How Frank Ocean Wrote the Unintentional Score to Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room
Frank Ocean’s Blonde has become a cultural icon in contemporary music. Loved by so many for its vulnerable lyrics, Ocean invited the world into his deepest thoughts, experiences, and skilled musicality. It’s also an album that I was constantly reminded of while reading James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Ocean himself has even spent a great deal of time in France. Much like the story of David and Giovanni, Ocean experienced love and loss and shares that in the story of Blonde. There is an undeniable, rich intertextuality between these two bodies of work. Through close reading both texts, we get a closer look at Frank Ocean’s Blonde, and how it functions as the unintentional score to, and contemporary retelling of, Baldwin’s classic novel Giovanni’s Room.
Frank Ocean’s sophomore album, Blonde, has become culturally recognized as canonical in contemporary music. This album was not only critically acclaimed, but its vulnerable lyrics invited the world into Ocean’s deepest thoughts, experiences, and skilled musicality. It is also an album that I was constantly reminded of whilst reading James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Ocean himself has even spent a great deal of time in France. Much like the story of David and Giovanni, Ocean experienced love and loss in France as well. As two Black queer male writers and artists, there is an undeniable, rich intertextuality between these two bodies of work. Through close reading both texts, this paper takes a closer look at Frank Ocean’s Blonde, and how it functions as the unintentional score to, and contemporary retelling of, Baldwin’s classic novel Giovanni’s Room.
Starting in the middle of the track listing, I reference the interlude, entitled “Facebook Story,” to set the tone for this reading. The interlude features the voice of French producer SebastiAn. Genius Music reports, “[SebastiAn] recalls how his relationship fell apart over accusations of infidelity over Facebook.” The inclusion of this story, narrated by a French orator sets the tone for this love story to take place in — France.
David believed France was an escape from home; a place to experience his sexuality without judgement, anxiety, and most importantly without commitment. This foreign country, and later Giovanni’s room, served as an inviting place of refuge for David’s sexual curiosity. Thus begins this tragic tale of unrequited love; a love that singer Frank Ocean knows all too well. Ocean’s “Good Guy” functions as a transition from this initial curiosity, to an inevitable emotional rollercoaster. In the short interlude, Ocean reminisces on the early stages of his own relationship, where his partner brought him to gay bars and talked his ear off getting to know him. The track’s stripped-down nature leaves so much room for us to hear Ocean’s vocals and an accompanying piano . The listener is meant to focus on Frank Ocean’s words, as he recalls these memories.
Much like Ocean, David has his first “gay bar” experience the night he goes out with Jacques, Giovanni, and Guillaume. Giovanni is portrayed to be a regular in this bar, as he effortlessly makes his rounds to the staff as well as the patrons. This is also a pivotal moment in the novel, where Jacques confronts David about his sexuality, and his unspoken feelings for Giovanni. Jacques tells David,
“You are lucky that what is happening to you now is happening now and not when you are forty, or something like that, when there would be no hope for you, and you would simply be destroyed.”
In response David, although intended to sound sarcastic, questions what is happening to him. During this exchange, Jacques implies David is in the midst of his sexual awakening, even if he won’t acknowledge it yet. David even admits to refraining from bringing this night up in his correspondence to Hella, his fiancé. Much like the stripped and raw nature of “Good Guy,” this scene also presents a stripped and raw moment where the reader sees directly into David’s consciousness. Jacques goes on to explain the pain of passionless encounters, and those encounters being more “shameful” due to this lack of passion, rather than shame due to the sex of the people engaging in it. He states, “There is no affection in them [the encounters], and no joy. It’s like putting an electric plug in a dead socket. Touch, but no contact. All touch, but no contact and no light.” With this assertion Jacques attempts to help David through these feelings, reassuring him the shame he may feel is understandable, but to not let it keep him from his happiness.
Similarly, “Good Guy” touches on ideas of loneliness and emptiness experienced from “fruitless encounters.” At the end of Ocean’s “Good Guy”, there is a short discussion between two men. These featured voices state, “Yeah — I ain’t got bitches no more, now I don’t care about bitches like that… Jasmine fucking wrecked my heart, I don’t even know how I feel about bitches.” Like…heard you twin, heard you.
As a Genius annotation comments, “The relatively long pause he takes before saying ‘Yea I ain’t got bitches no more’ indicating he’s picking his words carefully and probably feels uncomfortable in the situation. He might be gay, but doesn’t quite know how to tell his friend, or whoever it is he’s talking to. Much like David and Jacques, these two men in this snippet may very clearly see the situation for what it is. However, they never explicitly state what they actually mean. The same “What is happening to me?” David questions in the novel, is mirrored by the male voice in “Good Guys’ stating, “I don’t know how I feel about bitches anymore.”
