Aug 10, 2016

Editorial: #FrankOcean is the new J.D. Salinger; A Niles P. Joint

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By now you’ve heard that Frank Ocean has once again let a (reported) release date for his astronomically anticipated sophomore album Boys Don’t Cry come and go without a release or even an explanation.  Naturally the internet caught fire. A torrent of angry tweets and statuses, memes, and thinkpieces came out of the woodwork, most forgettable.  One of the better ones from The Atlantic compared Ocean’s being a supposed recluse to Harper Lee, the author of the classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird.  Basically both released classic art and disappeared, much to the chagrin of their fans.  It was an interesting theory and had its merits, but didn't quite fit.   After watching an excellent & eponymous documentary via Netflix, I’m convinced that Frank Ocean is the new, musical version of author J.D. Salinger.  

Their stories are remarkably similar to a point.  After some smaller works (mixtapes & guest appearances for Ocean & short stories for Salinger), they released their modern day masterpieces.  Ocean’s was his 2012 debut album Channel Orange & Salinger of course had The Catcher in the Rye.  While the former isn’t a strict allegory for the latter, they explore similar themes.  The novel’s protagonist Holden Caulfield is the son of a lawyer at his fourth boarding school and financially leading the Sweet Life.  Instead he detests his fellow Super Rich Kids “with nothing but fake friends” as phoniness is a pet peeve.  He has an encounter with a sex worker, although not one that works at the Pyramid(s).  Shortly after, he ponders theology but essentially deems it Bad Religion.  Elsewhere, both works talk about existentialism, loneliness, & unrequited love as beautifully and as masterfully as you could hope for.

It’s no surprise that Salinger and Ocean received universal acclaim for
their respective creations.  How they dealt with it after is where the most important similarities lie.  Both went back to smaller scale projects as the world awaited/demanded full length follow ups.  Over time, they both grew more private and threw themselves into their work headfirst.  Salinger moved up to Cornish, New Hampshire and built a bunker adjacent to his house that was only occupied by him for writing.  Recently, Frank Ocean shared a live video feed that showed him building something in his own bunker.  Fans clamored for their next full length releases, not knowing that their previous ones were a culmination of everything they had went through up to that point in life.  It just wasn’t that simple.  

On top of that, they were perfectionists to the highest order.  You don’t get a Catcher in the Rye or a Channel Orange without being meticulous.  These dudes were operating on their own schedule, projected release dates be damned.  Rumors about Salinger’s vault are almost more legendary than its contents.  Ocean has been said to be working with some of the best and brightest in music for his sophomore album, but no music has been publicly released.  Both artists were also made into somewhat reluctant spokespeople of movements by the outside world.  J.D. Salinger was looked at as a paternal figure by millions of teens who related to his book.  After sharing an open letter via Tumblr in which he spoke about his first (albeit unrequited) love being a man, Frank Ocean was seen as a catalyst for the gay rights movement although he refused to identify as any particular orientation.  

Even more unwanted attention came their way later on.  The infamous Tumblr post had fans and writers alike combing through Channel Orange’s lyrics looking for hints and clues to reveal Ocean’s sexuality.  The fervor almost overshadowed the artistic merit of the album.  Ocean also became the unfortunate target of homophobic punchlines in music and otherwise.  And while The Catcher in the Rye certainly was embraced by angsty teens everywhere, at least three took it to a dark place.  Mark David Chapman used it as inspiration to kill John Lennon.  John Hinckley, Jr. coupled supposed messaged from the novel with an obsession with Jodie Foster in his reasoning behind a Ronald Reagan assassination attempt.  And Robert John Bardo was engrossed in the book when he murdered actress Rebecca Schaeffer.  With all of this happening, how could Ocean and Salinger not be gun shy (no pun intended) about public attention surrounding their art?

This is where the similarities between Frank Ocean and J.D. Salinger come to a fork in the road.  Salinger wrote until he died in 2010.  A trust was set up to dole out his unreleased stories and also bar a movie adaption of Catcher from eve being made.  Prior to his death, his personal life wasn't reclusive as some people made it seem.  He was a private man, aside from a couple of memoirs from his ex girlfriend and his daughter respectively.  Ocean hasn’t been in the public eye too much either, aside from some concerts, an occasional Tumblr post, and a much publicized fistfight with Chris Brown and his cronies.  No one knows much about his personal life as of now, which is probably just how he wants it, and understandably so.

Maybe November 13, 2016, maybe not.

While promotional materials hint at a possible November release date for Boys Don’t Cry, it’s safe to say that no one is holding their breath.  Fans have a sense of entitlement, and get spoiled with high volumes of material including singles, new albums every two years, and many public appearances.  Both men eschewed this in favor of doing things his way, which lead to much mystery but no concrete evidence of much after their seminal works.  They became prisoners of their own brilliance & let their misgivings about fame dictate how their art would be consumed.  J.D. Salinger took his to the grave, as any acclaim he can now receive will be posthumous.  Everyone wants to give Frank Ocean his flowers while he can still smell them.  Hopefully he lets us, but if he decides to hold out forever, there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.  And that’s perfectly fine.  


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