Trees fall in empty forests, headliners ghost at Coachella — which means Frank Ocean’s controversial absence from the annual California music festival’s second weekend has produced an eerie Monday morning silence worthy of contemplation whether we like it or not.
Festival-goers undoubtedly felt ripped-off, but strangely, fans at home might have felt seen. That’s because Ocean has become the voice of a generation that does not want to be here — the tacit leader of a superstar choir that now includes SZA, Justin Bieber, Rihanna and Adele. In a world that feels increasingly big and overwhelmingly ugly, these are top-tier stars who keep signaling that fame in the social media age amounts to a merciless and alienating negotiation of mob-desire that ultimately severs any connection an artist might feel to the musical cultures and communities that initially formed them. Pop stardom used to mean eternal life. Now it’s a life sentence.
And while multimillionaires need not be pitied, it’s neither too tidy nor too long of a stretch to assume that young people identify with these plights in a heavy and legitimate way. If you’re younger than 30, you’re inheriting a planet beset with self-inflicted violence and ecological ruin. Musicians of previous generations preached progress and uplift, but nobody seems to have heard them. Remember that amazing quote that Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth wrote in her memoir? “People pay money to see others believe in themselves.” Now, people pay money to relate to hyper-famous human beings who occasionally don’t. The generational pendulum swings. It’s sad. But it’s real.
Which isn’t to say that Ocean should be excused for his vanishing act on Sunday night. But his foul wasn’t quitting. It was booking the gig in the first place. Coachella was his first public performance in six years, which means, at this point, his entire mien is more defined by his absences and ambiguities than his presence. Traditionally, we turn to pop songs in hopes of amplifying and clarifying our emotions, but in a Frank Ocean ballad, the emotions stay smudged. How would staging a spectacle in the California desert have served that kind of art? Does Ocean fortify and consecrate his work by refusing to put more of it into the world?
Here’s what I mean: Unable to live-stream a multisensory comeback concert on Sunday night, I listened to his sophomore album, “Blonde,” which I remember feeling so slippery, so foggy, so sodden with mystique when it first dropped in 2016. But all these years later, it sounded clear. Ocean’s conjoined sense of melody and phrasing felt more distinctive. The ambiguities in his lyrics and his songforms felt more magnetic. Had these silent years strengthened the music’s contours, the way negative space defines a shape? It all felt so poetic and perverse. Frank Ocean chose to stay home on Sunday night, and if you did, too, everything might have sounded better than ever.