Frank Ocean fans with tickets to Coachella’s second weekend received bad news when it was announced on Wednesday that the 35-year-old artist won’t be performing. Pop-punk band Blink-182 will perform on Sunday night in his stead. This news is following the backlash to Ocean’s previous Coachella performance, which stunned Coachella attendees with one of the most chaotic and underwhelming sets of his career, leaving “Frank Ocean Fans,” as a Reductress headline put it, “Depressed and Disappointed for New Reason.” Ocean’s Coachella appearance came after a long wait. Organizers first announced that the alternative R&B singer-songwriter would headline the music festival in January, but this announcement itself was already overdue considering his original headlining performance in 2020 was canceled, along with that entire year’s festival, because of the pandemic. It was also his first live performance since 2017, and his absence has extended beyond live performance: Since his critically acclaimed 2016 sophomore album Blonde, Ocean has only released a smattering of singles.
Fans perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised to be left waiting once again when Ocean took the stage an hour late on Sunday, but this was only one way the set missed sky-high expectations. To start, Ocean’s fans from all around the world were patiently anticipating a free livestream of his set, which the music festival had promoted as a part of its biggest year of livestreamed programming yet. But mere hours before Ocean took the stage, the livestream was canceled. Fans resorted to TikTok and Instagram livestreams from festivalgoers, all of which would have been forgivable, except that when the singer finally did make it on stage, he gave what many audience members felt was an anticlimactic performance. Performing in a puffer jacket with his hood up, behind a large screen, the musician himself was barely visible. He also didn’t sing very many of his songs, instead mixing in a couple of covers and several remixes played by DJ Crystallmess. After about 1 hour and 20 minutes on the stage, he announced, “Guys, I’m being told that’s curfew, so that’s the end of the show,” as some fans booed and another could be heard shouting, “Give me my money back.” (The festival was still fined $117,000 for breaking curfew during all three nights of its opening weekend.)
In the face of growing backlash, a series of tantalizing explanations for the myriad issues emerged, all citing unnamed sources. On Monday morning, a viral tweet from @TheFestiveOwl, which circulates “festival news [and] rumors,” claimed that Ocean displayed some diva-like behavior by asking that his stage setup, which was reportedly supposed to include a skating rink, be melted down and changed at the last minute. According to Rolling Stone, “a source close to the situation” said that an ankle injury accounted for the last-minute changes, but the report didn’t say what the changes were, aside from mentioning the pre-performance chitchat about “Frank Ocean on Ice.” This source also stated that Ocean performed 15 minutes longer than originally intended, even though Ocean himself announced his set was cut short due to curfew. By Monday afternoon, TMZ had corroborated the report about the ice rink, citing “sources close to the situation” who attributed his ankle injury to not a skating accident but a bike accident during rehearsals, with doctors advising afterward that Ocean rethink the production. By Tuesday, a counternarrative was emerging: According to outlets as varied as GQ and Justin Bieber, “Actually, Frank Ocean’s Coachella Set Was Great.” That same day, two skaters who say they had rehearsed for the performance gave an account of the last-minute pivot that mostly matched previous reports and included compliments about Ocean’s professionalism, though the brothers say they still don’t understand why it was scrapped, especially when Ocean (who did walk around during the performance without any apparent difficulty) was not participating in the routine. Finally, on Wednesday, a rep for Ocean confirmed that he sustained injuries, including “two fractures and a sprain in his left leg,” that rendered him unable to perform this weekend. Ocean himself chimed in, calling it “chaotic.” “There is some beauty in chaos,” he continued, “It isn’t what I intended to show but I did enjoy being out there and I’ll see you soon.”
But it doesn’t take skating rinks or ankle injuries to explain this high-profile letdown. After all, while Ocean’s recorded projects have been acclaimed since the beginning, his reputation as a live performer is rockier.