It is at this pivotal moment, that David and Giovanni confront this tension between them, and David allows himself to fall for Giovanni, entirely. Upon leaving the bar, David accompanies Giovanni back to Giovanni’s room, where David remarks,
“He [Giovanni] locked the door behind us, and then for a moment, in the gloom, we simply stared at each other — with dismay, with relief, and breathing hard. I was trembling. I thought, if I do not open the door at once and get out of here, I am lost. But I knew I could not open the door, I knew it was too late; soon it was too late to do anything but moan. He pulled me against him, putting himself into my arms as though he were giving me himself to carry, and slowly pulled me down with him to that bed. ”
This is the moment the reader finally sees David give into his undeniable feelings for Giovanni, allowing himself to explore his sexual curiosities. Ocean’s “Self-Control” perfectly encapsulates this moment, detailing Ocean’s own personal relationship woes.
Summertime; the background of Ocean’s iconic “Self Control” serves as a reminder of freedom, youth, nostalgia, and moments of uninterrupted euphoria. Ocean opens the song saying, “I’ll be the boyfriend in your wet dreams tonight.”
Much like Giovanni, Ocean explains his want to pleasure his partner, relating their sexual encounter to a wet dream; a sexual fantasy. He continues saying, “Noses on a rail, little virgin wears the white.” As a Genius annotator comments, “noses on a rail” refers to Ocean and his partner smoking, drinking, and probably doing a few lines of coke. this white also nods to Ocean’s partner who seems to be less sexually experienced than Ocean. The white becomes both a symbol of virginity or purity, and loss of innocence.
Similarly, David is obviously inexperienced, and thus allows Giovanni to take charge, or rather take control. David explains his inability to escape Giovanni’s room in that moment, and how drawn he was to Giovanni, such that he gave into his desires and “lost” his self-control. Fittingly, Ocean’s refrain reads, “I made you use your self-control, and you made me lose my self-control.” Ocean acknowledges this relationship is inevitably toxic, but he cannot deny his sexual attraction to his partner and gives into them despite his worries. In the same manner Ocean “loses” his self-control, David gives into Giovanni despite his fear of fully embracing his sexuality.
The intertextuality between these two texts speaks to the intimacy not only in the exploration of queer sexual curiosity, but in trusting another person with one’s deepest secret, and one’s body. However, in both cases, the orators of these thoughts give into their desires, and forgo their willpower or self-control, in order to feel good in that moment. Additionally, Ocean sings, “I know you gotta leave, leave, leave….Give up, just tonight, night, night.” Both people in this moment know this won’t last forever. They realize their desires are fleeting at worst, and toxic at best. Regardless, those desires, which could or could not be true love, convince them that nothing else matters.
As the story builds, the reader witnesses how invested David and Giovanni’s relationship becomes. The reader sees David falling in love with Giovanni, and Giovanni falling even deeper in love with David. I interpret this time period as a montage of sorts, reminding me of Ocean’s “Ivy” and “Pink + White.” Ocean sings, “I thought that I was dreaming when you said you loved me,” giving the reader insight into both Ocean’s giddiness as well as David’s disbelief. Disbelief he could ever feel this way about someone, nor they would reciprocate these feelings. Similarly, “Pink + White” has a very bright, and whimsical sound, filled with beautiful strings and a warm acoustic guitar. This song feels like the score to this montage, where Frank falls deeper in love with his mystery partner, like David falls for Giovanni. Baldwin writes,
“In the beginning, our [David and Giovanni] life together held a joy and amazement which was newborn every day. Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and beneath the amazement was fear…”
The same joy, amazement, and feelings of rebirth mirror those same honeymoon love Frank sings about in “Pink + White.” He sings, “Just the same way you showed me, showed me, you showed me love. Glory from above…It’s all downhill from here.” Ocean explains the partner he sings about taught him how to love, and through this he felt joy like no other. However unsure of the fears triggering this, he predicts the downfall of their love is near, similarly to how Baldwin describes that underneath the “love and the amazement” was “anguish and fear.” In both texts, the orator recognizes the beauty in the love they’ve found with their partners. But this is a short lived honeymoon.
Similar to these feelings of being reborn Baldwin alludes to, Ocean’s “Nights” brings the listener into a better understanding of these complex emotions. Ocean’s “Nights” has become a classic in contemporary music, beautifully articulating the duality of night and day; destruction and reconcile. “Nights” represents this in-between feeling, and the jarring dissonance this can lead to within one’s mind. Ocean’s verse reads like a stream of consciousness, until the resolution found in the bridge of the song. Ocean begins this verse saying, “Every night fucks every day up, Every day patches the night up.” He emphasizes the motif of duality throughout these two texts.
