Even though I have been posing these few years as something of a culture critic, I confess I’m not sure what the functional definition of an iconoclast truly is. That is, I don’t know if I’ve ever convincingly heard someone christen an artist or public figure with that moniker and it feel fully reasoned or merited. There are such sweeping parts of the human experience I pretend to know about well enough to catalog, yet I fail to see when someone is meaningfully disrupting it. And, most ironically of all, I don’t often have the vocabulary for articulating the moving experience I’m having by such a disruption, even though so much of my writing is comprised of a feeble or working understanding of the human experience as best as I know it.
Some songs are triggered within me by a single sonic phrase, not even always an utterance. The girls’ restroom door for my high school cafeteria bathroom stuttered some when it rushed closed, always reminding me of the kick drum beat at the start of “No Dancing” by Elvis Costello. It happened again when I got a post-high school seasonal job as barista, and I’d slam the portafilter against the rubber bar in the trashcan next to the espresso machine to empty the basket of the spent grounds. The constant trigger formed some kind of subconscious work shanty. I didn’t mind it, but it couldn’t be helped, anyway, and would happen for years on end.
A similar thing, a not exactly timely earworm has happened to me lately just upon hearing the brand name Nike. It’s absurd, to an extent, that a brand so synonymous with hip-hop culture, which is name-checked nearly as often as it is donned could have such a specific and affecting trigger, but it does, and I have no explanation as to why, other than iconoclasm.
One of my best friends gave me a pair of Nikes for Christmas, in fact she gave nearly everyone she cared about a pair of Nikes, and it was the first pair I’d owned since middle school. After the Kaepernick promo launch in the fall, my Mom quipped that she was going to buy all of us Nikes. She did, in fact, get my sister a pair for her birthday and her boyfriend a pair this holiday season. Appointing Kaepernick as the face of a large-scale promotion, especially in a time when he was unjustly sub-employed, was indeed a genius corporate gesture. Reading the reported history of the ad campaign in The New York Times, there was apparently much internal debate regarding whether or not the controversy would backfire. Ultimately, it was decided that “it was a risk worth taking, given the credibility the company would gain with the young, urban market it had long targeted.” It’s all but known that corporations like Nike target the urban youth because of the perceived “sub”-cultural cache generated by the art and fashion that originates from such communities. Add to this the furious truth that often those “urban” youth are the ones with themselves the least amount of capital to put towards such superficial investments.
But that’s not exactly what I mean by iconoclasm. What happens, even when I think about my own newly beloved pair of Nike trainers bequeathed me, even when I think about packing them for an overnight trip, I just hear the following in my head:
These bitches want Nikes
They looking for a check
Tell ’em it ain’t likely.
Instantly it’s the screwed-beat organ-thrum in my head, as dirgelike and oppressively existential as it appears in Baroque Protestant hymns or in old white-people pop standards like Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which might be analogous to the “Nikes” of its day, for The Big Chill set, at least. It feels like being submerged in dense, tepid water, your limbs slowed by intoxication but the breath not quite shocked out of you. Frank Ocean writes r&b songs like orchestral suites, and their complexity often defies facile interpretation. I think this is one of the primary reasons “Nikes” continues to haunt me, despite how dated it is in terms of the pop culture life cycle. It draws almost no easy conclusions, and in some important ways, ruthlessly predicts the consumer ethos Nike ended up exploiting the moment that Kaepernick’s contract appeared on their agenda. Frank Ocean is the closest approximation of a true iconoclast I can imagine.
I’ve mentioned in my writing before about how Frank Ocean was, in a subtextual way, the Greek chorus of my previous relationship. The summer Channel Orange dropped was the summer I was wed and moved to Italy; we often resorted to the comfort of its bold landscape when things were hard and cold in the early days of our marriage. After that long period of silence between albums, things evolved in my private life. When the rumor that Ocean was finalizing his next effort was within arm’s reach, I tweeted unironically at a fake or fan Twitter account “pls drop that album and save my marriage.” It was August 19th, 2016. The video for “Nikes” came out the next day.
