We’ll Never Be Those Kids Again: Frank Ocean at Coachella

Liz Sánchez reports back from Frank Ocean's Coachella performance and examines expectations, obsessive fandom, and tries to make sense of what happened.
By    April 21, 2023

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Liz Sánchez taught Frank Ocean how to build that endless ladder. 

It’s Friday afternoon at Coachella Weekend One. I just weaved through crowds of sweaty festival goers to find my friends drinking overpriced fruity vodka seltzers at the bar in the air conditioned Sonora Tent – where 2010’s indie darling TV Girl is playing. The bar is on an elevated platform behind the sound booth, and I’m leaning against the front supporting wall when I hear a voice next to me exclaim, “I like your Homer pendant.” I turn to my left and a girl in her mid-20s is smiling earnestly, clutching her own necklace. I thank her, and before I can say much, she says something like “I have one too, but it’s a different charm.” I glance down at the small purple metal bear-like body on her silver chain. Am I in a cult?

Her name is Elliot Richardson. She came from Boston to catch this rare sighting of Frank Ocean; his first performance since the 2017 FYF Fest in Los Angeles. We start talking about what we’re excited to hear him play, hopefully “Pyramids.” And how she posted a photo of herself photoshopped next to Frank with the caption “some bisexual icons” as a way of coming out to her family. Then she shows me her two Frank Ocean tattoos – with loose plans to get two more. The most visible one on her forearm says “Less morose and more present,” a popular lyric from 2017’s Blonde. Another one is on her leg. It’s of Ocean’s motorcycle helmet – an image taken from his Boys Don’t Cry zine. Elliot came with a friend with whom she got a complimentary lyric tattoo. The friend eventually got hers covered up because she decided she didn’t like having a lyric tattoo after all.

Elliot tells me she’s planning on camping out at the Coachella main stage all day on Sunday to secure a good spot for Ocean’s 10pm show. I wish her luck and then scurry out of the tent with my friends to catch another set.

The tattoos, the necklace, the emotional nostalgia, are all trademark characteristics of Frank Ocean Standom. For a fan like me, Ocean’s music is deeply personal, the backdrop to my depressed teenage years. I remember staying up late lying on my bed while scrolling through Tumblr, reading his heartfelt messages: “Whoever you are. Wherever you are… I’m starting to think we’re a lot alike. Human beings spinning on blackness. All wanting to be seen, touched, heard, paid attention to,” he wrote in 2013. That made me feel less alone as a teenager who had moved and transferred to a new high school, struggling to fit in for the first couple years. In the San Fernando Valley of the early 2010’s – where I grew up – everyone at school was bumping “Super Rich Kids” and “Thinkin Bout You” on their way to the mall’s Urban Outfitters or driving around aimlessly at night with the windows down.

If you ask anyone under the age of 35 who might live in Brooklyn or in Northeast Los Angeles, it’s likely that 2016’s Blonde has been, at some point, a sort of mantra. I’ve listened to that album on repeat for months at a time. It’s helped me get through breakups, quarantine, working in daily news while a fascist orange teletubby ran the White House in a pandemic, and even a harrowing 200-plus mile backpacking trip through the Eastern Sierras. It’s Vicks vapor rub for the anxious soul.

I’ve never seen Ocean live, so when I first heard he was going to headline Coachella in 2020 I braved the hour-plus-long digital pre-sale stampede. I’d never been to Coachella, and that would’ve been my first time had the pandemic not happened. Ultimately, Ocean rescheduled for 2023.

When the time arrived, throughout the first weekend of Coachella, my friends and I speculated what Ocean’s set might be like. Maybe he’d bring up Tyler, the Creator for an Odd Future semi-reunion? Or play a new Detroit house-inspired single? Or maybe he just won’t show up at all? For me, I was hoping he would do something like his 2017 FYF Fest. But I didn’t really know what to expect going into it. I would be content with the performance if he was.

