Cultural Studies – a way of analyzing and understanding cultural texts – allows us to understand media as being “polysemic”, or having multiple meanings (Kellner, 2011, pp 13). Through the methods of political economy, textual analysis, and audience reception, we are able to understand how media texts are political and extremely influential in our collective understanding of the world and our experiences (Kellner, 2011, pp. 10). The specific media text at hand is channel ORANGE, an album written and performed by DefJam recording artist Frank Ocean. By employing methods of Cultural Studies, I hope to illuminate the multitude of ways that we can understand and make meaning of the messages in channel ORANGE. Through a textual analysis of several key songs on channel ORANGE, I will argue that Frank Ocean, despite his major label’s political influence, has both reinforced and broken stereotypes of the Black male artist while integrating his queer identity into his songwriting. However, channel ORANGE still shows us that there is much to be addressed in how women – particularly Black women – are portrayed in so-called progressive music. Therefore, I posit a negotiated reading of channel ORANGE that both agrees with the progressive dominant ideology on LGBTQ experiences and critiques parts of the album that I believe are stereotypical and damaging.
Before performing a textual analysis, we must contextualize the release of channel ORANGE. In February of 2011, disappointed with the lack of attention he was receiving from his record label, Ocean independently released his first mixtape, Nostalgia Ultra, to critical acclaim. After the success of Nostalgia Ultra, DefJam had a renewed interest in Ocean’s career, and the label supported the creation of his debut album channel ORANGE. On July 4, 2012, days before the release of channel ORANGE, Ocean published an open letter on his Tumblr blog explaining unrequited feelings he had for a young man; he cited this as his first true love. This was widely considered Ocean’s public coming out, and marked him as the first openly queer, male, African-American pop artist. I chose to analyze channel ORANGE for its historical significance.
Given the support that DefJam provided for the project, it is necessary to explore the ways in which channel ORANGE did not completely support heterosexual hegemony in the ways that most commercial Black music does. Political Economy, or the system of production and distribution that cultural texts are created in (Kellner, 2001, pp. 10), would suggest that channel ORANGE be much more conservative and stereotypical, especially in regards to its representations of sexuality. However, in the age of social networking, it is important to understand the ways in which artists are using digital tools to provide complex and controversial meaning to their works. One will never know if DefJam supported or helped orchestrate Ocean’s coming out. However, it is fun to speculate how political economy and the maintenance of hegemony, or “the power and dominance that one social groups holds over others (Lull, 2011, pp. 33),” might have silenced Ocean’s queer sexuality without the existence of social media. In order to help the reader follow along with my analysis of the album, I have included an appendix of the referenced lyrics, as well as in text annotations that point to specific lyrics that help to illustrate my assertions.
The politics of representation are inherent in all media because media producers manipulate all media. Through editing, selective inclusion and exclusion of messages, manipulation of sounds, and poetic interpretations, music producers only show a selection or construction of reality. Therefore, no media presents reality in its entirety (Benshoff & Griffin, 2004, pp. 5-6). The values of producers, which are indicative of society at large, are embedded within all media. In addition to Ocean, other stakeholders such as A&Rs, music producers, and record label executives had a hand in the production of channel ORANGE. Because there is no way to fully present the complexities of Blackness in any artistic work, the representation of Blackness usually presents itself as a collection of stereotypes, or extreme and limited forms of representation (Benshoff & Griffin, 2004, pp. 52). At times, channel ORANGE falls prey to stereotypes of Black masculinity. In the song “Sierra Leon”, Ocean tells the story of teen parenthood , while making symbolic connections to his African ancestry . In “Crack Rock” and “Lost”, Ocean deals with issues of poverty , drug addiction , drug dealing , and police brutality and corruption . Additionally, in “Pyramids”, Ocean explores prostitution through his role as a fictional pimp .
Even though Ocean perpetuates many common stereotypes in his music, he masterfully interweaves the intersectionality of race and class through his storytelling to introduce a little more complexity to his representation of Blackness. Intersectionality refers to the idea that all of our identities are constructed through different social categorizations that are inextricably linked to each other (AWID, 2004, pp. 1-2). Ocean portrays the differences between the upper-middle class Black experience and the poor Black experience in songs like “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids”. In songs like “Pink Matter” and “Monks”, he further complicates the intersectionality of race and class by positioning himself as someone new to, or a voyeur of, the middle-class world  while expressing his masterful grasp on complex ancient philosophies , literary devices, and existential questioning [10.1, 10.2], which are more commonly associated with high levels of education.
