By Vincent Kwan
From what I gather, people didn’t really care for Frank Ocean’s Grammy performance. Trying, and occasionally failing, to contort his voice to meet the requisite pitches of “Forrest Gump,” Ocean’s onstage demeanor was equal parts exhausting and disaffected. It’s rare to see someone put in so much effort to be that distant, and for someone with a star as bright, and unique, as Ocean’s, we might expect a transcendence in both personality and performance. While you’d be hard-pressed to make the argument that Ocean’s performance was a good one (as big of a Frank Ocean/Odd Future fan as I am, I don’t think I have even that in me), I will make an argument that his performance should challenge us to think about the way we evaluate artistic merit. Frank Ocean’s Grammy performance wasn’t a misfire: It was a misfit.
The Grammy committee showed it was a step and a half too cute for itself, giving Ocean the go-ahead and forgoing someone like, say, Carly Rae Jepsen. As mentioned on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, a favorite of mine and Erick Brown’s, the gap between critical acclaim and Grammy success is slowly closing. With the legitimacy and viability of its industry in mind, the Grammys has recently heaped praise on what might be termed as “real music,” leaving slick, saccharine pop tunes (i.e. Ms. Jepsen) increasingly by the wayside. The show has had a recent track record of anointing of real instruments (see Mumford and Sons) and real voices (see Adele), even if these real things are wrung through the same musical formula that their “fake,” synthetic counterparts are. But cynicism now meets all things autotuned, while the banjo has ascended to the throne of cultural praise. Toward this end, the Grammy live performances find a renewed importance, showcasing the industry as it desperately wishes to see itself: that behind its layers of veneer, there still exists a core of actual, talented musicians. You might notice that the Grammys frequently goes out of its way to present artists outside of their natural context, creating bizarre artist mash-ups and interesting instrumentation as if to prove that, yes, these people can perform their songs outside of the artifice of the studio.
As someone who has carved out a niche for himself in the realms of sincerity and sensitivity, Frank Ocean might seem an appropriate choice for a winning Grammys performance. Problem is, he’s has never been what you would traditionally consider a good live performer, or at the very least, not a very consistent one. The moments he connects on live television are something to behold , but even then, there’s miles of emotional distance between him and his audience. Given the nature of his music, the remove can be an asset to his performance, but the stars of performer and audience need to align carefully. For entertainers who are known for their charisma and power, good performances are largely a matter of personal effort. For someone like Ocean, a special alchemy of artist and space are required in order for the whole thing to achieve intimacy, rather than reek of disinterest. For this reason, the model of the “sensitive” live performer is far less scalable than the exuberant one, as external considerations matter as much as the performer-driven ones.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Frank didn’t seem very comfortable on stage, and despite news that he wasn’t able to hear his monitors, the larger issue, at least to someone who’s trying to make an argument about it, is that there’s a greater incompatibility between Ocean’s music and the big stage of the Grammys. The first time I heard Frank Ocean was a Youtube clip of “Thinkin’ ‘bout You,” his breakthrough ballad that still has me simping to this day. His falsetto is every bit as piercing, but unlike his live performances, there’s an effortlessness to his voice. Ocean’s lyrics pierce through the digital wilderness, and with the same whirring organs, it leaves as nonchalantly as it comes. “White,” off of the OF Tape, Vol. 2, hits in the same way: a few verses on impermenance delivered by Frank, followed by an instrumental outro that lingers long enough to tease you into thinking he might deliver another verse. Through an electronic medium, Ocean’s songs find a new layer of meaning that doesn’t make the translation to the stage. It’s done as soon as it’s here. In real life, I may feel cheated. On Youtube, I’ll simply click repeat.
The Frank Ocean sound, perfectly packaged into clips that never stay as long or commit as intensely as you may want, is built for the Youtube video, much like that of his associates, Odd Future. It reminds me of when Lana Del Rey’s aimless SNL performance earned her the criticism of everyone from Hipster Runoff to Brian Williams. Neither Del Rey’s persona or her music was ever designed for the television, it was made for you to listen to it through your laptop speakers, over your morning coffee, eventually making you realize you had some shit to think about. For Frank Ocean, Lana Del Rey, and many other artists who’ll grow their celebrity through the internet, we shouldn’t assume their talents will carry over to other mediums, nor should we assume that it was ever meant to be. Given that we consume so much of our music through the internet now, it shouldn’t be a surprise that musicians would tailor their music toward the medium. For all of the criticism Frank Ocean got for the strange monitor of disembodied legs that obscured half his body at the Grammys, it forces us to remember that watching Ocean perform is always done by peering through screens. The music adapts to its distribution, and how it translates to the stages of auditoriums and theaters should not dictate its contained beauty in other, more small mediums.