There's a lot of cheapness in the culture world. There's a lot of throwaway and facile and juvenile. There's a lot of shock value or no values. There's a lot of bad language, not as in crude, but as in unimaginative words and poor sentence phrasing and narrative construction. If I hear another song with the word "Shorty" in it, or "Bling," I might lose my mind.
There's also a lot of ego in pop culture but little reflection about the ebbs and flow and elusive construction of the inner self. There's complaint without accountability. There's stereotype and misogyny, blatant or implied, and redundant doubling-down of same-old themes: Sex, cars, bitches, Benjamins, getting paid, hitting it, baby mamas. There's a lot of literal language and a lot of embarrassingly blatant metaphor. There's Drake saying he's the fucking man and he's too good for you.
Then there's Frank Ocean.
I'm hardly the only one enthralled with Frank Ocean. The critics love him. His peers revere him. His fans are so rabid they got pissed at him for taking so long between Channel Orange and Blond, or Blonde. The delay was no doubt artistic. This guy is "enigmatic and reclusive" as the NYTimes said. Ocean's new and awaited release was also a business/independence move. He bypassed and released himself from obligation to Def Jam, his label, by releasing "Endless" a day before he released "Blond" or "Blonde" which was streamed on Apple.
But I don't care about the machinations of the music industry. Neil Young pulled his catalogue on Spotify because digital streaming is sad sound quality. Jay Z and Beyonce and Rihanna started Tidal because they are bigger than a label. George Michael battled with Sony and Prince changed his name to a symbol to separate from his corporate overlords. Now Frank Ocean has taken another brick out of the corporate wall by controlling the release of Blond. Like millions of other fans, I'm just glad it's here. In the week since it's been out and I bought it, I've listened to it straight through about 10 times. Predictably I've gone from "It's not as good as Channel Orange" to getting the sense that the genius has upped the ante again. As a poet who has read many poetry books, there is something about the arc of Ocean's albums (or releases) that are as resonant as some of the most powerful poetry volumes.
Ocean creates albums the way Joni Mitchell created albums -- poetry that begs explication set aloft in music. I find Blond, even more than Channel Orange, as invitational as Kate Bush, particularly Bush's record "50 Words For Snow." The intentionality of that album by the British artist begged a listener to take it on, over and over, to understand each song and also to see how the narrative arc of the album was created, and to what end.
About Bush and "50 Words For Snow," NPR music critic Ann Powers once wrote : "Each song on Snow grows as if from magic beans from the lush ground of the singer-songwriter's keyboard parts. The music is immersive but spacious, jazz-tinged and lushly electronic – the 53-year-old Bush, a prime inspiration for tech-savvy young auteurs ranging from St. Vincent to hip-hop's Big Boi, pioneered the use of digital samplers in the 1980s and is still an avid aural manipulator. This time around, drummer Steve Gadd is her most important interlocutor – the veteran studio player's gentle but firm touch draws the frame around each of her expanding landscapes. But Bush won't be restricted. Like [Joni] Mitchell on Don Juan's Restless Daughter [sic], she takes her time and lets her characters lead."
As for Frank Ocean, his critically acclaimed Channel Orange in 2012 did not simply satisfy as a superior musical release worthy of a Grammy, it was the kind of work that led comparisons to the writer Joan Didion, for the way Ocean riffed and nailed California culture, among other topics. There was a freshness of voice and vision. There was a startling originality even when he referenced or sampled. It was a coming out album, but then it was so much more that even sexuality was merely a part of the Ocean Gestalt.
Sex and drugs are part of Ocean's work. It's not about these things but OF it. So you just go for the ride. The track Pilot Jones features sound effects of an airplane taking off and landing, with a nice flight above the clouds. So rich and aural and aerial and so stoned. In Blonde, Ocean sings that smoking weed is a cheap vacation. He takes you there, and not just with the obvious reference but with the mind-altered sonics he creates.
The 4-year wait for Ocean's follow-up to Channel Orange has set music critics up for a delightful task. In the Atlantic, Ocean's new work was noted for being "A Monument To Memory" by critic Stephen Kornhaber: "Popular music usually has a clear and agreed-upon relationship to time, allowing you to live for three and a half minutes not by the ticktock of the clock but by the tap of your toe and your awareness of the number of choruses that have passed. Ocean previously made brilliant use of these conventions on his way to next-big-thing status in pop and R&B, but he has returned after a four-year silence with a radically different way of working. Save for one glorious pop waltz, “Pink + White,” the songs on Blond(e) mostly operate by the twisty logic of how a narrative might actually unfold in the mind, rather than on the radio. It’d be art nonsense if it didn’t pack so much power in so many unexpected places."
Time. Memory. No greater or richer field of revery is there for artists. As the psychologist David Wechsler put it: "Memories are not like filed letters stored in cabinets.… Rather, they are like melodies realized by striking the keys on a piano.'' It's into this sphere that Frank Ocean allows you to go with him. Frank Ocean is melodic. And he creates his own plane. The trip doesn't have a destination. It just amplifies every time through. The lyrics and references are rooted in our time, in the millennial culture he inhabits, but they're timeless.
