Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
Frank Ocean's Channel Orange, which was released this week in physical form (and digitally last week), has a lot of surprises on it -- although its biggest surprise came a couple of weeks ago, when Ocean posted the liner notes describing his years-long relationship with a man to his Tumblr account. It was useful preparation for some of his lyrics on the album: Channel Orange's emotional peak is "Bad Religion," a song about unrequited passion whose hook goes, "I could never make him love me." (And Ocean scores about 10 million points on the awesome scale for not changing his lyrics' pronouns.)
A lot of the initial froth over Ocean coming out suggested that he was the first openly gay -- or at least openly not-straight -- black male pop star. Not by a long shot. The British singer/songwriter Labi Siffre, for instance, had a string of hits beginning in the early '70s; the biggest was probably 1987's "Something Inside (So Strong)," below.
You may also have heard Siffre's 1975 song "I Got The...," below, sampled in Eminem's first hit "My Name Is." Reportedly, Siffre allowed the riff that comes in at the 2:08 mark to be used, on the condition that Eminem get rid of one of the song's original lyrics: "My English teacher wanted to have sex in junior high/ Only problem was, my English teacher was a guy." (Em replaced it with "My English teacher wanted to flunk me in junior high/ Thanks a lot -- next semester I'll be 35," a better line in every way.)
In light of Ocean's note, though, last year's song "Acura Integurl" takes on a new dimension, especially its sharpest lyric: "I wrote a letter to the sky saying maybe one day you'll get to kiss me/ My girl found it in the car and said 'Baby, why you tryin' to dis me?'"
Well, the idea of a black male singer who defies R&B norms getting a kiss from the sky -- that does have an antecedent. Jimi Hendrix's breakthrough single "Purple Haze," from 1967, includes the line "'scuse me while I kiss the sky," which was legendarily easy to mishear as "...while I kiss this guy." (There's a ferocious live performance of it below.) And in the light of that, you can re-hear Ocean's line as "I wrote a letter to this guy..."--which could explain why his girl might be mad at him.
Still, a man singing about a "he" or a woman singing about a "she" as the object of desire isn't nearly as new as you might think from the ripples of shock about Ocean. In the early years of recorded popular music, song publishers sometimes wouldn't allow performers to change the lyrics of their songs at all, and that didn't stop performers who happened to like the song. Which is how, in 1928, Bing Crosby could sing "There Ain't No Sweet Man That's Worth the Salt of My Tears" on a recording with Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, and nobody blinked.
That sort of cross-singing of other people's songs still occasionally happens: One relatively recent example is the White Stripes' cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene," a staple of their live set for their entire career. (It's worth noting that "Jolene" is very much sung from a particular lyrical persona: Nobody's going to confuse its character with Jack White.)
Since the '70s, there have been lots of pop stars who've established themselves as not strictly heterosexual from the outset of their careers, from Sylvester to Tom Robinson and beyond. The ones who outed themselves after they were already stars at least as big as Frank Ocean, though, are a whole other category, and their patron saint is arguably David Bowie. Let's take a moment to watch his rather amazing video for 1979's "Boys Keep Swinging," shall we? And note that the three backup singers who take over for its last few minutes are all Bowie himself in drag.
There was a little flurry of smart gender-bending songs in that era, like Prince's 1980 standard "When You Were Mine." Prince's version hints at some sort of love triangle that's blurred into a threesome ("When he was there/ Sleeping in between the two of us"). But he's also famously reticent to let anyone change any words in his songs, so when Cyndi Lauper covered "When You Were Mine" on her 1983 album She's So Unusual -- named after Helen Kane's innuendo-laden 1929 song "He's So Unusual" -- she kept all the gender-specific lyrics intact, which complicated its scenario considerably.
But Lauper wasn't the only person covering "When You Were Mine" in 1983; there was also a minor hit version by Mitch Ryder (a '60s-era rock star who, as it happens, had made a handful of explicitly gay-themed recordings in the '70s). Its video makes it even more complicated: one of the dancers by whom Ryder is transfixed is the famously massive-chested actress Kitten Natividad, but the other one sure seems to be transgender.
Prince and Ocean, though, both belong to a long line of pop stars who've done particularly clever things with pronouns. Exhibit A there would have to be the Kinks' 1970 hit "Lola," whose final line is brilliantly ambiguous: "I know what I am and I'm glad I'm a man, and so is Lola."
Nine years later, the all-woman band the Raincoats recorded their own version of "Lola" -- keeping Ray Davies' original lyrics entirely intact, for an even more mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up effect. Who, exactly, is supposed to be the narrator? What, exactly, is Lola? Who cares? They sound like they're having so much fun that it doesn't matter a bit -- and that's the state of the world that the Raincoats and Siffre and Ocean are helping to bring about.
Frank Ocean, incidentally, gave his first post-Channel Orange concert performance this week in Los Angeles. It included, of all things, a cover of "When You Were Mine."