Last year’s Grammys really spoiled us. Though the death of Whitney Houston cast a certain somber pall over the entirety of the evening, there was a clear narrative that emerged from the show’s proceedings: Adele has arrived as a superstar who will be around for a long time and whose work is as close to bulletproof—both critically and commercially—as it can get. It was an easy story to digest, and all Adele had to do was show up and act gracious (the fact that she was singing in America for the first time since throat surgery helped the narrative, too).
Last night’s show offered no such clarity. The winners were scattershot (the Black Keys took home the most awards of the night, though they didn’t win any of the Big Three—Record, Song, or Album of the Year), and just about everybody walked out of the Staples Center roughly as big as they were when they walked in. There were no clear moments of ascendence, though Justin Timberlake, the Lumineers, and fun. are all getting iTunes sales bumps today.
In fact, this year’s Grammy Awards were perhaps most notable for something that didn’t happen: The elevation of Frank Ocean from modestly successful critical darling to full-blown superstar.
A few weeks ago, I took a look at Ocean’s rise to fame and the success of Channel Orange, told through the eyes of his peers and collaborators. To a person, everybody believed that Ocean’s six nominations—tied for the most of any artist—was validation from the Grammy voters that Ocean belonged in music’s top tier. And while Ocean now has two tiny gramophones for his mantle (one for Best Urban Contemporary Album, the other as part of the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration prize), he didn’t win any of the big prizes either (nor did he take home the award for Best New Artist, which instead went to fun.). Both of those awards, however, were given out during the broadcast, which gave Ocean two opportunities to wow the crowd with his wit. As this recent New York Times Magazine profile proves, Ocean is a fascinating and sometimes difficult subject, and his lyrics prove he has strong opinions and a desire to express them. But both times he took the microphone to accept an award, he folded within himself and quickly shuttled himself off.
But anybody can be thrown off by the surprise of winning an award, and perhaps Ocean’s shyness overcame his ability to handle a crowd in a high-profile moment. (Or maybe Chris Brown’s refusal to stand made him tense.) No matter, as Ocean still had the chance to blow away the home viewing audience of 28 million people (nearly 50 times as many people who have purchased Channel Orange).
Instead, Ocean made the inexplicable decision to perform “Forrest Gump” during his time on stage. The visual component of the song was pretty neat, but the performance on the whole left a lot to be desired. “Forrest Gump” isn’t anybody’s favorite song from Channel Orange. Heck, based on his performance, it didn’t seem like Ocean was particularly fond of it either. (He did tweet that he had monitor problems, so it’s possible the technical troubles were throwing him off.) If Ocean really wanted to get people to join him, he should be playing “Crack Rock” or “Sweet Life” or “Lost” at every opportunity. Those are immediate songs that, while still seemingly from a parallel dimension, more closely resemble the roots from which Ocean’s sound grows.
It’s almost as though the selection of “Forrest Gump” and his anti-charisma during his speeches was a thoroughly constructed series of choices, which brings up an interesting point that got brought up during my research for the Ocean story. Two people, independent of one another, compared Ocean to Kurt Cobain. They weren’t calling him a heroin-addicted manic depressive, they were comparing him to another unique artist with a previously-unheard voice and an interesting way of twisting familiar songwriting tropes into something entirely new. Cobain used the fundamentals of punk and hard rock for his own revolutionary twist, and Ocean deconstructs hip-hop and R&B into a new sound that is some of both but all of neither.
And perhaps Ocean also shares Cobain’s ambivalence about fame. As noted in the piece, nobody is entirely sure what Ocean might be up to next. “Frank’s like the wind, man,” producer Pharrell Williams told me. “There’s no predicting it.” Though it seems counter-intuitive, perhaps Ocean is consciously keeping his audience and exposure small so as not to lose control of his life or his career. In choosing “Forrest Gump,” a particularly spare and esoteric song on an album full of those descriptors, Ocean is forcing would-be admirers to embrace his most difficult side first. It’s not unlike Cobain insisting that Nirvana play “Rape Me” on the MTV Video Music Awards back in 1992. Of course, Cobain ultimately relented and played “Lithium” after a few bars of “Rape Me” (he later got to bust that song out on Saturday Night Live a year later). Ocean stuck to his guns and went weird.
In doing research about Ocean, it became pretty clear that he is in control of his own story, and he’ll maintain control of that tale as long as he can (which is likely why he doesn’t do a whole lot of interviews). He didn’t make his big mainstream breakthrough last night, and it will probably cost him some potential album and singles sales. But he did it his way, on his terms, and if this is exactly as big as Ocean wants to get (and no bigger), then he knew exactly what he was doing. With Ocean, it’s always come as you are.
What did you think of Frank Ocean on the Grammys? Did it seem like a squandered opportunity?
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