Rimbaud. Dylan. Auden. Ocean. Maybe that's a stretch or maybe in this age, it's an appropriate lineage. Frank Ocean delivers a lush and complicated art. You want to know him and what he's saying because it may help you know more about yourself. Or it may give you the freedom to see that the psyche's process for sorting out one's shapeless self is an out-of-time process. I'm in awe.
I know what you're thinking. I've been saying I had another gear in me, a more presidential presentation of character and ideas. No more gutter politics or reckless egotism run amok. Really wanting to make myself great again, there was only one place to turn: Trump country.
I know this sounds like lunacy, like a taunt or a petty play for attention. But this is exactly what, in the end, may save me! In this case I am talking about upstate New York, which in the Siena polling for the Republican presidential primary earlier this year had Donald J. Trump -- the Queens native who builds buildings and files for multiple bankruptcies -- ahead of other loser and low-energy GOP candidates by dozens of percentage points in the Empire State.
The bulk of that support for Trump -- the man who must fly home from the campaign trail he each night so he can spend the late hours Tweeting about Joe Scarborough within the gilded confines of his opulent Manhattan penthouse -- comes from the rural counties above Westchester or Dutchess or Sullivan. (Many years ago, when I first moved from DOWNSTATE to UPSTATE, I was made to understand that UPSTATE begins well above Kingston and likely does not begin in earnest until Coxsackie or maybe even Albany. The Catskills and Hudson Valley are bedroom communities for NYC, dating back to when Woodstock and Saugerties drew the likes of Bob Dylan and The Band and David Bowie, to name a few. I digress, but the point is: Just because you are north of the Bronx does not mean you are UPSTATE. To be UPSTATE, you have to earn it. And that means Saratoga or Fulton or Washington counties.)
Which leads me to my personal pivot, the one you have been skeptical I could make, the one that centers of being centered and not reacting to every bit of insane political news, like, for instance, the unending shitshow that has been the dark rise of Donald J. Trump. But there is a monstrous paradox of my pivot. The place I love most in my native state of New York -- a state I have vowed I will never move away from again -- is Trump Country! The lawn signs and ball caps declaring loyalty to Trump all over UPSTATE NY make that as bold and as plain as a gold Trump sign emblazoned on a midtown Manhattan luxury high-rise, the ones now financed with Russian oligarch money.
Upstate New York -- meaning all that land and all those towns and villages and counties that hug the southern Adirondacks -- has been my sanctuary, my spiritual home, since I was a kid. My No. 1 goal in life was to move upstate, to write and to earn just enough money so I could drive around and look at all the land. To my mind, all the acres of farmland and miles of forests and all the low-slung mountains and the string of lakes and all the gritty small towns and hanging-on-by-a-fingernail mill cities combined to make God's country. I moved upstate after college, worked at a newspaper and I lived in Schenectady for eight years before my so-called career took me to Seattle and Baltimore and Pennsylvania. For the next 20-plus years, living in some of the biggest U.S. cities, all I wanted to do was move back! I did not care that everyone said that was a weird yearning because upstate NY is not exactly a hotbed of progressivism, plus jobs are few and the weather is cold in the winter.
This past weekend, my upstate NY-born spouse and I spent a long weekend at the family camp on the Great Sacandaga Lake. For several blissful days of much-needed rest and relaxation, peace and quiet after The Year of Trump, we traveled the roads through Gloversville and Amsterdam, up to the Adirondack Park past lakes like Caroga and Pecks, on windy roads past farms that the Amish have made their own. The corn was high. The signs planted in the ground all throughout my piece of heaven read a word that had, for a year, sent me into a dizzying state of disbelief over how a con man and a fraud who does not even want to be president has become a legitimate choice for millions of Americans. My anger over Trump, though, dissipated under blue skies, traveling through the proverbially verdant Mohawk Valley, knowing the glacial walk of time in the end would see Trump and all of us as an insignificant blip. Plus, there are the reassuring polls that signal our national nightmare will soon be over, save for Trump TV that will take the sociopath to new lows of conspiracy theories.
The anger of these upstate Trumpsters was palpable. We met men who spat out how much they thought Hillary Clinton was "a bitch." They'd never vote for her because of Benghazi. One taxidermist we talked when we stopped to look at his his shop agreed that Trump may be insane, but said it was OK. "Congress will keep him in check."
Everywhere we looked, there was Trump support, Trump signs next to Confederate flags and homemade lawn signs calling for "Revolt." So far from Washington DC, living lives so different from the urban elites, upstate New Yorkers continue to inhabit a different country from downstate New Yorkers. The more of this anger we saw in people up there, the more inured we became to it. The landscape itself seemed an inscrutable oxymoron of beauty amidst such rage, or rage sitting coiled in all that vast beauty. It was impossible to sort it all out anymore, especially in such glorious countryside. It was easy to let it go, too, given the views and the space and the sense of utter freedom. The pivot, for me, was finally coming.
Is a former political and sports columnist who worked great cities like Albany NY, Seattle, Baltimore and Harrisburg PA. She lives New York.