The Haunted Hallucinations of Frank Ocean

The real opposite of nostalgia is psychedelic, the reverse of remembering is hallucinating…

This line, from Leslie Fiedler’s 1968 book The Return of the Vanishing American, is on my mind constantly at the moment. I’ve been trying to process it and explain — for my own confused self — how and why Fiedler’s dichotomy is nowhere near as clear cut these days. I’m coming back to it again and again in my blog drafts.

Fiedler is talking about nostalgia and hallucination in relation to the New Western or “Acid Western”. For America, the Wild West has always been a genre-space for thinking about itself and its values but, in the 1960s and ’70s, when America seemed to be undergoing a major transformation in consciousness, the standards of the Western did too. They weren’t rememberings of a fictional past anymore but hallucinations of a still-shifting frontier.

It’s hard to see this same process today but I’m certain it’s still out there. We can think about the hauntological musics of Burial, Lee Gamble, The Caretaker and others, with their distinctly oneiric qualities, which aren’t just false memories of music’s past or visions of its degradation in the present but dreams of an emergent new.

I think we have to be more attuned to these dynamics, clouded in the fog of a melancholic present. We might even start with pop that has been through this fog and has produced some very interesting results.

I thought about this when seeing that Frank Ocean’s 2016 album Blonde had topped Pitchfork‘s recent Best Albums of the 2010s list.

For Doreen St. Félix, who reviews the album for the list, Ocean captures “the whiplash experience of being young” in the United States today. The album’s “slight touches of distortion … call attention to impermanence, the trap of artifice, and, distantly, death.” But it’s not melancholic or nostalgic about moments past. She continues that, for Ocean, perhaps “the whole point of existence is that a dark musing on morality can — and should — be interrupted by soft flesh, a sticky plant, a designer shirt.”

What St. Félix taps into here, I think, is the missed meaning of a track like “Nikes”, most explicitly — a song about a grief for the future.

More often than not — at least according to Genius — “Nikes” is interpreted as a critique of materialism but I don’t see it that way. It’s about our pervasive hunger for the new. New sneakers. New art. New talent. But artists are not as disposal as merchandise. Or, at least, they shouldn’t be. Nevertheless, it’s a desire built — materialistically — into the culture, but it’s a culture in which the youth is also dying. The roll call of RIPs is contrasted, later, by the declaration that: “We gon’ see the future first / Living so the last night feels like a past life.”

It’s a theme that continues on my favourite track from the album, “Nights”. A line like “Did you call me from a séance? / You are from my past life” slides into talk of quaaludes, new beginnings and cheap marijuana vacations. Hauntings and hallucinations slide past each other and confuse present perspectives.

It’s gothic, almost by definition. As we, in the present, shift into a new temporality, both past and future are disturbed. Frank Ocean, on Blonde, seems disorientated by the whole thing, even whilst assured of his necessary direction.

The entire album is underpinned by this melancholic psychedelia and this “whiplash experience” that I think defines contemporary culture at large — I might write about my personal favourite example of this from the last decade at a later date — but I also think it’s so frequently misunderstood.

There’s an excellent example of how it is misunderstood to be found elsewhere on Pitchfork today, in an article about Ocean’s attempt to open up a queer-conscious club night in New York.

Prior examples of cultural whiplash — related to the building of a future whilst you watch it die around you — are evidently not lost on Frank Ocean and so, to me, if any megastar was to open up a club night for a queer cause, he’s it. But he was also bound to ruffle some feathers — these things always do.

Jesse Dorris’s review of the night for Pitchfork seems conflicted about this and it is a review that I think is suffering from whiplash itself. He introduces the night as follows:

Imagine if in 1985, instead of acknowledging the existence of AIDS for the first time, President Reagan had announced the discovery of the preventative drug PrEP. Imagine if, as a result of taking it, many of the greatest artists of the late 20th century had lived to see the new millennium. […]

A press release announced that the events would pay “homage to what could have been of the 1980s NYC club scene if the drug … had been invented in that era.” […] Would Ocean’s party be an orgy … where PrEP was sold at the bar instead of vodka sodas, on the dancefloor instead of MDMA? Would he perform, surrounded by survivors of the plague years? Would there be merch?

The answer to all this was no. The reality was, he asked some people to play some music in the basement of the Knockdown Center, a snazzy Queens venue-compound just north of Bushwick. If you had to ask how to get a ticket, you weren’t getting one.

After reviewing a night that — albeit exclusive — sounds like an amazing time, with appearances from Ocean himself and UK queen of jungle Sherelle, Dorris pulls back. French duo Justice headlining the night seems to undo everything that came before them. He continues:

Today, responding to suspicion of the motives and funding for the PrEP+ party, Ocean posted on Tumblr, criticizing the pricing and lack of awareness of the drug. “I’m an artist, it’s core to my job to imagine realities that don’t necessarily exist and it’s a joy to,” he wrote. But hundreds of thousands of visionary queers and weirdo prodigies and casual romancers and hunks and femmes and dykes and people trapped in the closet and those who could never even fit inside one didn’t die just so we could stand at an exclusive party and listen to straight people play Buffalo Springfield. The living, and the dead, deserve better.

Whatever you think of Justice, I don’t get the negativity here. I can’t think of a better person to represent the future of queer DJ culture than Sherelle who has blown up here since her Boiler Room set from earlier in the year went viral. Seeing her invited to the US by someone like Ocean provokes a distinct sense of pride in what this country has been doing recently. And, of course, Ocean himself being present as perhaps the biggest openly queer person in hip hop doesn’t hurt.

Surely, for the most part, this is better than what the 1980s had in terms of representation, collective consciousness and hope? Let’s not forget that nights at the Loft were often exclusive and, shy of raising the dead, at least Ocean put a sexual crisis at the night’s heart rather than replicate the Madonna zones that DJ Sprinkles once called “the decontextualized, reified, corporatized, liberalized, neutralized, asexualized, re-genderized pop reflection of this dance floor’s reality!”

Perhaps Ocean’s night wasn’t a complete rebuttal of that old critique but, with that kind of dancefloor in mind, Pitchfork seems like a pretty fragile-looking glass house from which to throw stones about not doing subcultures justice (no pun intended).

But this post isn’t some Frank Ocean defence that no one asked for. I wasn’t there and it’s not like I even knew about this party until the backlash, but Ocean’s own defence does seem to encapsulate the problematics of our present moment perfectly. We need artists “to imagine realities that don’t necessarily exist” and find the joy in process.

We are trapped in a moment of psychedelic nostalgia where politics in particular is determined by a cooked-up nostalgia for a time that never was. On Blonde, Ocean instead mourned lost futures and he did so beautifully, but not every hallucination of a lost future has to be so haunted, does it? Ocean’s night may not wholly live up to the contentious political standards of the present but also it seems that, in this specific case, it was incapable of living up to the expectations of an non-existent past also. And I find that an odd thing to be mad about.

A night about the past that celebrates the present and future is precisely the sort of approach we need, and it certainly sounds better than Dorris’s opening predictions. PrEP orgy with “plague survivors” and merch sounds like a late capitalist horror show. That’s the worst to be expected, surely? How can anyone be disappointed by “he asked some people to play some music”? Collective joy in the orbit of a drug like PrEP seems like as good a night as any.

What’s ironic about this, of course, is that Ocean seems to be attempting an escape from the deadlock of the decade that Pitchfork thinks he has defined. I reckon it’d be better for all of us and the decade ahead if they’d just let him.


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