Calvin Klein, 2016, photo by Tyrone Lebron

Frank Ocean’s Artistic Relationship to Hyper-Real Nostalgia and Sexuality

Photo by Tyrone Lebron, 2016

Calvin Klein’s Fall 2016 advertising campaign featuring singer, songwriter, and actor Frank Ocean capitalizes on celebrity iconography to convey a modern, signified message of love, sexuality, and nostalgia.

The ad, which was published in the September 2016 issue of Vanity Fair, contains two celebrity subjects, Ocean and a model costumed as Marilyn Monroe. Similarly to its famous subjects, the Calvin Klein brand capitalizes on itself as a representation of iconic wealth and sexuality. The artistic characteristics of the ad supplement a hyper-real fantasy in relation to the subject’s race, gender, sexuality, and occupation of two separate realities: the nostalgic, represented by the Monroe character, and the contemporary, visualized through Ocean.

The phrase featured in the copy of the ad “I feel loved in #mycalvins” narrates their symbolic interaction and juxtaposes their identities across bygone and millennial eras of fame. The ad’s artistic message contains themes of timelessness, celebrity, and sexual expression in order to highlight a modern pursuit of authenticity, or “love.”

The ad appears in the September 2016 issue ofVanity Fair and engages its culturally informed reader. According to Condé Nast’s readership demographics, Vanity Fair’s audience, on average, is female, forty-five years old, college educated, and middle class. Vanity Fair considers itself a “cultural catalyst,” providing commentary on fashion, literature, art, photography, music, and politics. Often, at least one article re-examines historical events or iconic people. The audience is assumed to consist of “modern, sophisticated consumers” who are well-informed in popular culture and politics. As with many Vanity Fair issues, the September issue features stories devoted to a specific person who exhibits some kind of innovative, unique behavior that demands attention.

The cover story features Alicia Vikander, who, although is a well-known actor in Sweden and Denmark, is cast by Vanity Fair as a new, fresh, distinctly talented beauty on the rise. Likewise, the second major article focuses on director John Singleton’s breakthrough production “Boyz N the Hood, ” which reassesses, through a nostalgic frame, its pertinence to contemporary race relations.

The third major article is an exposé of Robert Gottlieb, now editor-in-chief of the New Yorker, and his largely unknown career editing famous classic film autobiographies, including those of Katharine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall. Overall, the theme of the featured articles suggests Vanity Fair is committed to engaging their readers in a variety of exclusive material with fresh takes on old adages. In relation to its audience, the Calvin Klein ad complements Vanity Fair’s ongoing commitment to cultural subjects. The Marilyn Monroe character symbolizes a bygone era of Old Hollywood, while Frank Ocean’s popularity targets an informed, pop-culture forward audience.

The nostalgic themes featured in Vanity Fair illuminate the Calvin Klein advertisement’s cultural relevance to contemporary articulations of love and sexuality.

The associations the Vanity Fair audience regularly makes with nostalgia are articulated through Monroe and Ocean’s celebrity status constructing an iconic separation between the glamorous mid-century past and contemporary present. The ad’s representation of Monroe features all the elements of her timeless, and therefore iconic, retro image.

The model wears a white halter dress similar to Monroe’s infamous scene in A Seven Year Itch (1955) when her dress seductively billowed over a subway grate. In addition, the model’s facial appearance also reflects Monroe’s iconicity. Her hair is curled into Monroe’s legendary blonde coiffure and bold red lipstick highlights a distinctly feminine allure.

Her body language also emphasizes a seductive, cinematic presence. She lightly embraces Ocean and appears ethereal with closed eyelids revealing sparkling eye shadow and slick black eyeliner. In contrast, Ocean stands tall in a minimalist white t-shirt and maintains a masculine distance from Monroe’s affection. His gaze directly engages the camera in a smug, yet poised expression as he slightly bites his lip. They both stand in a heavily contrasted blue, transient hallway leaving the image with a distinct feeling of abstraction and emptiness.

The Seven Year Itch, Dir. Billy Wilder, 1955

The Monroe character’s iconic presence in the ad gives priority to Ocean’s artistic pursuits as if they were part of a hyper-real, yet an imaginative dream. Monroe is a nostalgic fantasy. Her presence in a contemporary space magnifies why allusions to the past are compelling and ironically emphasizes a legacy of patriarchal gender and race norms.

The iconic status of Monroe is re-oriented to fit within the framework of Ocean’s millennial celebrity. It is the present, temporal space Ocean occupies Monroe’s iconicity fits into our modern context. The image of them together complicates historical assumptions about her whiteness, femininity, and sexuality. Monroe’s iconicity is obscured by Ocean, yet it is also informed by her media legacy.

Churchwell argues gender and racial controversies surrounding Monroe’s life contribute to her iconicity because of the expectations and fixed images of her resist, as well as support, any “implicit story,” stereotyping, and visual clichés she represents. Myths she perpetuates may emphasize gender and race norms, but they also problematize and recognize “whiteness.” Monroe’s legacy emphasizes the desirability of whiteness and the pathological, stereotypical, and extravagant condition of feminine womanhood. Yet, her timeless popularity proves that her myth is still relevant in our contemporary culture.

Media texts like the Calvin Klein ad, circulate and create a flourishing, unfinished story about Monroe. According to authors like Baty, Monroe “appears to citizens of the late twentieth century as both chronologically frozen and historically fluid; she is forever the young woman she was at the time of her death, and yet she constantly yields to modern reconstructions of her form.” Monroe is simultaneously a twentieth and twenty-first-century myth which “assumes new meanings and possibilities” as we continue to “negotiate myriad ways of being in America past and present.”

