easy to put work on the internet and the feedback is instant” (Social Media Is Another Canvas for Millennial Artists). Frank Ocean utilized this tool and so are so many up and coming artists today.
Social media, however, has its downsides as well. When using social media Frank Ocean seems to have realized that keeping a distance from the public is very important; he seeks to continue to build success and profit while maintaining his authentic persona and privacy. After interviewing artists and weighing the good and bad of social media in the music industry today, Zachary Evans, author of online article How Social Media and Mobile Technology Has Changed Music Forever, comments on one of the dark elements of social media’s powerful involvement. He writes that “This marriage with marketing also feels very against the artistic spirit that has always been one of the most compelling aspects of music. When art can’t stand on its own without being sold as worthy of consumption, then it changes the role of the artist in a very dangerous way. While social media can be a fantastic tool for musicians, it can also detract heavily from their time actually being a musician.” Some artists have even opted out of social media use for an attempt at maintaining the authenticity of their music and/or preserving an element of privacy in their lives. Take Beyonce, who didn’t truly join the world of social media until 2012, when she published her first tweet in reference to her new tumblr page. She is one of few who has managed to resist online displays of her life for the most part. Looking at Beyoncé’s lack of social media, Robert Edgar-Hunt, author of The Arena Concert, speculates that her few posts are “projecting authenticity [that] holds out the promise of validating the ‘realness’ of an otherwise untouchable or distant, and so indeed ‘godly,’ person” (The Arena Concert, 283). Frank appears to be playing with this balance between a mysterious and authentic “godly” presence and creating a growing relationship with his fans, reflecting the struggle many artists have with maintaining privacy and distance from their public images.
Whether for a profit or out of genuine sentiment, Frank has had his moments of opening up to fans and the public. He reveals the way that social media has made the music about more than the songs, but about the artists themselves. One of the reasons that fans adore Frank so passionately is because of the incredible intimacy conveyed by his music; Frank hasn’t shared a lot of his life with the world and usually remains very selective and tactical, however, there have been times where he has revealed deeply personal information to match the emotional transparency in his music. In 2012, Frank Ocean posted his open letter onto Tumblr.
In a GQ interview with Amy Wallace, he said that he posted it in response to speculation about the use of male pronouns for the love interests in his lyrics. He did not label his sexuality, or the letter itself, rather simply depicted a relatable story of first love that demonstrated he does, in fact, have interest in male partners. Whatever that implies about his sexuality is up for debate. In the interview he reveals his perspective on exposing himself through social media, saying “I didn’t need to label it for it to have impact. Because people realize everything that I say is so relatable, because when you’re talking about romantic love, both sides in all scenarios feel the same shit. As a writer, as a creator, I’m giving you my experiences. But just take what I give you. You ain’t got to pry beyond that. I’m giving you what I feel like you can feel.” Frank gives what he feels like sharing, but there is an increasing pressure for artists to expose every aspect of their lives to their audiences. Edgar-Hunt conveys how Frank Ocean’s resistance to this pressure is difficult, for “the old models of music dissemination and ownership are seemingly no longer enough for the music industry: the consumer wants to possess the song in a variety of material and immaterial ways…and wants to encounter the singer” (The Arena Concert, 1). Music today goes far beyond what we listen to as audio. We want to feel connected to the artists, in a way that relates to something from their lives that we can see in our own lives.
People adore Frank and find meaning in his every move. A final perspective on Frank’s social media use demonstrates the way musicians today have a larger voice in political and social issues. For example, Frank posted on Tumblr recently that he would provide limited edition merchandise to people who could prove they voted as a way to get people out to vote, writing “P.S. Locations were chosen in states to support specific candidates: Stacey Abrams in Georgia, who if elected would be America’s first black female governor, Andrew Gillum in Florida, who would become the state’s first black governor and Beto O’Rourke who would be the first Democratic senator in Texas in 24 years.”
He is one of a growing number of artists who have used their media platform to exhibit their political stance, recently like these below and many more:
Recently, on November 15th, Frank made his Instagram public; for many of his fans, this was an extraordinary moment. Why did he do it after so many years in privacy? As of now we don’t know, however, some people speculate that he is starting the string of media hints, similar to those which fans followed on the trail to Blonde. Maybe he wants to share more about his personal life or his political views. Either way, fans now feel that they have a larger window into who he really is. He welcomed everyone, knowing that it would be a momentous event for his following with this post:
The distance is now a little smaller from a social media perspective.
Frank Ocean’s music is often considered by many to be especially brilliant and most importantly, genuine, however we must keep in mind the fact that Frank is producing music for an audience and to make a profit. As much as artists genuinely want to be real and authentic, there is always an element of appearance. As Sarah Thornton, author of Club Cultures, claims, “In the case of the youth, the difference between the ‘hip’ and the banal, the honourable and trash cultures tends to correlate with amounts of media exposure – some media legitimate while others popularize, some preserve the esoteric while others are seen to ‘sell out’” (Club Cultures, 164). I urge you, listener of music and fan of euphonic stars, don’t forget that what we see and how we interpret it, as genuine as it may seem, will never reveal a musician’s true intentions. George McKay, author of The Pop Festival, states that “defining the roles that regulate the media, scholars in the fields of cultural studies and social theory have criticized the concept of spectatorship, and indeed essentialist couplings like production/consumption, activity/passivity.” We must turn a critical eye towards the image artists present to us through social media (The Pop Festival, 166).
Frank has shown us the power of social media promotion, the delicate balance that lies between a relationship with fans and privacy, and the ways that artists use social media for agendas messages of their music. That considered, ultimately we will never know how much of an artist’s image is genuine and what is manipulated intentionally for profit. What will always remain is the artist seeking to create and express emotions that words alone won’t allow, and it is up to us to find the beauty and meaning behind it all. Artists today behave differently than previous generations. They fight record labels with platforms like SoundCloud, they share their lives, they hide their lives, they urge us to get socially and politically involved, and they make music. Frank and this new generation of artists are just like anyone who is trying to find a balance between social-media and true self. Social media has brought us closer to artists like Frank Ocean, but maybe not in the way we initially expect. Seeing their families, their beliefs, and their day to day lives puts us in their context, but it is that human struggle for authenticity that we all are facing as the world is increasingly digitized that makes them more relatable than anything else.
Hard Sources Referenced:
Edgar-Hunt, Robert, et al. The Arena Concert: Music, Media and Mass Entertainment. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.
McKay, George. The Pop Festival: History, Music, Media, Culture. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.
Thornton, Sarah. Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Wesleyan University Press, 1996.