Videos have circulated about how ravenous his followers were for this first performance in six years. One Tiktok showed fans lining up at noon at the Coachella front gates. The kid in front was hunched over an invisible starting line with a small crowd behind him, taking off the second the festival workers touched the chain link entrance. Those fans apparently camped out at the main stage all day to secure a good spot for Ocean’s show. Another video shows a worker at the merchandise tent standing on their worktable holding a “No Frank Ocean Merchandise,” sign while others shouted joking or deranged bids for it.

At this point, you’ve probably heard the gist of what happened this past Sunday night on the former polo fields. He was slated for 10:05pm, but the time came and no Ocean. The thought crossed my mind that he might not show, but I assumed he was past that flighty “phase” of his career. He was different now. He will show up.

Then around 11:00pm, a dozen shadowy figures started walking in a circle at the mouth of a panoramic screen that covered everything save for a small opening center stage. This went on for about five minutes until Ocean walked out more than 50 minutes late in a blue puffer, gray technical pants, a black du-rag, and… house slippers? Sitting down in front of a mic in his “screen cave” band setup, he performed almost an entire set totally out of sight – possibly a metaphor for either an artist trapped inside his own mind, or just a stand-in for his literal reclusiveness.

In addition to being late, he pulled the YouTube advertised live-stream at the last minute – which meant that all footage would be shaky, lo-res hand-held camera phone footage, adding to the lore. That rattled a lot of fans in-attendance and at-home. Many complained online about how they cleared their schedules just to see him, others complained he “hates poor fans” because they didn’t have the financial means to be there in-person.

The show felt improvised, and it was. Regardless of the unrealistic expectations, the performance was all over the place and “chaotic.” On an episode of the podcast “Empty Netters,” ex-hockey players, Dan and Chris Powers talked about how they were cast to perform on stage with Ocean. Their friend Chris Nelson, a filmmaking hockey consultant with Hockey for Hollywood, had apparently recruited them months ago.

The Powers brothers and about 120 other ice skaters – including some Olympic skaters – had been reportedly rehearsing for a month. They said Ocean had coached the skaters on how to sing, planned for them to wear custom-made skin-tight bedazzled Prada suits with icy metallic makeup, and bused all of them to Coachella the day of the performance to ostensibly perform on an ice rink elevated stage. “We’ve been hanging with Frank, hanging with the other skaters, hanging with these incredible figure skaters going through this whole process,” Chris Powers said. “This whole thing [was] a huge production…without question the biggest at Coachella this year.”

The entire weekend, the brothers were under the assumption that they would be performing on Sunday. Yet on the day of, Chris heard worried “rumblings.”

“This is neither confirmed nor denied,” he described hearing the news. “Frank has been in an accident that has given him an ankle injury. Something’s going on there. So people are starting to talk. Like Frank’s not in a good head space.” Some festival goers reportedly saw stage workers taking apart a giant ice rink that afternoon. It was a last-minute decision made by Ocean.

This ‘“ice rink deconstruction” tidbit has also been reported by other verified sources, including tweets from Festive Owl and other first-hand accounts. It seemed to be particularly devastating for the people involved who spent weeks rehearsing and putting this production together. The brothers remembered that some of the skaters, who were transported from Los Angeles, weren’t even allowed to enter the festival and were made to wait in a hot tent all day because they weren’t given passes.

“Needless to say, if you were tapped into Coachella, if you went to Coachella, the Frank Ocean performance did not go well,” joked Chris.

Before all of this went down, the brothers said Ocean was really pleasant to work with. Dan fondly remembered how he coached him on vocals and cracked jokes. He paused to reflect on how much weight this performance also had: “First of all, he’s coming out of hiding seven years not performing, doing this for the memory of his brother. And he just wanted it to be this big thing and then it just like fucking, everything was gone and it was cut short and I was like, ‘oh god.’”

