nostalgia, FOREVER: Frank Ocean’s “Strawberry Swing”

Welcome to nostalgia, FOREVER, a week-to-week endeavor to give Frank Ocean his flowers and break down his solo discography with a deft hand.
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So many people have asked me: What are you going to do once Year of Mac comes to a close? For a long time, I had no answer. My gut reaction was to tell them I hope I never have to engineer a series like Year of Mac again. Meaning, I hope we abscond death entirely. I hope we all are everlasting, and sudden loss leaves the zeitgeist. Idealistic, sure, but those are my feelings, and I’m sticking to them.

While writing Year of Mac, I realized that the business of analyzing music as a means of giving flowers is my bag. A significant part of me wishes I had done Year of Mac while Malcolm was still with us so that he could know the scope and breadth of the love existing for him. So, this is my answer to the post-Year of Mac question: I am going to write; I am going to give flowers upon flowers.

Welcome to nostalgia, FOREVER, a week-to-week endeavor to give Frank Ocean his flowers and break down his solo discography with a deft hand. Looking at 2011’s nostalgia, ULTRA., 2012’s channel ORANGE, and 2016’s Blonde, I’ll be going song-by-song—no skits, visual albums, or interludes—and musing on Frank’s work. Frank Ocean is the artist of our generation. Blonde is in the running for album of the decade. Frank has touched so many of us, including myself, with his incredible writing and candor. Frank Ocean, as is a prerequisite for me caring about your music, has made me cry. Though I hope I never have to write a Year of Frank, I also hope nostalgia, FOREVER has legs in its own right.

Without further ado, let’s start with the proper musical opener to nostalgia, ULTRA., “Strawberry Swing.” Boy, is this one cutting. Even in 2011, Frank Ocean was the master of making sweet sounds layered with biting undertones. The primary mode of “Strawberry Swing” is one of urgency. Frank sings of the precious moments of his youth over bounding production. The opening notes of the song give us the sense a miracle is coming, the wonder of memory. It’s a lush few seconds that have us wading through a field of chords and, subsequently, through the minutiae of Frank’s childhood.

Just in case an atom bomb comes falling on my lawn / I should say and you should hear, I've loved / I've loved the good times here, I've loved our good times here”—Frank Ocean, “Strawberry Swing”

Coincidentally, the ethos of the cut and the ethos of this series are aligned. “Strawberry Swing” is a rare “Just in case” ode. It is a retrospective while we still can remember. The love Frank poured into the record flows back out through our speakers. There’s yearning energy to his promise that he has loved the good times. And there’s melancholy, too. It feels as if those pure times have been locked in the past, and the present is too riddled with tumult to feel as jubilant. Frank turns the mode from memory for the sake of memory to memory in the face of death. To be embroiled in nostalgia is to, on some level, be cognisant of mortality. As Frank details spaceships lifting off a dying earth, we realize “Strawberry Swing” is a quietly anxious song.

The anxiety submerges us in the way Frank Ocean uses space. As a writer, he is unparalleled, especially for his use of the comma. With “Every moment was so precious, then,” we hang on to the sentiment as Frank takes a heavy pause before “then.” During that breath, we’re swarmed by our precious memories, and the emotion of the track begins to overflow. Frank will go on to repeat this start-stop pattern across his songwriting career, hitting and holding notes all to the point of forcing us to step inside his world by way of our own. Ending the track with a sample—another type of pause—allows us to ruminate even further. Frank Ocean is a master of steeping the listener.

With that, the business of remembering the good times reads initially as painful. “Strawberry Swing” finds me drinking alone in the living room, splayed out on the couch, listening to Frank’s soothing vocal and remembering all the times better than this one. “Strawberry Swing” reminds me to cherish the present before it becomes the wistful past. The song brings tears to my eyes every time I hear Frank warble “I’ve loved the good times here,” if only because so many nights of mine have been filled with a calling out to the forgotten. It was so much easier once; I’d muse into a cup of whiskey or a glass of wine. It was so much better, I think. That’s the heartbreaking quality of the track, too. The realization that we are in love with memories all too late.

I think of the times during college break, where my buddy would swing by after a shift at the factory, and we would zip down to the beach, spinning whatever album was seizing our hearts. There were swings on the beach. And there was a wooden pirate ship lodged in the sand; we made that ship our home. He, with his uke and a speaker, to keep the music flowing. Me, with my budding photographer’s eye and desire to record every moment before it’s gone. We would sit bundled up on the frame of the ship and watch the waves come in as he strummed away the late afternoon, and I thought about the life ahead. All I had to worry about was making sure I got enough shabby photos and a warm drink to end the night.

Say hello, then say farewell to the places you know / We are all mortals, aren’t we? Any moment this could go / Cry, cry, cry, oh, even though that won’t change a thing”—Frank Ocean, “Strawberry Swing”

Any second, joy can end. The pirate ship will get taken down, mounds of sand in its place. The strawberries painted on swings will become just that, painted. Dried. Then, eventually, peeled away and only alive when the stories leave our hounded tongues. Every place you touch that touches you back will fade away eventually. Cherish the exchange of space and time, cherish what you record in your heart as necessary. Tears will flow, and hearts will break, but growing up necessitates saying goodbye.

When Frank notes that we are all mortal, all going to die, it is not a somber admittance. He is a writer of worldly truths. He is warning us. Be mindful of your mortality, he says. For you never know when the next goodbye is coming, and a sudden farewell is more wrenching than a gradual growing apart. The slow death of things gives us time to understand, accept, and move on. But often growing up surprises us; we aren’t ready to give up our swings and ships. Too bad, preparedness truly “won’t change a thing.”

Still, we return to a line from the first verse, which keeps the song hopeful: “I’m still kicking.” Meaning, “Strawberry Swing” is a celebration of life. Frank’s heart still beats, his emotions still course through him, and his memories are still potent enough to move him. It’s a blessing, then, to be able to look back on our strawberry swings fondly. Looping the song into itself, we get the sense Frank is playing two roles. He is a documentarian, and he is a soothsayer. He warns us to hold on to the present, but he also brings us great solace with his observations. There is no shame in only being able to appreciate the past once it has moved through us, he teaches.

In truth, loving the good times is a beautiful thing, it is a reminder we can summon even more good times. As I laze about and cry over the “easier” times, I commit a great sin: I forget about my ability to enrich the present. We are a wistful culture, and social media only amplifies the tendency to fixate on what is out of our reach. But that which we hold in our hands now, that too can become a tender and impressing thing. Remember the strawberries you painted, the pirate ships you scaled, but also think of the coffee you had this morning and how it coated your mouth just so. Fall in love with that moment just as much as you find yourself falling for your past.

The duality of “Strawberry Swing” is a reminder to make blessings out of the ordinary. We can, and we will.

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