How much better is ‘Blonde’ this year…
…than ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ would’ve been last year?
AUGUST 22ND, 2016 — POST 231
“Finally”. The word that’s adorning nearly every headline for Frank Ocean’s just-released Blonde. It’s now late-August 2016 and Ocean has dropped the record we were expecting in July of 2015. The wait for what was then to be titled Boys Don’t Cry was memeified, endlessly lampooned on Twitter and Tumblr. Some were expecting a new collab record from Bowie and Prince before whatever Ocean was cooking up. But Ocean is a renowned perfectionist, and evidently the delay was in the interest of perfecting the seventeen tracks of Blonde.
The delay of the record has only affirmed Ocean’s status as an artistic visionary. As much as people were impatient, there was a respect afforded to Ocean, a trust that if he needed the time, let him have it. This kind of respect for the artistic process is increasingly rarified in creative industries, and there’s probably only a handful of artists one could point to who are consistently trusted to deliver across such drawn-out timeframes. Daniel Day-Lewis famously takes only one role every four or five years. And when he does, he’ll probably get an Oscar. Director Jim Jarmusch makes a movie about every four years, seemingly working as unhurriedly as his movies feel. We carve out a creative bubble where we agree to give certain artists time to gestate, to develop, and to produce work that astounds us.
But this bubble is shrinking as creative work becomes increasingly folded onto Just Work. From the YouTubers that post every day, to SoundCloud and Bandcamp artists dropping EPs every other week, the modern creative can’t expect to have that time. Nor should they want it. With Silicon Valley’s catch-cry of “Move fast and break things”, the modern tech sector has set the cultural pace. “Just ship” is the maxim of the modern creative, or my own version as applied to this daily Medium post: “Shit writing is better than no writing”. For Casey Neistat, with 4 million YouTube subscribers and vlogging daily, the words “Always Be Closing” are tattooed onto his forearm.
If you’ve ever fallen down the “productivity hacking” well on Medium or elsewhere, the importance of set deadlines is constantly stressed, foregrounded as of paramount importance to delivering whatever it is you’ve set out to deliver. If there’s no answer to “When will this get done?”, this thinking goes, then it won’t get done. Constant, sprinted output — inherited as much from tech product release cycles as the mythologised developer culture of Silicon Valley — is the only way to succeed.
For Blonde, we’ll never know exactly what the time he took to make it did for the record. It’s good, illustrative of some of the best textural work on any pop record in recent memory. But is it a markedly different record from whatever sat on hard drives and tape reels in the middle of last year? Maybe, maybe not. It’s impossible to know. What we can know is that we’re unable to give such an indulgent process a shot for ourselves. Most just can’t give their work that much time.
Ocean represents a seductive image of creative work, one that we no longer see much instantiation of. He’s old school, lauded as much for what he creates as how he creates it. The story of Blonde is also the story of Ocean’s process. The cult of process — of how “shielded” artists work — argues for an alchemy of creativity. But this is already rightly eroding — one only has to look at the rolled eyes in the response to Jared Leto’s “method” for Suicide Squad. As such, Blonde is a statement against the democratisation of creative work in way that frankly feels out of time.
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