On Sunday night, Ocean started with a new electronic version of “Novocaine,” rather appropriately punching up the line “Met her at Coachella.” It cut off abruptly, followed by confused silence. Then a slow beat found Ocean mumbling “I can escape, yeah yeah, I can escape,” a deep cut from “Come on World, You Can’t Go!” (live debuted on his 2021 Blonded radio X-Mas special). Throughout the set you could see Ocean giving his musicians the throat slashing gesture, signaling for them to stop. He frequently got up, talked to his guitarist, and then wandered off stage somewhere as the crowd sat often in silence. It was hard to watch. It felt like he was struggling and didn’t want to be there.

In the middle of the set, Ocean played a jarring metal cover of god knows what. Then he paused for a second after a DJ spun a 12-minute set of Jersey Club remixes of his hits to say: “This is fucking chaotic, but so much fun.” He was clutching his lime-green robot baby “Cody,” who wore a Homer pendant-print onesie.

The performance had its moments, though. Ocean played interesting electronic renditions of “Solo” and “White Ferrari” (making its live debut). He also performed acoustic versions of “Pink+White” and “Self Control,” and a moving straight-forward version of “Godspeed” and “Bad Religion.” The crowd’s silence and attentiveness to his every word was heartwarming. But none of the moments were easy to sink into. There was no flow between songs with frequent periods of silence between each, along with a painful view of Ocean fumbling around stage with the equipment.

Those aware of Ocean’s notorious flightiness weren’t entirely surprised. Still, the majority of fans were disappointed, and many walked away complaining how the show was “terrible.” Others seemed to not have known what to expect because they genuinely didn’t care to speculate or over-analyze what occurred. Most casual observers agreed it seemed thrown together:

“I’ve never seen so many people walk out of a show so upset and confused,” tweeted music journalist Tómas Mier. “The amount of anticipation for this was extremely high, and I don’t think anyone was satisfied. Not even the diehard fans. (And if you weren’t there… don’t talk lol.),”

There’s been a stream of negative reactions to his performance, with dashes of weepy appreciative perspectives thrown into the mix – including a heart-felt Instagram post from Justin Bieber who interpreted the set’s hiccups as an ingenious artistic choice. Hardcore ‘stans’ are mostly upset about the lack of new music and his perceived lack of care around the performance: “listen. this fanbase is used to receiving crumbs but that doesn’t mean we should accept those crumbs as good and act like we’re grateful for them,” tweeted the fan account: TeamFrankDaily. “frank confirming a new album is otw doesn’t justify the rest of his actions last night.”

The stans may have expected Ocean to clear an impossibly high bar that not even the most hyper-active, extroverted artists could possibly reach. Those demands to squeeze the most out of a singular, independent artist fall somewhere on the toxic fandom scale.

Somewhere towards the end of the show, Ocean shushed the crowd. He started off, rather genuinely, by addressing the crowd, “I have missed you.” He mentioned that there might be a new album coming, “Not that there’s not a new album.” He started talking about how his life has changed so much since he last performed. Then he mentioned his late brother, Ryan Breaux, who tragically died in a car accident in 2020 at age 18.

Ocean went on to say that Ryan was always so excited to go to Coachella, and Ocean would begrudgingly come along (he didn’t like the dust). “One of my fondest memories was watching Rae Sremmurd on — I don’t know what that stage is called — watching Rae Sremmurd with my brother and Travis [‘Taco’ Bennet]. We were just dancing in that tent to their music. I know he would’ve been so excited to be here with all of us and I want to say thank you for the support and the ears and the love over all this time.”

That part of the performance really hit home for me. Since this past January, I’ve lost two family members who were very near and dear: my maternal aunt/godmother, and my father. I think it’s safe to say that grief has no timeline. You never know when you’re going to get triggered. There were times this weekend when I heard artists on stage saying “put your hands in the air if you’ve ever lost someone.” In those moments, the pain would well up and burst out of me. I wanted to sprint out of the festival and sob in the car. Thankfully, I didn’t have to get up on a stage and perform in front of hundreds of thousands of expectant fans for the first time in 7 or so years. A simple hug from my friends and boyfriend were enough to quell my emotions.

