Short Note On Frank Ocean
On many weekend mornings at Alli’s house, she makes breakfast and I DJ. I know you’re thinking that this mirrors an extremely careless performance of normative gender roles, but it’s a little more complicated than that. We have developed together a domestic economy, based on passion!, in which duty mirrors the ancient Greek concept of xenia or guest friendship. Essentially, if I’m at her house I’m “the guest,” and everything is done for me. Likewise, when she stays at my apartment, she’s “the guest,” and I do the shopping, the cooking, the cleaning. She DJs.
I am one of those people who suffer so badly from exposure to pop alchemy, plus my own inner dereliction towards obsessive use of glorious pharmaceuticals in whatever form. So certain songs provoke such intense longing in me that I have to listen to them dozens, hundreds of times before they can be digested, processed, exonerated. This weekend Alli made tacos and I played Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion” three times in a row, singing along more insistently each time and desperately trying to mimic Frank’s scream of pain right before the coda. When I bewailed my sorry ability of imitation Alli made fun of my ambition and hubris, “oh, you can’t sing like Frank Ocean?”
Anyway, a few hours later we walked to the bar down the street to watch the Olympics. I’m still singing the last chorus of “Bad Religion” and trying to hit the note of that scream. Alli and I are talking about the song and about what is bad religion and why is it a bad religion. I say that the song is a critique of what is practically a religious experience for modern western subjects, in which the erotic can only be experienced as a lack. The same dysphonic regime of concepts which connects eros (love) and eris (strife) and unites them in symbolically repeated figures. Helen of Troy—but really anybody that anybody is in love with.
So let’s say, then, returning to the world of cultural objects representing absorbed, interiorized norms (whose dominance of the imaginative realm is known as ideology), the troubadours are the illustration par excellence of how this religious notion of love as lack is formalized in the work of art. The forms of love the troubadours glorify are the very ones Ocean pretends to devalorize in “Bad Religion.” The way that love, since love is the rarefaction and recognition of something missing without which one cannot live, makes you want to fucking puke and bend over in the sand to puke. If it brings me to my knees it’s a bad religion.
The way a troubadour might want to divest herself of the sorrows of love with wine. Or you know how Helen feeds Menelaus a potion each night after their reuniting that causes him to forget the major events of his life: war, abduction, seduction. Ocean identifies these pharmaceuticals as the ever-present corollaries to participation in the western love system. Unrequited love to me is nothing but a one man cult. Cyanide in my Styrofoam cup. Love in this system turns wine back into water, it makes fresh air taste like rotten pike, it makes your party a wake.
The irony of course is that “Bad Religion” figures its polemic against the western love system in one of the most traditional and legible forms that representations of the system have ever taken—the lyric plaint. A lyric plaint in this case that alludes to a love that can never be requited. Not formally different than the troubadour standing outside her lady’s window, singing measured, rhyming verses to the little cracks in the shutters. The cracks look down at the troubadour, cluck and shake their heads.
But then irony is one of the excessive effects of love, an emanation from the agitating fault love is. “Cupidity” is the Latin word that comes from the Indo-European root which underlies desire, and it means to froth. It means to roil and jerk. The effects of the frothing, the roiling, the jerking, is that anything can become its opposite. In Neck Ring of the Dove, Ibn Hazm writes, “how often has the miser opened his purse-strings, the scowler relaxed his frown, the coward leapt heroically into the fray, the clod suddenly become sharp-witted, the boor turned into the perfect gentleman, the stinker transformed into an elegant dandy, the sloucher smartened up, the decrepit recaptured his lost youth, the godly gone wild…and all because of love!”
Of course, what “Bad Religion” reiterates is not only the power of love to bring about contradictions, but the logic of unrequital as the logical condition of love. The western love system thinks love is the love of something and if love attains its object it can no longer be love as it no longer lacks what it loves. Imagine Frank Ocean as the impossibly sexy flautist who pipes into the night after the philosophers in the Symposium pass out.
“Bad Religion” lavishly, beautifully demonstrates its inability to transcend the sentence on love, no matter how hard it pleas against it. It exposes the system by how radical it commits to it. And that’s perhaps what that scream at the end means and why I want to scream it with him so badly. Admitting fealty to something you hate. If it brings me to my knees it’s a bad religion. But the song we’re hearing is being sung standing up. Knees grinding in the fabric mats in the back of a cab. Never lacking less because of it.
Brandon Brown is the author of The Persians By Aeschylus, The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, and Flowering Mall. In 2012, his debut play Charles Baudelaire the Vampire Slayer was staged at Small Press Traffic’s Poet’s Theater. He publishes small press materials under the imprint OMG! and lives in Oakland. In...