The video is so sexual, spiritual, and unsettling in a way that becomes both dreamlike but an uncomfortably apt portrayal of young- and post-millennial priorities: the Instagram stories I avert my eyes from for fear of understanding how totally remote youth culture is for someone my age and what’s more, in a profession where I pretend to know. The video queers everything from the performative masculinity of race cars and lean-slurping to imagery of gender-ambiguous angels and devils. At one point, Ocean stands on a stage in an empty theater, clad in a pearl-studded pagliaccio outfit while a naked devil tap dances among the empty seats, until moved to pause and observe Ocean’s heartbreaking loneliness, tears forming in the corners of his glittered eyes. It contains all the metaphysical imagery of the best moments of Mullholland Drive, and perhaps owes a bit to its meta-analysis of the pursuit of fame and fortune.
Which, in many ways, is the theme in much of “Nikes.” The shoes themselves are referenced as a status symbol, immediately alongside jewelry and cocaine. But the rest of the song speaks to a greater loneliness. The unreliable narrator hopelessly defends a superficial relationship to the listener, who could be actually you the consumer of this music or the omniscient “you” of a social media audience or, simultaneously, the confessor “you” of a fellow partygoer swapping key bumps in the toilet. This speaker has thwarted ideas of how to define love in contemporary terms:
We don’t talk much or nothin’
But when we talkin’ about something
We have good discussion.
Every day I overhear, helplessly, the murmurings of teenagers as they world-build their own sense of reality. At the risk of sounding like some ancient granny, the thirst for recognition that social media has created truly gets the better of the fragile teen psyche. Reason being, every single generation of teenager craves or has craved instant gratification—I, an old millennial, have my own version of this—I grew up with AOL Instant Messenger (note the urgency of “instant”) and the advent of call waiting, so no phone conversation could be missed. The contemporary equivalent is, instead, the “left me on read” ache, where the transparency of text message read receipts, especially in platforms like Snapchat, are conversely employed as psychological torture devices, especially, it seems, by lukewarm romantic prospects. Another communication gift we have received from the likes of Snapchat is the facial filter, which has totally superseded unretouched reality as a new form of reality, a new rhetorical context—enhanced reality. There’s still a desire to be seen as authentic, but not visually. Teenagers have grown up with cameras in their faces their entire lives—and have subsequently learned to be more photogenic with more regular efficiency than a Southern sorority girl. I have seen my former students in person and I have seen their social media presentations. There is indeed a rift between the two, but I have mad respect for the artistry behind the visual curation. It’s this notion of reality that Ocean nails in songs like “Nikes.” So many of us older, white, middle-class people have likely never heard this kind of perspective if not already submerged in it. It’s uncomfortable for us, but it’s the lay of the land now. We can either choose to care to understand it or generationally pivot, unproductively distancing ourselves from it forever.
Ocean’s best songs are comprised of many voices, sometimes pitched through autotune or altered sonically but sometimes not. The transitions between the voices, like the various personae of an Eliot’s The Waste Land (forgive me, but an earlier iconoclast himself) are delineated by changes in melody and tempo. The repeat listener has learned this technique like from the Channel Orange breakout track “Pyramids,” which moves from a forlorn Egyptian pseudo-history into a monologue by a status-obsessed speaker preoccupied with his stripper-lover. The voices and tones in “Nikes” are much harder to distinguish, and I think appropriately so. It’s a murkier world: a mermaid is at once both a meretricious childlike fantasy girl and a trap queen who will step on and weigh your cocaine parcels; “that’s a real mermaid.”
When Blonde dropped I went for a run in the rain, listening to “Nikes” over and over again. I remember pacing on my front walkway as if in meditation, fat, warm raindrops bursting all over me. No part of me has fully understood the song, but I don’t exactly care to. I just know that, if we are to take the observations of culture seriously, then we should be more suspicious of the consumer activism of Nike than we want to be, as we are led by the nose of whatever ideologue that lingers within us in these times.
Among the most profound images of the “Nikes” music video remains the evocation of Trayvon Martin, who “look just like me”—“me” meaning Ocean autobiographically, and yes, wrenchingly so—and what becomes of the Nikes themselves. In the middle of the party where vile bodies are sprawled all around in sleep, the Nikes are exposed on the white bedsheet, black and white, peeking from beneath a purple shroud, exactly in the manner of repose of the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult. As beautiful and true as the song is in exploring the confused values of youth in a society that doesn’t want to know them or represent them but wants to dupe them into forking over all of their money, it also haunts me. I think it haunts me because it is indeed so much a warning, a warning that we have not heeded.