By now, you’ve probably heard that Ocean canceled his weekend 2 headlining slot. A representative of his released a statement citing his ankle injury “two fractures and a sprain in his left leg” as the main reasoning. The note ends with a statement from Ocean: “It was chaotic. There is some beauty in chaos. It isn’t what I intended to show but I did enjoy being out there and I’ll see you soon.”

On Sunday, we witnessed a Frank Ocean who couldn’t cancel but probably wanted to. Nonetheless, his performance was extremely memorable. The internet buzzed around the flawed display of humanity on one of music’s biggest stages – something that could only be fully experienced in-person. No matter how closely you watched the IG live from the iPhone of a very dedicated audience member with miraculously good wifi – it could truly never translate the same way. His tense body language, the way he was slashing his throat to cut off the musicians, the moment he randomly plugged his phone into the aux and barely mouthed the words to “Nikes” and “Nights” mid-set. You just had to be there, especially for the final song: Ocean’s Endless cover of the Isley Brothers’ “(At Your Best) You Are Love.”

After three long days of shuffling around big dusty nocturnal crowds, I was tired. And trying to get into this set felt like clutching onto a mechanical bull after taking benadryl. I craved musical flow. Then this song came on, and I let out a little yelp of excitement. I mustered up the little bit of energy I had left to let the song carry us home.

The original is one of my favorite songs, and the fact that Ocean was performing it at Coachella was even more meaningful. But he didn’t really finish it. He fumbled the hook, and kind of trailed off and then walked off stage. When he came back, he grabbed the mic and said, rather solemnly, “Guys, I’m being told it’s curfew. So that’s the end of the show. Thank you so much.” And walked off stage. It was a jarring and unsettling way to end a show. Right when I felt a sense of comfort and ease, it was ripped away. It felt cold and uncaring. You could overhear groups of friends saying “That’s it?” or “I’m sad. I’m just disappointed” or “I knew so many people who came here just for Ocean” while hugging one another or rubbing each others’ shoulders.

This night will likely go down in music history as a polarizing reality check in artist expectations – between the Coachella audience and stage production side to the Frank Ocean and the Goldenvoice side. It was an unprecedented moment in Coachella history – something that outsiders may never fully understand. Many are now mourning what could have been an unbelievable performance.

Despite the chaos, Elliot wasn’t pressed. I messaged her that night, asking her what she thought of the show. She loved it and sent me videos from her spot a couple dozen feet away from the stage. I asked her again a few days later. Her answer stayed the same: “i understand why people are disappointed by the show but i think they just expected him to put on a traditional show when he isn’t a traditional performer,” she wrote. “it seemed like he was having a great time and sang some gorgeous renditions of his preexisting songs and debuted a few beautiful tracks. idk what else people want lol.”


Set 1:
Novacane (New version)
Come On World, You Can’t Go! (Live debut)
Crack Rock (Restarted)
Impietas / Deathwish (ASR) (Live debut; shortened)
Bad Religion
White Ferrari (Live debut; new version)
Florida (Live debut)
Pink + White (Acoustic)
Solo (New version)
Solo (Reprise)

Chanel (Sango remix)
Lost (Interpolated with “Born… more )
Slide (Calvin Harris song) (Trippy Turtle remix)
Actin a Smoochie (Ice Spice song)
Provider (Jersey Club remix)

In My Room (Jersey Club remix)

Unknown (Big Freedia song) (Interpolates Lens and Pyramids)
No Church in the Wild (JAY Z & Kanye West song)

Set 3:
Godspeed (Live debut)
Wise Man (New version)
Night Life (Aretha Franklin song)
Self Control (Acoustic)
Nikes (Shortened)
Nights (Mixed with Sango remix)
At Your Best (You Are Love) (The Isley Brothers cover) (Live debut)

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