If Monroe represents the fluid relationship the icon can have with historical, and therefore nostalgic representations of gender and race, then Ocean’s celebrity shows how we articulate sexuality in the present. As I described earlier, Ocean’s body language is tense and masculine. He directly engages the camera and exudes quiet confidence while Monroe seems to selflessly shower him with her ultra-feminine attention.

Understood within the context of Ocean’s public persona, his confident stance seems more like a reaction to popular discourse than a subconscious example of heteronormative tenacity.

In 2012 Ocean expressed in a controversial statement on Tumblr, “Four summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too.” In order to avoid labels, Ocean has since characterized his sexuality as “dynamic” and does not directly identify with a queer or heterosexual identity. However, his personal statements about his sexuality have not stopped journalists from describing him as bisexual or gay. Journalists’ failure to properly embrace his explanation is unsurprising in a social context where we still put excessive pressure on men to maintain a heterosexual identity.

The pervasiveness of heteronormative culture extends into the hip-hop, R&B, and rap community where Ocean creates his art. The construction of masculinity in hip-hop is reinforced by its artists, yet also bears witness to the legacy of racism in the U.S. According to Oware, the heteronormativity that defines hip-hop reflects the “code of the street.” A code which prevents the confrontation from ensuing in an unequal economic context where there is a high rate of concentrated poverty, crime, and joblessness among minorities.

“Four summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too.”

Ocean articulates his art and identity in the context of these hip-hop music norms and racist social conditions. The sexist or homophobic references used to demean and belittle male rivals, gays, and lesbians are not only indispensable to promote a heteronormative masculinity, but are perceived as being necessary to survive in a racially oppressive environment.

Ocean’s sexually fluid reputation in the ad demonstrates resistance to heteronormative hip-hop culture. Yet, his strong demeanor and confidence embrace Black masculinity. Ocean, along with emerging queer artists in the Homo Hop movement (Young M.A., Mykki Blanco, etc.) commits to an inclusive identity politics in order to embrace the complex intersectionality of what it means to be a queer, Black hip-hop artist in a white patriarchal society.

In a review of his new album Blonde (released a couple of months after the ad campaign) Amy Zimmerman observed, “Frank Ocean dashes expectations and refuses definitions for a reason. His phobia of labels and limits isn’t just an affectation — it’s essential to his art and his self-expression.”

Similarly to how Monroe’s evolving iconicity contradicts nostalgic and historical gender norms, Ocean’s sexual fluidity re-articulates what is means to be queer in a music environment where heteronormativity is considered standard.

Ocean distorts gender and the hip-hop genre in Blonde and the ad carries us into a fantasy which refuses concrete definitions about sexuality. His intensity in the ad and relationship to Monroe’s iconicity demonstrates an ability to “sample from gendered aesthetics and expectations even as he pulls from various genres” in order to create a modern, signified message of sexuality. According to Lamphier for Rolling Stone, Ocean’s art may initially seem to push a queer agenda, but his “manifestations of it are elliptical, personal, and enigmatic.”

The complex personal identities of Monroe and Ocean are shaped by a public discourse which informs and critiques their iconicity. They are celebrities with a body politic which separates, as Baty describes of Monroe, the “distinctions between public and private, politics and culture, female and male, power and knowledge, past and future.” The ad elicits a reaction because it signifies a celebrity culture in media res where reconstructions of Monroe and Ocean are constantly renegotiated in relation to the past and present.

Their relationship in the ad shows that art and marketing can come together to describe the many abstractions and illusions about the past which can encourage our identification with the “strange,” or the sexual, gender, and race identities society we dominantly categorize as “other.”

The phrase “I feel loved” is re-articulated here not only through Monroe, but by the ad’s complex connection to temporal, hyper-real nostalgia. Race, sexuality, and gender are reconstructed to reflect a creative, hopefully, more open-minded contemporary culture. “I feel loved” also connects the ad to the audience’s sexual psyche. Nostalgic images and themes provide a framework through which identities which were once interpreted in a heteronormative context can instead be perceived as part of a transformative, artistic, and fluid reality.

Calvin Klein is an iconic brand and can afford to indulge its consumer with an altered perception of sexuality. They promote their brand as forward thinking by providing Ocean with an artistic platform. The ad, like its celebrity ensemble, show having a public identity can revolutionize how we interpret our public articulation and private expression of sexuality. As Marilyn Monroe sings in Some Like It Hot, “I wanna be loved by you, just you/ And nobody else but you” sexuality is not only understood through our interpersonal relationships, but through a medium as public as cinema, music, or marketing.

Nostalgia reminds us that with time dominant sexual, gender, and racial codes evolve as our diverse sexualities, races, and genders are normalized in public discourse. In the television ad of the Calvin Klein campaign Ocean observes, we tend to “romanticize the past” because nostalgia saturates the colors of the present, like a “supplement drawn fantasy to make things that hyper-real.” The ad ultimately reminds us of nostalgia, fantasy, and celebrity signify a relationship between our public perception of sexuality and our personal, intimate expressions of “feeling loved.”

The Marilyn Monroe character also appears in a video advertisement featuring Frank Ocean for Calvin Klein.

“Shot by photographer and filmmaker Tyrone Lebon, the Fall 2016 Calvin Klein global advertising campaign spotlights an evolved cast of talent that encompasses actors, musicians, cultural icons, athletes, fashion idols, social media heavyweights, artists, and professional and street cast models — often paired together to create a dynamic and artful mix of visuals.”

Read more about the cast at ck.com/mycalvins (July 16, 2016).