Frank Ocean's Postmodern Storytelling: Intertextuality & Identity in 'Chanel'
The cultural currency of enigma is a powerful thing. In March, Frank Ocean delivered the mesmerizing “Chanel”, arguably his most radio-friendly solo track since his 2012 album Channel Orange. Much of the subsequent commentary on “Chanel” has focused on the use of duality (epitomized in the hook ‘I see both sides like Chanel’) as a metaphor for bisexuality – astute analyses that don’t need repeating here. The very reference to a designer logo - one often associated with surface displays of luxury - is here a smokescreen masking a wealth of meaning below the surface. Ocean’s lyrics and sonic cues weave a melodic, self-referential web - one that reveals the imperatives of accessibility and ambiguity, both entrapping and enshrining him as an iconic performer.
Chanel is the new Novacane
The title and central motif, the iconic Chanel logo, establish a kind of framework the song’s commentary on hollow fulfillment. Following the words “my guy pretty like a girl”, Ocean’s refrain “see on both sides like Chanel”, has been read as a metaphorical coming out statement, with Ocean referring to the dual identity his bisexuality confers on him in an industry to which LGBT themes are nascent (to say the least). But outside of this evocative visual metaphor, the very use of a luxury designer marque to express a conflicted, deeper identity deserves closer analysis. It’s an explicit statement about the abilities of superficial materialism to paper over emotional battles, a device more common to literature than mainstream music. Luxury designer brands act in a similar way in Bret Easton Ellis’ work. In American Psycho, Ralph Lauren and Valentino Couture become symbolic outlets for deeper, darker contradictions with which narrators/characters would rather not engage. In the same passage, we’re told;
This glossy, outward veneer serves to intensify the inner conflict fermenting within Ellis’ depicted social stratosphere. Designer labels become metaphoric battlegrounds for social and psychological struggles far below the surface. And as a designer, Chanel’s characteristic style is one of perfect simplicity – something Ocean aspires to far more than luxury commodities.
Gaspar Noé is the provocative filmmaker behind Enter the Void, a psychedelic cinematic experience shot mostly in nocturnal Tokyo and featuring a cohort of transgressions from hallucinogens to incest. Ocean references Noé's film in the lines “put a zoom on that stick, Noé” evoking Noé’s signature zoom-in shots. Cinematic references abound in Frank’s work - the adoption of a filmmaker’s perspective during sex is deployed in his “Novacane”, in which he intones: “been tryna film pleasure with my eyes wide shut”, referencing Stanley Kubrick’s final work and his own struggle for a genuine, unperformed connection. Noé, like Frank, is a known admirer of Kubrick. The latter was a punishing – sadistic, by some accounts – director, and whilst Noé doesn’t have the same reputation for challenging his actors, he’s notorious for challenging his audience, with visceral cinematography and taboo themes. By invoking these directors specifically, Frank sketches a self-portrait of a great artist, tormented by his own numbness. The verse’s allusions to ‘[filming it with] that drone cam’ and ‘remote controller’ reinforce an image of Frank’s distanced, technical eye on moments of functional, performed intimacy.
Duality & Melodic Meaning
The central melody used in the verses, and in ‘see both sides like Chanel – see on both sides like Chanel’, employs couplets sung once, and then repeated in lower notes, a sonic doubling-up that reinforces the song’s theme of duality. What’s more, the ‘not-quite-but-almost’ rhymes (e.g. “V both sides of the 12 / Steam both sides of the L”) provide an impression of trying to make something fit the mold, even though it’s not quite right. The song also wryly comments on the duality of fame. The central ‘double C’ metaphor extends to his line: “this a Cult, not a Clique on the net”, a reference to his own ‘cult’ of followers, and a lyric that acknowledges the blurred line between online devotion and digital fads. A reverent fan base is desirable; the pressures of fame and fandom are precarious and dangerous. Another double C comes with “a cup in a cup, Actavis”, a lyrical reference to Actavis’ pharmaceutical beverage, ‘Lean’. This mix of codeine and prescription cough syrup, otherwise known notoriously in rap & hip hop as Purple drank, is euphoric, sedating, and addictive. So, too, is the decadent life of an established artist.
The first two thirds of the song are fast-paced, the lyrics hard to follow, weaving a web of distractions and cultural references (from Moses to reddit). In this myriad of quick-talking analogies, the stark, unembellished words “it’s really you on my mind” interject around one and a half minutes in, and then repeat. The repetitions are drawn out, transparent and suddenly direct, as Frank addresses “you” anew. After this barefaced confession of longing, he hits high, slightly shaky notes, expressing strained desperation in way that furthers the narrative of revelation-rejection residing in many of his songs.
The Death of the Author/Rapper
In its closing, the track returns to the theme of conspicuous consumption vs inconspicuous affliction. We’re told, in ambivalent tones: “my pockets snug; they can’t hold my cellphone; they bend my Visa, my amex and Mastercard”. Money is not a source of empowerment and elation, but an intrusion, weighing Ocean down. In 2015, Gaspar Noé told IndieWire: “I just want to be able to pay my rent and buy movie posters. I'm not obsessed with money.” Frank’s nod to Noé can be viewed among the song’s references to the conflict between material wealth and artistic merit. His indirect reference to Cash Money (“I got new money, and it’s all cash”) could also be seen to signal a personal struggle for independence from a major music label.
Not least because Frank is such a guarded celebrity persona, however, we should be wary of analysing his work with reference to what little we really know of his inner life. Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author stresses the power of the audience to take an artist’s ideas and symbols into their own interpretative hands. Ocean’s work is designed to be interpreted (not ‘solved’) in a similar way. On releasing the audio of the track, Ocean posted the lyrics to “Chanel” on his tumblr in a scattered graphic arrangement, inviting listeners to put them together visually as much as metaphorically. The fact that a “cult” of followers is striving to find the meaning in those lyrics (see rapgenius.com, reddit, possibly you and me, etc.) says as much about Ocean as it does about the state of popular music as an art form in 2017. Ocean sees his audience not only as recipients, but producers. It’s this encapsulation of the very meaning of his medium - beyond inferences around Frank’s sexual identity - that forms “Chanel’s” most significant duality of all.