this week in The Cleanse: R&B Might Dismantle the Gender Binary

By Lydia Shiel, Staff Columnist


You can tell a lot about a straight guy from the way he talks about Frank Ocean. If you want to understand the straight men around you, and I mean really understand them, just sit back and wait until Frank Ocean comes on. He will come on, and when he does, listen closely. Frank came here with a purpose, and that purpose has always been illumination.

 

Let’s start with the obvious scenario. Perhaps there are a few of you drinking IPAs around a banged up coffee table at one of those unfortunate pre-games where you only know one person and she’s been in the other room all night. Nights comes on and for ten perfect seconds, everyone just takes it in.

“Blonde was just too much, you know, like I didn’t care he was gay but I didn’t really want to hear about it.”

 

You don’t feel so uncomfortable anymore, because Frank is here, but of course someone shatters your peace, “Blonde was just too much, you know, like I didn’t care he was gay but I didn’t really want to hear about it.” Some of the other men grunt in agreement. You sigh, drifting back into the music. It’s safer there. But for the rest of the night, that guy’s words echo through your mind. It’s 2018, we’re at one of those east coast liberal arts schools, and still this dude didn’t have the patience to wait for one of the more queer tracks on Blonde to start talking about how uncomfortable he is with good, popular art that threatens his manhood.

 

That every night shit, everyday shit.

 

An alternate situation: you’re sitting on your friend’s apartment floor after finishing a shift at the restaurant where you both work. This friend of yours never says much, but he has a calming presence. Nikes comes on and he opens his mouth to speak, which makes you nervous for a fleeting moment, then he says “Have you heard the acoustic version? It’ll make you weep. It made me weep.” You smile as he pulls up the YouTube video. Honesty, comfort, admiration. No toxicity to report. Everything Frank would want in a straight, male listener.

 

“Have you heard the acoustic version? It’ll make you weep. It made me weep.”

 

Another: maybe you have your feet up on the foot of some guy’s bed. You two have gotten pretty close, at least in the physical sense. You’re both trying to study, but he gets distracted and messes with the Spotify queue. He picks Chanel. You’ve struck gold– I mean, this is perhaps the most evocative combination of confidence, masculinity and gayness that’s ever graced our playlists. It’s smooth, and it’s not subtle. If there is a pop R&B song specifically engineered to make problematic men show themselves, this is the one. Stay quiet, see if he responds.

 

My guy pretty like a girl, and he got fight stories to tell.

 

This man sitting three feet away, the one you think you might really have feelings for, he takes the bait. “Frank’s my favorite artist, but damn that’s nasty.” You’re stunned. You’ve been hanging out with this dude because he seemed vulnerable and aware. Empathetic, even. But the more time you spend together, the less he asks about you. He articulates his own struggle beautifully and insightfully, bringing your attention where it needs to be in a lot of situations. Things escalate as Chanel plays, and finally he asks what’s up. He wants to know if you “like girls or something.” You don’t have the energy to face his disapproval right now, so you say no. He carries on rolling his cigarette.

 

 

In a moment like our own, where masculinity is being reassessed so publicly, Frank Ocean’s voice is one of the most important. Chanel is simultaneously one of the most popular R&B songs available and one of the most subversive. It’s one stunning flex of his sexuality and his masculinity. Along with blatant lines about his sexuality, he sings, Can’t you see I am the big man / God level / I am the I am, leaning pretty far into traditional manhood.

 

But with Chanel and with Blonde, with his whole persona, he proves that guys can do this while also letting go of the toxicity. Like him, they can use the confidence and security they’ve been taught to embody for their entire lives as a means of becoming less artificial.

 

“In the space of three minutes, gender becomes indiscernible and unimportant.”

 

Frank’s subtle mutiny is made possible by his tendency to meet the genre where it is while incorporating a new layer of meaning. Take the Nikes video for example, a reel of undressed women and expensive cars. This is not a departure from other R&B videos (at face value), but Frank is there too, in eyeliner, then glitter, then pearls. In the space of three minutes, gender becomes indiscernible and unimportant. All that’s left are breathtaking human figures.

 

In a Tumblr post upon the release of Blonde, he contemplated his passion for cars. He said, “Raf Simons once told me it was cliche, my whole car obsession. Maybe it links to a deep subconscious straight boy fantasy. Consciously though, I don’t want straight — a little bent is good.” This wording is so important here. Frank points out the conscious effort it requires to redefine gender and curate a more open mindset, the careful work he is doing.

 

“Perhaps Frank’s truth will inspire more boys to cry if they want to, or wear glitter, or view gender in a different light.”

 

His sound will always attract the massive audience it does, and if Chanel is any indicator of what’s to come, he will continue speaking his truth directly against the binary. As he does so, most of his listeners will remain comfortable and nourished regardless of what he says. They will learn. Perhaps Frank’s truth will inspire more boys to cry if they want to, or wear glitter, or view gender in a different light. All the while, they will not be asked to give up the aspects of their manhood that are not damaging.

 

This message is coming through loud and clear: with Kevin Abstract and Brockhampton gaining huge momentum as America’s favorite boy band, it’s possible some of the most recognizable male voices in alternative R&B will soon be those working to redefine masculinity. Personally, I’m hype.