The image is from Frank Ocean's 2016 New York Times interview. Taken by Frank Ocean.

Dear Frank Ocean,

I was never one to have a favorite musical artist. I just listened to whatever came on the radio as filler music. Whenever someone asked me who my favorite musician was, I never had an answer. I’d have a rotation of familiar artists I’d cite from time to time when asked during classroom icebreakers — Taylor Swift, Drake, Billie Eilish — but in reality it was simply whoever first came to mind. I’d always reduced music to having a simple purpose: to serve as background noise that occupies silence and makes car rides a little less awkward.

The first time I heard one of your songs was on a 6:45 a.m. drive to school at age 16, my eyes barely open as the hum of my windshield defroster made me wish I was still in bed and not on the way to get a D- on an AP Biology exam. It was early January, and my New Year’s resolution was still fresh in my mind: to listen to music that made me feel something. I felt like I was getting lost in all the changes happening around me; my seemingly solid friend group had gone shaky, my sisters (who were also my support group) had moved out and left me as the only child in the house, and I’d finally come to terms with the fact that despite my parents’ deepest desires and all the summer programs I’d done, I did not want to be pre-med and become a doctor. Things seemed to be rapidly changing right before my eyes — for the first time in my life, I had to seriously think about my future and confront its uncertainty. I didn’t feel like myself, and honestly, I didn’t know what “myself” was supposed to feel like. My comfort zone and all consistencies in my life had been breached. I’d even begun to seek therapy because I felt so out of control of my own life.  Thus, on my bedroom whiteboard, I wrote down a list of artists recommended by friends and subreddits who I hoped to find a piece of myself in. By popular advocacy, you were the first person on that list.

The first song I listened to was “Bad Religion,” a progressive soulful R&B mix where you confront your sexuality and unrequited love to a taxi driver as you feel so hopeless that you’ll take answers from anybody who will listen. Upon a first listen, I immediately doubted that your music was for me. In all honesty, I couldn’t relate to the topics of your songs. You sang about soul-crushing heartbreak, mortality and existentialism. I was a junior in high school, and my thoughts were centered around how to improve my SAT math section score and what to wear to tennis practice after school. I told myself that I was just a kid and these topics were too introspective and philosophical for me to understand.

Disregarding my hesitancy, I listened again. And again.

Sure enough, your lyricism, the urgency in your voice and your confrontation with the inevitability of the consequences of your emotions began to challenge and chip away the notions of musical artistry that I held before. The synth and sorrowful R&B was so unlike the bubblegum pop music I listened to on my local Detroit radio station. Your makeshift New York City cab therapy session left me speechless, namely because it was the first time that I finished a song and didn’t just let the next one in the queue start playing immediately after. Your harmonies transcended my preconceived notions of what music should serve to function as. I actually wanted to know the deeper meaning of what you were saying — something I’d never felt after listening to a song.

Again, when I started listening to you, Frank, I was a high school student. I’d never been in love, nonetheless experienced heartbreak or anything in between. Yet what drove me toward loving your music was the underlying symbolism. Yes, I’m aware that you’re not the first artist to use symbolism in your work, but the way that you grapple with youth, regret and loneliness produces a pensive and extraordinary sound shrouded in transcendentalism. Not only that, your music inspired me to challenge my lack of emotional vulnerability and the walls I’d spent my entire life putting up. Your discography isn’t superficial — you tell stories that are important, and you discuss topics that aren’t easy to talk about. You write with your heart on your sleeve, something I’d always wished I had the courage to do. You’re careful and precise with your diction, and your lyrics carry power. When you sing, people listen. Frank, you have a gift: your ability to articulate every nuanced facet of your emotions in a digestible way. Your lyricism explores the implications of the human condition and the heart in conflict with itself. As a writer, I admire you. As a listener, I hear myself in you. And as a person, I want to be more like you.

Frank, I’m a rising sophomore in college, and obviously my life has changed quite a bit since my introduction to your music. From being hopelessly single all throughout high school to crying to my roommate about failed first-year situationships to now being in a happy relationship with the boy of my dreams, your music has never ceased to impact the way I partake in the musical listening experience. Because of you, Frank, I can’t listen to a single song without reading the Genius lyrics analysis, and I’ve spent countless hours listening to the Dissect podcast on Spotify. I wrote my AP English Language and Composition final essay on why the music listening experience is transformative. You’ve inspired me to read about how other people engage with music — such as Aaron Copland’s essay “How We Listen” — and explore the various means of enjoyment and how they affect our experiences. Most notably, I use music as a means of connecting with other people. What used to be a mundane activity is now my main way of forging relationships. Seriously, ask any of my friends how many times I’ve explained the duality of “Blonde” and the three meanings behind “Chanel.”

Frank, you did it. You made music mean something to me.

I’ve become much more observant and introspective. I’ve shifted my outlook on life from an “I” to a “we” perspective. I’m able to empathize and see myself in others, and despite the never-ending turbulence in my life, I’m starting to not only remember who I was, but I’m also envisioning the courageous, vulnerable, and honest young woman I want to be. Looking back as far as junior year of high school to as recently as my last played song on Spotify, I can’t help but wonder what my relationship with music would be like without you. Without a doubt, it’s unquestionably clear that you are one of the defining artists of this generation. And, above all, I finally have an answer when people ask me who my favorite musician is.

Sincerely,

Grace Garmo

P.S. When/if you’re ready, please perform live again.

MiC Senior Editor Grace Garmo can be contacted at ggarmo@umich.edu