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Frank Ocean's Coachella performance showcases complexities of artist-fan relationships

Following his chaotic Coachella performance, Frank Ocean has faced outrage from fans. – Photo by @PopBase / Twitter

The Frank Ocean Coachella experience ended prematurely after Ocean dropped out of the music festival during weekend two due to a leg injury.

Before performing as Coachella's Sunday night headliner to conclude weekend one, Ocean had gone six years without performing. Due to his extended musical absence, his low-profile persona, the cancellation of his 2020 Coachella performance due to the pandemic and his passionate fanbase, the performance was one of the most hyped-up musical acts not only in 2023 but also in the last three years.

As Coachella's gates opened on Sunday morning, fans rushed to the main stage to wait for Ocean, who was not slated to perform until 10 p.m. that night.

But things took a turn for the worse when on Sunday, April 16, Ocean canceled the YouTube live stream of his set a few hours before he was about to perform.

YouTube had initially promoted Ocean's live stream in a since-deleted tweet. But a few hours later, YouTube tweeted that the Coachella live stream would end before Ocean was to perform.

For Ocean fans that couldn't afford to go to Coachella and were excited to watch the performance, the disappointment was palpable.

Then at the festival, the clock hit 10 p.m., and the stage was still getting set up with Ocean nowhere to be found. More than an hour later, Ocean finally came on the main stage. 

While many artists tend to delay their performances to build suspense, coming out a whole hour late as the headliner is considered a bit of a concert faux pas — Ocean’s set would not ease the disgruntled Coachella goers.

Ocean started with a few of his songs, but then the set transitioned into a weird mixture of Jersey club remixes of some of his most famous songs — the strange thing being that Ocean was not on stage.

Then Ocean came back, sang another song and then stood up without a mic and danced and lip-synced as some of his songs played in the background. Finally, at approximately 12:30 a.m., Ocean abruptly announced to the audience that the show had to end due to curfew, and just like that, a bizarre performance was over faster than it started.

What ensued the next morning was chaos over social media, with many people attacking and shaming Ocean and others defending the performance. Even Justin Bieber got involved, taking to Instagram to defend Ocean’s set.

The performance certainly added to Ocean's mystique but also brought up the question: What do artists owe their fans?

It seems fair for fans to be frustrated with Ocean, who almost never performs and rarely releases music. When Ocean finally announced his headlining act, he made his concert inaccessible to anyone not attending Coachella.

And for the fans at Coachella, he showed up late, ended early and only sang a handful of his songs with lip-synch at certain parts. That isn't to say other artists don't lip-synch, but Ocean made it extremely obvious by not even having a mic in his hand.

Due to these issues, many fans felt like he was phoning in his performance and that they were cheated after paying for a glorified listening party.

Those defending Ocean's performance argued that he has no responsibility to his fans and that those who attended Coachella should feel lucky that they saw Ocean perform at least some songs live.

What those defending this artist don't acknowledge is that Ocean is in his position, in part, because of his passionate fans. Artists have obligations to their fans because without them, they would not be successful artists.

But exactly how much should fans be allowed to expect from artists?

On stage, artists can seem like holy figures that are physically and mentally above you, but artists are just people. It's well-documented how demanding tours are on artists' mental and physical health. Shouldn't they have some say in when and what they feel like performing?

In Ocean’s case, a reason why he has not performed is due to the loss of his younger brother in 2020 — the resulting grief has been well documented on his part. In a speech he gave to the audience during his set, he mentioned that the main reason he was performing was that his brother loved Coachella.

Due to the confusion of the performance, many fans speculated that Ocean was still recovering from the loss of his brother and was not ready to perform. It seems fair that Ocean should be given as much time as he needs to grieve the loss of his brother.

The next day, amid the social media storm, it was revealed that Ocean originally had planned for his set to include an ice rink with ice skaters but had to change the set at the last second after injuring his ankle. The new information only added to the debate, with many questioning the validity of the news and some using it to further justify Ocean's actions.

Once again, the relationship between the artist and their fans was put back into the spotlight. When most people severely hurt their ankles, they usually don't show up to work the next day. But at the same time, most people don't get paid $4 million for their work.

While Ocean’s defenders fairly point out that he's not trying to be purposefully mysterious and deserves to have aspects of his life be private, fans, as consumers of Ocean, also have a right to speculate about those private aspects.

The crux of the issue is that the artist and fan relationship is one of a consumerist nature, with both fans and artists reaping the benefits of it. The relationship has flaws, as Ocean is not a product but a person, and his fans are not just solely consumers but people too.

Ocean's controversial Coachella proved that the relationship between artists and fans is getting increasingly complicated, only exacerbated by social media. Fans demand publicity from their favorite artists, while many artists shy away from the attention.

Ocean remains an enigma due to the paradox of his popularity status coexisting with his ability to escape the spotlight. Most artists that don't perform for as long as Ocean would slip away into obscurity, but his lack of publicity only adds to his mystique.

It's unfair to speculate on Ocean's feelings for his fans, but as he himself sings in "Nights," "If I get my money right / You know I won't need you." He's financially stable and will not be dictated by any label or fans about when to perform or release music. At the end of the day, Ocean is going to operate on his own time.

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