Welcome to Day 3 of our pop culture advent calendar. Every day we’ll be handing out a little treat in the shape of an award or recognition of something big or small in pop which has made 2012 a better place for all of us . On day 1 we gave the Lady GaGa Award for Turning The Pop Video Into Glorious Art to Lana Del Rey’s magnificent “National Anthem”. Day 2 saw us hand The In-betweeners Award for a Sitcom You Can’t Quite Believe Hasn’t Been Made Before to the brilliant “Fresh Meat”.
Day 3 sees us turn to the fading art of the love letter, which has always played a major role in the history of pop culture. After all, what were Shakespeare’s sonnets if not love letters, to his famed “dark lady” (or boy, if you prefer to pursue that particular theory)? A good 90% of pop songs are love letters, though the majority of them are so banal they would be dumped in the bin by any recipient with a few brain cells to rub together.
But it’s the personal love letters – the ones addressed by real people to true loves – that tend to have the most impact on us, that move us most deeply. Think of Napoleon’s rhapsodies to Josephine, Byron’s to Lady Caroline or even Ronald Reagan’s to Nancy. Perhaps most famous of all – and the one for which this award is named – was Beethoven’s love letter to his anonymous “Immortal Beloved” (handwritten text above) which ends – exquisitely – “Ever thine. Ever mine. Ever ours”. (Our thanks to the ever enriching website Letters Of Note, from whom we borrowed image and text).
All of these are historical examples, but one love letter this year has had a similar impact on us. And so we’d like to thank from the bottom of our hearts the writer of 2012’s most beautiful public love letter…Frank Ocean. Back in July Frank released a note on tumblr which revealed to the world, elegantly and beautifully, that his first love had been a man. It was a huge news story because it was seen as his “coming out” – which it was, of course. But more than that, it was a love letter.
If you still haven’t read that note , you must. Originally intended to be in the liner notes to “Channel Orange”, it would move anyone of any sex or sexuality who has ever been young and in love with someone who didn’t love them back.
“We spent that summer, and the summer after that, together. Almost every day. And when we were together the time glided.” Read that last sentence again – “And when we were together the time glided”– and if something in you doesn’t shiver, you may never have been in love. His bruisingly honest and vulnerable account of confessing his feelings to his friend, and that friend’s rejection, is devastating, his description of his slow recovery beautiful.
Any gay man will recognise his description of the relief of being able to talk about his secret: “I was never alone, as much as I felt like it. As much as I still do sometimes. I never was. I don’t think I ever could be.” And then read this perfect closing flourish, its mix of gratitude and fear: “Thank you. All of you. I feel like a free man now. If I listen closely I can feel the sky falling too…”
The wonderful thing is that the sky didn’t fall. Ocean instead made the sky rise, giving gay or bisexual people, or anyone who feels like they don’t quite belong, a little more room to breathe. While the online vitriol from some was vile, a truly inspiring number of Ocean’s peers stood by his side, from Tyler the Creator, to Beyonce, to hip hop pioneer Russel Simmons. As Simmons titled his blog in support of Ocean, “The Courage of Frank Ocean Just Changed The Game.” His album soared to number 2, he has been lauded across the world and “Channel Orange” looks likely to feature in most lists of the best albums of 2012.
His unrequited love for his old friend is not the album’s focus, though it does provide the album’s most charming moment, the breezily sweet stroll of “Forrest Gump”. It also supplies the most nakedly emotional peak, on “Bad Religion”, with its soft echoes of Prince at his heartfelt best.
Watch this video of Ocean performing the song on the Jimmy Fallon show, his first time on mainstream television, and soak in the stark honesty of the words (“I can’t tell you the truth about my disguise”) and the aching beauty of the vocal (“I could never make him love me, never make him love me.”) Yes, pronouns matter, but the pain of unreturned love is universal.
Watch the heartbreak and intensity that moves across Ocean’s brow as he sings the song, and then watch for the shy smile that breaks across his face when he realises that the audience have listened to him bare his soul, and have loved him for it. The love letter has been returned; not in the way he hoped, perhaps, but in a way that may have changed the world for thousands of young gay or bi kids.
Note – large elements of this blog are excerpted from a Poplifer blog from July. What can we say – we got it right first time.