When Frank Ocean revealed last summer, in a gorgeously written Tumblr post, that he had once been deeply in love with a man, the timing was profound. The United States was in the midst of a popular shift in opinion about same-sex relationships. By the time the year ended, President Barack Obama had completed his “evolution” and finally endorsed same-sex marriage. Voters in three states became the first to approve gay marriage laws by popular referendum. The tidal change was so sudden, and so overwhelming, that after Obama’s inauguration speech, House Speaker John Boehner complained the president was trying to “shove us into the dustbin of history” — words that sound like the belated realization of a man who’s about to share a Dumpster in posterity with slave owners, segregationists, and opponents of women’s suffrage.
The politics of Ocean’s art may be potent, but the soon-to-be Grammy performer isn’t a political artist. If we ever make it to some ideal future, where everybody has the same rights to love whomever they want to love, Ocean’s music and coming-out letter will still be just as powerful. Why? Because of their rich and unfettered self-expression. Leave it to, of all people, Ocean’s “Pyramids” collaborator John Mayer, who freely acknowledges he has abused the ability to express himself, to put this idea into words during an extensive recent Q&A with Rolling Stone.
People’s response to Ocean is less about his sexuality, which the channel ORANGE singer brilliantly never defined, than about “the depth of his writing” and how expressive it was, Mayer said. “I think it’s as much about taking a stand against being fucking boring as it is about sexuality,” he explained. “It’s about standing up and going, ‘I know what you’re going to say about this, and I don’t care.’ And I think that was the heroic part. I know there were parts that were heroic for other people. For me, it’s just the heroic self-expression. You don’t even need publicists anymore — people are just as scared for themselves as the publicists would be.”
Pressed to clarify, Mayer explained that in an era with so many fewer limits on our communication, most of us have taken it upon ourselves to limit our own expression. Who needs a media filter when you have fear and self-loathing? “Everyone is self-PRing,” Mayer is quoted as saying. “We’re all worried to express ourselves, because we are scared of the imminent criticism as we are typing. And I think for a guy to express any idea with that kind of bravery, a guy writing without caring what you think . . . What’s fascinating to me is not as much what he’s expressing — it’s that he chose to just make an expression one time, deeply, honestly.”
Mayer also praised Ocean as “so great.” But that’s what you’d expect him to say, having played on channel ORANGE and appeared beside Ocean last year on Saturday Night Live. And Ocean has returned some of the praise, naming Mayer’s laid-back, woodsy Born and Raised when asked what albums he liked last year. What’s fascinating, in a world where comment-section trolls continue to claim Ocean’s admirers only like him because he came out, is that Mayer hit on Ocean’s actual biggest draw. His art may keep it surreal, but that’s only because Ocean, as an artist, is still too real.