Frank Ocean’s Enigmatic Headlining Performance at Coachella

Several years have passed since singer-songwriter Frank Ocean has performed or released new music, making him one of the most highly anticipated Coachella headliners of the decade.

Frank Ocean, a multi-genre talent known for his captivating 2012 album channel Orange and 2016 album Blonde, was scheduled as a headliner and closing act on Sunday night of the three day Coachella Music Festival in Indio, CA.

Headlining and closing out the most prestigious music festival in North America is arguably the most coveted spot for musicians in this generation. Leading up to Frank’s set time, the internet began to explode as word was being spread that his set would not be livestreamed on YouTube, unlike the rest of the acts from the weekend. Despite this last-second switch, over 90k viewers tuned into @morgandoesntcare on Instagram live and other lives from TikTok users to catch a glimpse of the full show Ocean had prepared.

Classifying Frank Ocean’s performance at Coachella as a “headlining show” would be generous.

The artist finally appeared onstage over 50 minutes late to his set time, opening to his hit single “Novacane” while singing backstage and out of sight from the audience. The headliner also included what felt like an ‘intermission’ featuring a rave break with DJ Crystalmess on the decks and stage cameras projecting a security guard twerking on the stage rail for 15-20 minutes. Silence filled many gaps between the songs which featured teases of new music and a performance by a younger musician named ‘Josiah’ who Frank referred to as his ‘inner child’. The show continued with Ocean jamming and lip syncing to his music with no microphone in hand, and then abruptly telling the crowd that it was curfew and the show was over.

The majority of the internet’s response to Frank’s headlining act shed the artist in negative light, calling the performance unprofessional, unprepared, and a major disappointment after the long hiatus for this artist’s return to music. On the other hand, the performance almost feels oddly specific and intentional.

Frank Ocean is known for being mysterious and unpredictable, straying from mainstream tendencies of pop culture.

Perhaps he felt the idea of a traditional full blown production value encapsulating fireworks, lasers, CO2, visual effects and background dancers did not represent his artistry. As a creative, he may have wanted a more intimate, audio-centric set that capitalized on expressing himself as an artist in an unconventional manner. The stage design was simple, almost like a recording studio, where he was projected to the audience as if they were viewing him from an observation room, and his own space was a small area where he could focus on performing his craft. In retrospect, it does seem as if every detail in this performance was meticulously planned out with a deeper meaning behind it.

The DJ set featuring New Orleans bounce artist Ha Sizzle dressed as a security guard may represent his time hosting parties in New York City (as he mentioned during his set). His doll Cody was featured with him at the 2021 Met Gala, and the “inner child” reference may be foreshadowing new music. His classic hits were performed as remixes almost in a way of defying fans from singing along.

Each small detail of his show was seemingly purposeful, and those that take the time to speculate a deeper meaning may find the art in his craft after all. From a mainstream pop culture standpoint, those that had predetermined expectations of his headlining act are left unfulfilled, missing the creative message. Maybe this is the type of riddle Frank had spent years preparing, or not preparing, all along.

Many fans have speculated that Frank could have been grieving due to the sentimental attachment he had to Coachella, which he grew up attending with his late brother who passed away in August of 2020.

It does seem unlikely the grief would be the leading cause of the lack of production in his show, as the artist would have signed his contract to perform almost two years after his brother’s passing. There have also been reports that Ocean was dealing with an ankle injury suffered in the weeks leading up to the set, but this realistically should not have had a major effect on the quality of the performance.

Frank’s set opens the discussion for what distinguishes a headlining performance.

Are headliners chosen based on their expected production value, or based on the size of the crowd that they will draw? As a headlining act, crowds rightfully have high expectations to be delivered in the artist’s set. Should attendees expect artists to cater their shows to the fans’ approval, or should the fans accept an artist who is choosing their own creative freedom? Considering Frank’s reputation and enigmatic artistic choices, perhaps choosing him to close out the festival as a headliner was more in Coachella’s fault than his own.

For festival organizers that put a lot of trust and expectations in Frank Ocean as a performer, it’s safe to say that he ultimately did not deliver a traditional headlining performance.

He was paid millions to design a visual experience of his art, and the result seemed to lack the music fans came to hear. In the end, many fans invested hundreds to thousands of dollars into tickets, lodging, and flights, and spent hours camping outside his stage just to be let down by his lack of stage presence. Ocean hardly sang the full songs from his discography and left out many fan favorites from his iconic channel Orange album such as “Pyramids” and “Super Rich Kids”. Future festival organizers may hesitate to book him in the future, as the dynamic of trust between an artist’s choices versus expectations from fan bases and organizers go up for debate.

Frank is a mystifying creator who keeps his fans on their toes, from taking away the expectation of livestream privileges to setting up an onstage ice arena with dancers that was planned for weeks and scrapped last-minute. Perhaps he used this as a decoy to his true creative vision, all because he does not let the pressure of society dictate the art that he delivers.

The performance itself seems to have gone exactly how Frank wanted it to: simple, yet confusing and mysterious, leaving fans wanting more and creating a riddle for the world to discuss for years to come. Instead of criticizing what Frank did not give us, fans should dive deeper into deciphering what he did choose to provide.


Author: Shana Olivero

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