Leave Frank Ocean alone

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To break down Frank Ocean’s Coachella set into individual moments is to talk about the makings of an instant-classic performance.

There was the remake of his gentle soul ballad “White Ferrari” as an itchy electro-gospel jam. There was the fake snow that fell silently on Ocean and his band during “Come on World, You Can’t Go!” There was the bearded man dressed as a security guard twerking against the stage while illuminated by the kind of flashlight you see in bodycam footage of police roughing up somebody late at night for some hard-to-fathom reason.

Standing on the field late Sunday night at Indio’s Empire Polo Club, I took in this succession of sounds and images with amazement — baffled, sure, but also thrilled by a show, Ocean’s first since 2017, that felt like nothing I’d ever seen before. When it abruptly ended a little past midnight — Ocean told the crowd he’d been ordered to stop due to Coachella’s curfew — I needed a second to dial down the mental concentration for which Ocean seemed to be asking his audience.

Few others had that problem: Taken not as individual moments but as a whole — as a centerpiece, that is, of the world’s most prestigious music festival — Ocean’s marquee gig was already broadly seen as a disaster by Monday morning.

Rolling Stone called it a “less-than-grand return.” Pitchfork said it “hardly rose to the occasion.” Variety described it as both a “disappointing mess” and an “aimless, WTF headlining set.” Fans who were in attendance echoed those sentiments on social media: “A man has never played me worse than Frank Ocean tonight,” one person tweeted, while even the boosters behind the Frank Ocean Daily account on Twitter took offense on behalf of festivalgoers who “deserved a genuine show from him.”

One exception was Justin Bieber, who wrote on Instagram that he was “blown away” by Ocean’s performance. “His artistry is simply unmatched, his style, his taste, his voice, his attention to detail,” the singer continued. “I was deeply moved.” (Love this for Bieber.)

As someone whose job involves free concert tickets, even if I had disliked the show, I couldn’t lay claim to feeling swindled by Ocean’s performance, which had him largely obscured behind a massive video screen and which featured a mid-set interlude by a DJ and several tunes for which Ocean merely lip-synced along to his records.

But of course I can empathize: Folks pay hundreds of dollars for Coachella passes, and that’s not counting what they shell out for food and travel and lodging while in the desert for three or more days. At a time of widespread angst over runaway ticket prices, merely encountering something novel at a concert isn’t enough for many to justify the cost of getting in the door, particularly when superstars like Taylor Swift and SZA are on the road showing that innovation and value can coexist. Indeed, Coachella’s other two headliners, Bad Bunny and Blackpink, put on elaborate main-stage spectacles over the weekend that by most accounts left fans feeling both stimulated and satisfied.

Hearing that Ocean may have scrapped a more ambitious production involving an ice-skating rink, as was reported Monday, only adds to the sense that he was cheating his audience while collecting a seven-figure paycheck.

Yet there’s an aspect of the outrage that I find more dispiriting, which is that the experience of confusion seems to have been an entirely unwelcome one. I have all kinds of questions about what Ocean was trying to communicate by cloistering himself inside a small alcove that the majority of the crowd at Coachella couldn’t even see inside; I don’t know why he invited a kid he introduced as Josiah to come onstage and mime an impassioned performance of Willie Nelson’s “Night Life.”

But the strength of certain parts of the concert — the hypnotic visuals, Ocean’s gorgeous singing, the radically reworked arrangements of familiar songs — made the mysteries worth puzzling over.

“This is f—ing chaotic, but it’s so much fun,” Ocean said at one point, which is not untrue of much of his music, not least his 2016 album “Blonde,” a somehow sprawling and insular piece of work from which he drew a good chunk of Sunday’s set list. At Coachella, Ocean made me think about youth, memory, wealth, family, privacy, religion, sex — even (or especially) art itself. I’m not saying the people who were disappointed didn’t think about those things, or that they wanted the ideas presented more simply. (Their minds, like Ocean’s, are ultimately unknowable by anyone but themselves.) But isn’t evoking big themes, even obliquely, a worthy job for art to do?

Perhaps I’m finding a kind of enigmatic profundity where Ocean wasn’t consciously putting any. In addition to the ice-skating rumor, reports surfaced Monday that the singer had injured his ankle in the days before Coachella and that that was why the show took the shape it did. Or maybe the pressure of playing his first concert in six years — one set to be livestreamed on YouTube before Ocean evidently pulled the plug — got to him and he was flailing.

But does that actually matter? As demonstrated countless times in pop history, the meaning of art isn’t necessarily dependent upon its creator’s intent. Watching Ocean hunker down in his little chamber — and watching the almost giddy way he’d tiptoe up to the lip of the stage where he could see the tens of thousands of people before him — was a powerful expression of his conflicted relationship with fame, whether or not he choreographed it as one. (Consider the total number of posts on Ocean’s verified Instagram account: zero.)

The question of his investment in the proceedings is different. Multiple critics, including those at Pitchfork and Vulture, framed Ocean’s arm’s-length performance as evidence that he didn’t want to be at Coachella — that perhaps he was just fulfilling a contract he’d agreed to way back when he was announced as the festival’s 2020 headliner before that year’s show was scrapped due to COVID.

But I don’t share the sense that Ocean was checked out Sunday; if anything, the speech he gave near the beginning of the gig about coming to Coachella with his younger brother, who died three years ago at age 18, made me wonder if the emotional weight was too much.

His thinking on that point may change before this coming Sunday, when he’s booked to repeat his performance to close out Coachella’s second weekend. It feels impossible to know what to expect or even to know what the result would represent.

If he gives the people what they want, is that a happy ending or a sad one?

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