Digital Culture

Frank Ocean's Coachella set and the breakdown of the fan-artist relationship

'I didn't pay money and I feel ripped off.'
By Chase DiBenedetto and Elena Cavender  on 
A photo of Frank Ocean holding a mic and singing photoshopped over an image of the Coachella crowd. The image has a blue and pink filter.
Met her at Coachella. Credit: Mashable composite; Getty / FilmMagic, Frazer Harrison

Frankchella is over and Coachella Weekend Two hasn't even started. His fans just wanna talk.

Destined to make waves, it was Ocean's first live performance in six years, three years after he was slated to headline Coachella 2020. Hours before Ocean was set to take the stage, the internet was already buzzing after the revelation that the official Coachella live stream wouldn't be airing Ocean's set, after both YouTube and Coachella promoted the stream. Meanwhile, Coachella attendees sat patiently through an hour delay until the artist finally arrived. Fans' bafflement continued though, with Ocean out-of-sight for a portion of the performance, unexpected DJ interludes, and remixed songs that disappointed those wanting to sing along. 

Ocean made his intentions of the set clear, to honor his memories at Coachella with his late, younger brother, Ryan Breaux. He told the crowd(opens in a new tab), "I want to talk about why I am here…my brother and I, we came to this festival a lot…and one of my fondest memories was watching Rae Sremmurd with my brother…I know he would have been so excited to be here with all of us. I want to say thank you for the support and the ears and the love over all this time." 

The end of his set was as lackluster as its delayed start. After a stunning cover of "At Your Best (You Are Love)," he announced, "Guys, I'm being told it's curfew, so that's the end of the show." 

Was it an ill-prepared disaster,(opens in a new tab) or an intentionally crafted subversion(opens in a new tab) of the expectations of a headliner? Knowing Ocean, it probably was the latter. 

In the days after, rumors swirled — Rolling Stone(opens in a new tab) reports Ocean sprained his ankle before the set and Festival Owl(opens in a new tab) claims there was an elaborate ice skating rink catwalk scrapped at the last minute. But most notably, Ocean's set has spurred a reckoning among fans: Has Ocean's eccentric artistry finally alienated those who have patiently stuck by him all these years?

On the Wednesday before Coachella Weekend Two, the festival announced he wouldn't be returning(opens in a new tab) to his headlining spot. Google has seen a substantial increase(opens in a new tab) in searches asking how to sell Coachella tickets.

Mashable tech reporter Elena Cavender and Mashable social good reporter Chase DiBenedetto discuss how the fan response to Ocean's headlining performance speaks to changing expectations of the artist-fan relationship.

What's Ocean been up to?

Elena: I think he started something…

Chase: The internet was reeling! Ocean fans watching (clandestinely) online and live in the Coachella crowd — as well as the media publications awaiting his return — haven't minced words about both his set and his perceived "brand." For many fervent followers, the headlining performance wasn't shocking.

Elena: Ocean famously plays by his own rules. In 2016, Ocean released Endless, a visual album, freeing him from his Def Jam record contract to release Blonde independently. He didn't submit Blonde to the Grammys for consideration, referring(opens in a new tab) to that decision as his "Colin Kaepernick moment." Fans celebrated his Def Jam heist, but on Sunday many didn't appreciate being on the receiving end of his unconventional approach to superstardom. 

In the years since Blonde(opens in a new tab) Ocean has kept a low profile, but hasn't been as mysterious as fans might lead you to believe. He just hasn't catered to his fan base. He launched Blonded Radio on Apple Music (later rebranded to Homer Radio), released several hit singles, including "Chanel" and "In My Room," laid down verses on Tyler, the Creator and A$AP Rocky tracks, attended The Met Gala twice, hosted a series of LGBTQ club nights in NYC, and started a luxury store, Homer, in NYC. 

Chase: He joins other artists who have removed themselves from modern expectations of mainstream fame after gaining critical success, initiating music hiatuses that only seem to elicit even more fervent fan behavior — and stronger criticism.

Elena: Ocean has become known for being elusive and a hermit, but the only thing he hasn't done since Blonde is release an album and tour it. 

Chase: So what was different with fans this time around?

What are the fans saying?

Chase: TikTok vlogs from the show share the mixed responses to Ocean's set. One video(opens in a new tab) from @Kelsey_Kotzur, which recaps her observations as an attendee, has more than 1,700 comments running the gamut of disappointed fans. Like this comment from @Larskirky, which alludes to a heavily used meme: "I like Frank Ocean but he don't like us very much." Or this one from TikTok user @botchthebeltcutters: "I'm tired of artists treating their fans like shit."

Comments like these (there's many, many more of them) embody a transactional element between fans and artists. It alludes to the idea that music artists owe their listeners something beyond the album, and that not delivering that expectation — often in the form of on-stage fan service — is a personal slight against the listener. 

I think another example is this comment from user @jesusofthe216: "See how the 'artist' treats the customer these days? Lol curfew mannn y'all being played." 

Elena: It's not just Coachella attendees who are up in arms. Fans at home felt entitled to the performance of a lifetime as well. With the implementation of live streaming the festival in 2011, Coachella has been democratized, something anyone with internet access can experience to some degree. This year more stages were live streamed than ever before. 

Chase: That's a really good point. Wide access to these shows is also exacerbating a shift we've talked about with live audiences, which centers virality and makes the attendee the main attraction. People seem to be expecting the same kind of show from very different artists, and then anticipating that those moments will be repeated every time they perform.