Ocean continues to complicate his identity – and consequently the Black male identity – by adding other elements of intersectionality: gender and sexuality. The politics of representation have often led to the experiences of queer men being ignored and silenced in popular and commercial media (Clarkson, 2011, pp. 336-337). If queerness is presented in media at all, it is often stripped of its complexity through stereotyping and the assertion of a heterosexual-homosexual dichotomy (Clarkson, 2011, pp. 336-337). Rarely do we find representations of men who struggle to define their sexuality in these conventional ways. However, Ocean successfully presents sexuality as something that is fluid, messy, and confusing. In “Forest Gump” and “Bad Religion”, Ocean expresses his unrequited love for a man [11.1, 11.2, 11.3, 11.4]. Conversely, in “Pilot Jones”, “Lost”, and “Pyramids” he expresses a deep sexual attraction to female characters [12.1, 12.2, 12.3, 12.4, 12.5]. In “Thinking About You”, Ocean leaves the gender of his love interest up to the imagination of listeners as he plays with gender ambiguity .
The politics of representation of Black women works in similar ways as the politics of representation of Black men. It is in these representations that I found the most problematic messages in channel ORANGE. The album is rife with Black female stereotypes and negative representations that serve to perpetuate and maintain gender and racial hegemony. The women in Ocean’s songs have fallen from grace. They are desperate, addicts, easily influenced and manipulated, vain, and materialistic. They offer him nothing but a raw sexuality and melancholy hopelessness that Ocean clings to as inspiration for his art and sexual relief from the chronic heartache he is plagued with. The source of that heartache is presumably the man he sings about in “Bad Religion”. While a reading of “Forest Gump” could suggest the man Ocean is in love with is White (Tom Hanks, who played Forest Gump in the movie, was White), a reading of “Pyramids” suggests that the women whom Frank is sexually attracted to are Black [14.1, 14.2, 14.3]. In songs like “Pink Matter”, “Lost”, “Pyramids”, and “Monks”, Ocean positions the Black female as useful only for sex [15.1, 15.2, 15.3, 15.4, 15.5, 15.6], drugs [16.1, 16.2, 16.3, 16.4, 16.5, 16.6], and prostitution [17.1, 17.2, 17.3]. The women in Ocean’s narratives in “Super Rich Kids”, “Pyramids”, and “Monks” are also portrayed disproportionately in reference to money and danger [18.1, 18.2, 18.3, 18.4]. This is as if to say that Ocean uses upper-middle-class women who are attracted to him as a means to live in luxury. But at the same time, he is acutely aware of how dangerous it is for him to become emotionally involved with them. Finally, references to female body parts in Ocean’s entire album [19.1, 19.2, 19.3, 19.4, 19.5, 19.16] far outnumber references to male body parts , leading the listener to believe Ocean sees women largely as sexual objects.
In conclusion, channel ORANGE paints a complex picture in which both progressive and problematic representations of race, gender, and sexuality are explored. While I appreciate the explicit representations of queerness, I am disturbed by the limited and negative stereotypes of Black femininity and masculinity. Regardless of my negotiated reading, I believe that channel ORANGE is an important, era defining album for Black music. Frank Ocean shows great skill as a songwriter as he paints multifaceted, intersectional, and layered identities in interesting new ways. While the controversial content channel ORANGE may leave some to wonder how the album could be so successful, Ocean’s talent quickly reminds us of why so many fell in love with his music, which in turn helped propel him to the top of the charts.
[References and annotated lyrics after the jump —>]
this. Lupe. song. yes.
This is my favorite @liannelahavas song, so I had to cover it.
Me singing “Friend Zone”… written by me yadda yadda yadda. Yeah, press that play button.
Check out me & @MosesLovesMusic doing a cover of “Landfill” by Daughter <3
Trill Living 2.0 - Directed by Jerome D.
<3 and support my big bro!
Avriel - Superhero
S/O to all my exes who started off as rebounds and turned into year+ long nightmares. I wrote a song for you all. <3
I seriously love this song though… didn’t want to admit it at first, but Ester killed it.
You guys requested them, so here they are! *blushes* I’m kind of embarrassed by some of these, but oh-so-flattered that you wanted to hear them after all this time.
Hopefully we can all appreciate the growth…