Frank Ocean, Fringes and Cringes23 February 2018
It’s 2011 and I’m begging the hairdresser to cut my hair in the style dictated by a WikiHow ‘How To Be Emo’ article while my mum looks on in disappointment.
Looking back, it might have been superficial to think that the best way to be recognised as part of a subculture that was literally named after emotions would be through a physical attribute. Yet, long after Myspace, our hair remains a means to make an impression. For many musicians, hair is used as a springboard for discussion on contemporary issues: think embracing natural hair in Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Humble’. But Frank Ocean (my absolute favourite artist ever) approaches from another angle. Keeping the racially charged undertones of the aforementioned musicians, Ocean uses hair to examine whether authentic happiness can exist in our hollow, superficial culture.
Ocean suggests a positive correlation between our material possessions and our sense of self-worth on the song ‘Pyramids’. The artist brags about his and his lover Cleopatra’s awe-inspiring beauty and power in the line, “our skin like bronze, and our hair like cashmere”. Hair is a symbol of status and power; he compares their physical attributes to precious materials to suggest that the characters’ pride is derived from their social status and external appearance rather than internal qualities. In the song’s second half, set in the modern day, Cleopatra has lost both her material status and, in the eyes of society, her dignity—implying that the two are linked.
While nowhere as extreme as Ocean’s allegory, I can relate to the way hair determines an individual’s sense of self-worth through my own experiences growing up in an Indian household. Many of my older, more traditional relatives view long, silky hair as a pillar of feminine beauty and strength—an ideal all girls should strive towards. Indeed, the thick plaits, slick with coconut oil, strikingly resemble powerful ropes capable of supporting such heavy expectations. I felt the weight of everyone’s disappointment whenever I flew home with a utilitarian haircut: strictly above shoulders due to frequent swimming lessons.
While in ‘Pyramids’ hair symbolises the constraints that come with a materialistic lifestyle, on the chart-topping ‘Slide’ Ocean offers an alternative perspective: hair is a catalyst for self-liberation. The 2017 collaboration with Calvin Harris revolves around the hollowness of hedonism, with lyrics scrutinising a subject’s wishes to join a world of meaningless hookups and expensive jewellery. Frank says, “We could dye it all blonde.” It seems shallow that the solution he offers is a physical change: to embrace the traditional connotations of blonde hair—the flashiness, bubbliness and excitement.
Yet in Ocean’s music, the word has loaded significance—he chose to name his second album Blond. Its title has many interpretations, such as allusions to white privilege; in one song, he references Trayvon Martin, a victim of police brutality in the US. However, the most discussion is on what the title actually is. The album seems to have two: Blonde and Blond, a nod to the artist’s bisexuality, a scarcely discussed topic among black, male artists. But Blond gets even more political when we consider the cover art. Ocean, sporting a striking green buzzcut, cradles his head in his hands, as if crying. Maybe he’s jealous of the luxuries white people have in society: LGBTQI+ people of colour face a compounded array of challenges.
The subject in ‘Slide’ craves this dazzling, affluent lifestyle which Ocean refers to across his songs and for which he coins the term (unintentional money pun, sorry) “blonded life”: in ‘Self Control’, he croons, “you cut your hair, but you used to live a blonded life”. Up till now, Ocean has criticised this privileged, blissful lifestyle, yet he seems to mourn for those who renounce it. Why? Perhaps due to its exclusivity; many people wish they were able to enjoy this way of living, but do not have the means or position in society to do so.
But Ocean’s attitude gets more jaded (intentional green pun, sorry) the more he explores the hollowness of our superficial world. He implies that not even affluent people can garner genuine happiness in the long run. In the final line of ‘Golden Girl’, the bonus track on Channel Orange, featured artist Tyler, the Creator is apprehensive about whether the sparkling, lavish world Ocean built earlier in the track will crumble. He raps “hope you don’t turn my neck green”, in reference to both golden necklaces and his “golden girl”— fake or impure gold turns green. The artists hint that while a privileged, superficial lifestyle may seem alluring from the outside, it does not guarantee happiness.
We all keep up these façades. In high school I decided I had had enough of my short hair and grew it out until it reached my lower back. To me, the hair’s length was enough to qualify it as pretty, regardless of its unhealthy state. In every Instagram post, I’d have my hair out in long, Victoria’s Secret–esque waves. The posts couldn’t fool everyone though; my mum, who saw it up close, repeatedly pointed out that it was engulfed by split ends. Oh dear.
Superficiality seems inescapable in our everyday lives. On the aptly named ‘Nikes’, Ocean critiques our unquenchable consumerism. Yet, nestled among the glitter and drugs, he raps, “me and them gel / like twigs with them bangs”, referencing avant-garde singer FKA Twigs’ signature gelled baby-hair bangs. Ocean revels in moments of tactile human connection—gelling together—in a world where so much seems phony and fragmented.
Similarly, my friends and I created a type of intimacy impossible to replicate outside the confines of our college hallway. We were in first year and it was a Friday night: too close to exams to go out, but we were restless. We came up with the genius idea of copying America’s Next Top Model–esque dramatic hair transformations. Sorry Mum: I didn’t want to cop the painful prices of a professional. Giggling and half-running, half-stumbling up and down flights of stairs, we scouted for scissors sharp enough (or, perhaps, edgy enough). For me and my friends, and my precariously wonky bangs, and their precariously wonky bangs, the haircuts were less about our appearance and more about the experience.
Perhaps this is Ocean’s takeaway message. Yes, superficiality is omnipresent nowadays, and yes, some people are able to benefit from society’s shallow nature more than others. Despite this, we can still find our true happiness through our connections with other people and experiences, rather than through objects or appearance.
The plan for the night: pre’s at my room before heading to Boney, then Yah Yah’s and finishing at the kebab place across the road. Muffled rap played softly in the background as anticipation-fuelled guests clutched bottles of cheap wine. We nominated ourselves one by-one, straining our eyes to watch the hair curls drop, laughing and drinking. We were doing something stupid and semi-permanent, yet, the only real consequence was a flurry of compliments the next day: “That’s so bold! I could never pull it off, but you look amazing!” Were they genuinely sincere? But I didn’t care. For me, this was my blonded life.