As Ocean poetically articulates, the night exists to undo what happened during the day. The day exists to put together the pieces of the night before. There is both a dual and cyclical nature of night and day. David and Giovanni experience this, whether it’s described as the highs and lows of their relationship, the public yet secretive dynamic of their love, or even the duality of David’s situation of wanting to settle for Hella, but simultaneously craving the excitement and exhilaration of his relationship with Giovanni. The night and day motif also illustrate David’s chaotic state of mind. He has his traumas that refuse him to trust Giovanni, or any person for that matter. Ocean’s chaotic and dissonant interlude “Pretty Sweet” perfectly sonically portrays this dissonance David feels within himself. You can literally can feel his anxiety through the tension and release of “Nights,” as well as the discordant nature of “Pretty Sweet.” This soon comes to a head during Ocean’s iconic “Seigfried.”
“Seigfried” could be described as a metaphysical break-up song. From the first verse, Frank begins by addressing a past lover, further reflecting on his own life. I interpret “Seigfried” to be a look into David’s consciousness, and a final resolution to the tension. It’s almost a complete stream of consciousness, in which Ocean goes back and forth with himself over his partner who he has clearly distanced himself from, much like David has distanced himself from Giovanni. Ocean meditates on what it means to take a leap of faith for love. But also what it mean to protect himself from inevitable heartbreak. Ocean sings, “I can’t relate to my peers. I’d rather live outside, I’d rather chip my pride than lose my mind out here. Maybe I’m a fool, Maybe I should move and settle. Two kids and a swimming pool, I’m not brave! This is not my life, it’s just a fond farewell to a friend” In this line, Ocean exposes his fears. His fears of putting his pride away for true love.
Ocean, like many queer men, fear the reception of their sexuality to the cis-het world. This almost exactly mirrors the turmoil David faces as he contemplates what it would mean to commit to Giovanni, versus what it would mean to commit to Hella. One path promises safety and security but is lacking the passion and love that he finds in his other relationship. However, this other relationship presents a threat to David’s pride, his need to be accepted, and his manhood. Ocean sings, that he would rather lose his pride than lose his mind, relating to David’s want to be able to commit to Giovanni, as any other option could ruin his sanity. However, he immediately regresses back to imagining a safe and quiet life with his wife and kids, exclaiming he isn’t brave enough to follow his heart. He goes on to insinuate this queer love he had cultivated with his partner is “not his life” and gaslights himself, to believe he is almost pretending to be a queer man. Similarly, David explains, “I wanted to be inside again, with the light and safety, with my manhood unquestioned, watching my woman put my children to bed. I wanted the same bed at night and the same arms and I wanted to rise in the morning, knowing where I was. I wanted a woman to be for me a steady ground, like the earth itself, where I could always be renewed. ” In this excerpt, David reiterates the ideas Ocean expresses in these lines. He reiterates his need to have the security of his manhood, which means he must be with a woman who he can care for, rather than have his manhood questioned in this relationship with Giovanni.
However, pages later, David is surprisingly honest with himself stating, “No matter how it seems now, I must confess: I loved him. I do not think that I will ever love anyone like that again.” With this statement, the reader sees how much David loves Giovanni, such that it makes this decision incredibly troubling for him. This trouble can also be seen in the way Frank frantically states, “Dreaming a thought that could dream about a thought that could think of the dreamer that thought, that could think of dreaming and getting a glimmer of God. I be dreaming of dreaming a thought, That could dream about a thought that could think of dreaming a dream Where I cannot, where I cannot.” His frazzled state of mind is screaming. He, both referencing David as well as Ocean, is so distraught that he does not make logical sense, but underneath his true feelings he knows he cannot choose this lover, and repeats “where I cannot.” This line seems to be a direct answer to Giovanni’s cries for David stay and choose him. Giovanni exclaims how much he needs David, and pleads David to consider spending his life with Giovanni. However, “Where I cannot” both serves as Frank’s declaration, as well as David’s declaration.
Frank ends the song repeating the lines, “(In the dark) I’d do anything for you (In the dark).” I interpret this as David’s way of acknowledging he still loves Giovanni and wants to be with him, however, realizes that can only happen if they are tucked away from reality, or, “in the dark”. As Ocean repeats these last few lines, I imagine these thoughts reverberate in David’s mind as well, thinking how much he would do anything for Giovanni if he could just love in secret forever, if they could stay away from reality forever. However, David ultimately states, “I wanted to beg him to forgive me. But this would have been too great a confession; any yielding at that moment would have locked me forever in that room with him.” This is when David essentially breaks up with Giovanni, ultimately showing he chooses to hide from his fear.
Ocean’s Blonde illustrates Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room so fittingly. Ocean’s stories of curiosity, growth, love, and heartbreak mirror David and Giovanni’s tragic love story.
The intertextuality between these two bodies of work show the continuity of Black queer love, in such a way that mirrors each other, as well as complements each other. It is almost as if they were written by the same person. In listening to Blonde, I see, hear, and understand David, and in reading Giovanni’s Room, I can visualize Frank Ocean walking the streets of Paris, with his partner. This intertextuality tethers these bodies of work in the canon of Black queer literature and art and allows for a deeper understanding of both.
Wrote this for a class a year ago, and it was something I just needed to share, bc gay
by ea. osei
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