The rare live performances of this songwriter-turned-star have been polarizing since the moment he was catapulted to stardom. When Ocean performed at the 2013 Grammys, where he was nominated for six awards for his debut album Channel Orange, including Album of the Year and Best New Artist, fans expected the night to be a coronation. Instead, when Ocean finally took the stage to perform, he sang not Record of the Year nominee “Thinkin Bout You” but a pitchy rendition of “Forrest Gump.” This perhaps shouldn’t have been the most surprising decision: The song was a fan favorite (though not one of the album’s five singles or a major hit) and the choice may have been an attempt to offer something different from his Saturday Night Live performance months prior, in which he performed “Thinkin Bout You” and Channel Orange centerpiece “Pyramids.” Still, the head-scratching was immediate, with Entertainment Weekly running an article headlined “Frank Ocean at the Grammys: What happened?” Soon after the performance, Ocean tweeted that he had monitor problems, which have been known to bring even the greatest singers to their knees. But arguments over who’s to blame for the botched performance continued for years: After Ocean began his boycott of the Grammys, refusing to perform or submit Blonde for award consideration, two Grammys producers attributed this to the performance, telling Rolling Stone that they had advised Ocean against the “minimally staged” offering, warning that it was “not great TV.” But while Ocean agreed that the performance was “absolute shit,” blaming “technical difficulties, blah blah,” he suggested that the reason he was withdrawing from the awards was its record of failing to recognize Black artists, saying, “You know what’s really not ‘great TV’ guys? 1989 getting album of the year over To Pimp A Butterfly.”
In the years that followed, Ocean became known for pulling out of a number of live performances. In 2015, before the release of his second album, Ocean was set to headline FYF Fest before dropping out at the last minute and being replaced by Kanye West. Then, after fans waited four years for Blonde, Ocean was slated to perform the hit album at a bunch of 2017 summer music festivals, including a return to FYF. He canceled several more appearances, retaining his headlining slots at a few fests, including FYF and Panorama. Those summer 2017 concerts were the last times he had performed live before last weekend.
Those festival performances were undoubtedly better received than his Coachella set, but they were recognizably performances by the same enigmatic artist, one who seems more at home in the recording studio than on stage. Ocean’s performance at FYF 2017, in particular, is famous for its intimacy. He seemed to transform the stage into a recording studio, even wearing studio headphones throughout the performance, and only addressing the crowd rarely and calmly. He didn’t play all of the hits, and he hardly performed to the audience, and at about 1 hour 15 minutes, the performance wasn’t any longer than his Coachella set. He was his usual Frank, the Frank his fans anticipated: moody, subdued, an arbiter of vibes rather than a creator of stage spectacle. Even when Brad Pitt showed up to make a cameo, it was by appearing on the side of the stage, appearing to carry on a phone conversion as a sort of performance art while Ocean performed his cover of the Carpenters’ “Close to You.”
When it was announced that Ocean would headline Coachella in 2020, fans were excited yet skeptical, ultimately joking that the subsequent pandemic cancellation likely brought the singer some relief. As early as 2020, some had the prediction that “Frank Ocean Headlining Coachella Is a Terrible Idea,” arguing that Ocean’s aloof performing style would not play well with Coachella’s audience, which they assumed wouldn’t match Ocean’s fanbase. And yet, Ocean returned as scheduled anyway. Though, I guess, it wasn’t necessarily as scheduled.
I don’t think it’s right to say that fans were expecting a blowout high-energy performance like Beychella, though the buzz about “Frank Ocean on Ice” probably didn’t help, but I do think it’s fair to say that Ocean’s long disappearances with glimmers of new music are incredibly effective at building hype for his return. During his long absences, we sometimes forget the performer that Frank Ocean truly is: a beloved, yet unreliable, one. He has always done things his own way, as a fickle artist who is a “super perfectionist,” and that extends to not only whether he will get on stage on any given day but also what he will do once he’s on it. In this case, Ocean explained to the Indio, California, crowd that the main reason he agreed to headline the festival is because his late brother was a fan of the annual event, and he wanted to honor him.
I believe that many of Ocean’s fans would have been satisfied with an encore of his prior muted festival performances, but the hype got them so hungry for the experience of a lifetime that they couldn’t take a moment to appreciate a setlist deviation as small as a minutes-long rave-like DJ set. Much like Rihanna’s Super Bowl performance, Ocean’s hiatus built up expectations of live excellence he likely could never fulfill, expectations that wouldn’t satisfy the wily nature of his eccentric artistry. And, much like Rihanna’s performance, his decision to scrap everything and be himself, underwhelming or not, is the most Frank Ocean decision he could have made. Instead of an ice capade, the audience got what we should have always expected: a quintessential Frank Ocean performance. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the second weekend’s attendants.