Kotzur's comments section did have an equal amount of users and fans coming to Ocean's defense. "People let Frank Ocean exist as a real human being not a performing dog challenge," @scumf4ck wrote on Kotzur's video. "Frank Ocean deserves better fans," replied user @bl0ndlvr. 

Elena: Over on the dedicated Frank Ocean subreddit(opens in a new tab), the conversation was similar. One thread reads, "Lmao Frank playing 4D chess, started mad late so he didn't have to perform as many songs." The reply says, "finessing the system or finessing his fans?" Another fan writes, "I didn't pay money and I feel ripped off." Someone else echoes the sentiment, "My interest is waning quickly. Yeah, dude is talented, but his whole 'unattainable' image is pure elitist garbage." 

Chase: Twitter was the same, too. Two camps of fans and viewers disagreeing on who deserved criticism, and how much of it was justified.

Elena: Which one is it? Frank Ocean fans deserve better or Frank Ocean deserves better?

Chase: I believe fans have started misconstruing artist interactions with the necessities of selling a product in the digital age. We talked about that with Taylor Swift's Midnights promotion and release, which felt like a weird mix of fan-directed easter eggs, inside jokes, and just overt cash grabs. What fans perceive as a connection with the artist is often just the industry at work — labels selling you a specific image or brand with the illusion of a relationship. 

Elena: Exactly, and that brings us to another bonkers part of this whole thing: Ocean's decision to forgo selling merch at Coachella is another point of fan contention. Fans were so desperate for any sort of commemoration of their presence at his first live show in six years that the "No Frank Ocean Merchandise"(opens in a new tab) sign was auctioned off to the highest bidder. 

Ocean not selling merch was read as another slight to his fans and evidence of his lack of commitment to headlining Coachella. But it could also be seen as Ocean choosing not to milk fans for every last penny of their devotion. 

The hiatus curse...

Chase: Ocean isn't the first artist to return to the stage or release an album after an extended hiatus and rampant fan excitement: Lorde's 2021 album Solar Power, SZA's response to fan clamor with SOS, Rihanna's return to live music for the 2023 Super Bowl Halftime Show. All of these artists' music revivals were at the center of heavy fan speculation and criticism – SZA and Rihanna have implied they might not make music again. 

Writing to her fans about the lukewarm reception of her album, Lorde said, "It took people a while to get the album – I still get emails every day from people who are just coming around to it now! – and that response was really confounding and at times painful to sit with at first. I learnt a ton about myself and how I’m perceived by making and releasing this album."

An artist's emotional vulnerability 

Chase: A common thread between these artists is the emotional vulnerability of their lyrics, which has created a false sense of intimacy between the fan listening and the artist offering up these stories. Because of that sense of "knowing" the artist, listeners feel entitled to a personal opinion on their public lives. 

Elena: There's this parasocial urge for fans to pat themselves on the back for extending grace to their idols for mental health struggles. Many Ocean fans prefaced their criticisms of his set with, "I understand he's grieving," before jumping into what they think he owes them for that kindness and loyalty. 

Similarly, indie darling Phoebe Bridgers spoke out about the way fans treated her after her fathers' death. In an interview with Them(opens in a new tab), she said "people with my picture as their Twitter picture, who claim to like my music, fucking bullied me at the airport on the way to my father's funeral this year…I, at one of the lowest points of my life, saw people who claim to love me fucking dehumanize me and shame me."

Chase: Such a disappointing interaction. 

Elena: And social media gives fans a platform to blast that opinion to anyone who will listen. 

It's a catch-22 for artists: No matter how much you choose to share on social media, fans demand more. 

Idol worship and harbored resentment

Chase: Yet again, fans have to come to terms with what it means to immortalize a still evolving, living artist. What happens when the subject of your favorite fantasy, the person at the center of this hero's journey, is no longer fitting into it? Who is at fault?

Elena: Because of Ocean's enigmatic persona, since Blonde, fans haven't had the opportunity to reckon with their mythical version of him crashing with the reality of him, making his fall from the pedestal fans placed him on much further. 

It seems like Ocean fans were secretly harboring resentment towards him for his lack of fan service for years and pounced on this moment to finally make it known. 

Chase: I understand why fans felt let down by Ocean's set. Compared to the high-budget stage performances of years past, his choices read as a pointedly resigned lack of respect for the "institution" that is Coachella. But aren't we actively trying(opens in a new tab) to push back(opens in a new tab) against(opens in a new tab) the festival's idealization and the industry's failures? 

Elena: We'll see what Ocean comes up with next, but for now, hope you all have fun at Blink-182.

More in Music, Fandom

Chase sits in front of a green framed window, wearing a cheetah print shirt and looking to her right. On the window's glass pane reads "Ricas's Tostadas" in red lettering.
Chase DiBenedetto
Social Good Reporter

Chase joined Mashable's Social Good team in 2020, covering online stories about digital activism, climate justice, accessibility, and media representation. Her work also touches on how these conversations manifest in politics, popular culture, and fandom. Sometimes she's very funny.

Mashable Image
Elena Cavender

Elena is a tech reporter and the resident Gen Z expert at Mashable. She covers TikTok and digital trends. She recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in American History. Email her at [email protected](opens in a new tab) or follow her @ecaviar_(opens in a new tab).

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