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Frank Ocean flounders amid Coachella backlash

Entertainment Column

Frank Ocean, seen here performing in 2013, was supposed to be the highlight of the 2023 Coachella lineup. Instead, his performance garnered the most controversy.
Frank Ocean, seen here performing in 2013, was supposed to be the highlight of the 2023 Coachella lineup. Instead, his performance garnered the most controversy.

For thousands of people, the two weekends of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California, are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. With tickets ranging from $500 to more than $1,000, plus travel, housing and food costs, some music fans will pull out all the stops in order to see their favorite acts perform.

Coachella also allows people to experience the festival from their homes, streaming performances through their YouTube channel.

This year’s festival in particular had a major selling point: Frank Ocean would be the Saturday night headliner.

The enigmatic R&B star was originally scheduled to perform in 2020, but that year’s festival was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The same year, Ocean lost his brother Ryan Breaux in a car accident.

Fans were ecstatic that they might be able to finally experience Ocean in a live setting. Though he holds a reputation for keeping to himself, people hoped that this massive stage would bring him outside of his shell.

Unfortunately, Ocean did not meet the moment.

Even before the performance’s start, there were problems. The Coachella livestream, which previously listed Ocean as one of the featured artists, suddenly removed him from the schedule. This was later confirmed by a tweet from YouTube.

Pandemonium erupted across social media. Why would Ocean’s set not be shown? Was this Coachella’s doing? Perhaps Ocean himself?

It wasn’t long before an arms race of attendee streams began. I was among the viewers, jumping between multiple platforms to catch a glimpse of my most anticipated live performance of the year.

Ocean was scheduled to begin at 10:05 p.m. PST (1:05 a.m. EST). After nearly an hour of waiting, fans began to wonder if he was even going to show up.

When he finally emerged on stage, things only got weirder.

To Ocean’s credit, the show wasn’t terrible. When he did sing, he sounded incredible, and the setlist was balanced between his biggest hits and more intimate numbers.

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That said, the performance as a whole felt poorly structured. Ocean performed some songs similarly to the recorded versions, but he remixed others into new oddities. Covers were thrown in every now and then, along with a seemingly random 10-minute DJ mix interlude. 

By the end, Ocean was barely singing at all, instead opting to simply vibe along on-stage while songs like “Nikes” and “Nights” played along in the background. Elsewhere in the erratic appearance, he crushed rumors that an album was imminent, though he seemed to confirm it’s in the works.

After a little over an hour, Ocean was done. His time had broken Coachella’s midnight curfew, a symptom of arriving so late.

In the days since this confusing, frustrating performance, fans have searched for answers as to what exactly happened. One Twitter post in particular from Festive Owl gained the most traction, pointing to Ocean being indecisive and unenthusiastic about performing.

Allegedly, Ocean asked for an ice rink that had been constructed on-stage to be removed only a few hours before he was scheduled to begin, and he also made the call not to live stream the show.

In response, some people have claimed that Ocean injured his ankle earlier that day, preventing him from performing at his highest caliber.

So, what do we take away from all of this?

It’s been abundantly clear that Ocean is uninterested in playing by traditional music industry rules. Whether it's the label finesse he pulled with the dual release of “Endless” and “Blonde,” his shyness from the public eye or his slow release of new music, Ocean is famous for doing things on his own terms.

This policy is fine when it comes to his personal life or artistic output. It’s another when asking fans to spend a significant amount of time and money to see him perform, only to show little interest in delivering.

Ocean’s set was always likely to be experimental in some way. But experimental is not the same as unfinished, which is what the Coachella performance read as.

None of this is to downplay the emotions Ocean has clearly been working through since the death of his brother, which has undoubtedly affected his artistic output. The problem is that if he wasn’t ready to give his all, maybe he should have said no.

This debacle probably won’t significantly impact Ocean’s public image. Even though it was announced he would be pulling out from the second weekend due to his ankle injury, he still has a massive fanbase and could redeem himself down the road.

But if this has shown anything, it’s that Ocean is not the god many fans want to believe. Like all of us, he is human, and just as capable of making mistakes.

Here’s hoping that Ocean takes his own lyrics to heart: “Living so the last night feels like a past life.”