God, why does Frank Ocean pen pain so well? Even in 2011, Ocean was a young master of the literature of heartbreak. In 2012, Ocean admitted to his lyrical skills predating his musical skills. In 2013, he told the New York Times he leaves everything in his music—there’s no need to pry into Ocean’s life because pressing play does the prying for you. For as poppy and ear-pleasing as nostalgia,ULTRA. sounds, every record has sinister magic to it. The mixtape was the first sign Ocean would flourish in dichotomies for years to come. His understanding of heartbreak was our first clue to Frank’s endurance as an artist of a generation.
“Heartbreak, I imagine, has been the same emotion since the beginning of it all,” Frank said in 2011. “Going through heartbreak was new for me. I wasn’t trying to make a record that people could relate to. I was just trying to make a record with the shit that I wanted to express. The shit that I wanted to get off my chest. Everybody has a unique experience, but it’s a feeling that’s so human that others can relate to it.”
Hurt is the underpinning of nostalgia, ULTRA.. For all the wistfulness, youth, myth, and sex of the mixtape, every song on the tape has some aching wave swelling and ready to wash over us. Think of “Novacane,” of “We All Try,” of “Lovecrimes.” No crevice of Frank Ocean’s songwriting is safe from his casual obsession with the way humans can hurt one another. Perhaps no track on nostalgia, ULTRA. is as tuned in to that fact as “American Wedding,” a true bludgeon to the heart.
The narrative of “American Wedding” is rather straightforward: Frank and his lover jump the gun and get married before their feelings have a chance to mature and settle into themselves. Of course, this leads to “American divorce.” Here, Ocean critiques his lustful tendencies, his impulses, and yet, we still feel for him. “American Wedding,” the conflict of the track and its themes, are resoundingly Ocean’s fault, and yet, our heart breaks with him. Who among us has not driven head-on into love, assuming the best and licking their wounds in the face of the worst? The narrative of “American Wedding” is rather poignant, but easy to forget: Don’t count on the sunshine, because some days it might rain.
True, it feels as if Ocean knows his kiss of death is coming from the first verse. Singing “Daydreams of the romance, daydreams of you / My pretty woman in a ballgown,” we get the impression Frank knows his love is fleeting. A daydream is nothing more than the sweetness of a thought percolating as we endure life—it’s no promise of all-time love. Having gone through the majority of nostalgia, ULTRA., by this point, both the listener and Frank should know better than to rely on daydreams to manifest into salient realities. And yet, we all fall into the helix of passion and bounding hope.
“Getting married in a courthouse, writing vows in a rush / Making out before the judge with my teenage wife / Got a wedding band done that I just might die with,” Frank continues. All the details of this affair point to this becoming a nightmare in no time at all. From the rushed vows to the privileging of flesh, to the dire quality of the love itself, there’s no way we leave the first verse of “American Wedding” with any real sense of security. This brand of fiery young love blows up in our faces. We all know this love, this engorged and overcoming, not-quite-so-sophisticated puppy love—the stuff of painful memories only, not the stuff of a stable future.
Frank most appeals to the reader on the hook, where he admits to the faults in his plan. “It’s an American wedding / They don’t mean too much, but we were so in love,” he sings, and how can we argue? Love makes us do deranged things—how can we blame the Frank Ocean of “American Wedding” for doing something as silly as going through with it when we are likely no better? Frank’s appeals, then, continue onto the second verse. Here, he brings satire into play, mocking America’s posturing of freedom.
What do we make of this injection of humor? For one, it is a method of deflection; something Frank admitted he is a master of to the Times. Secondly, and more importantly, this mockery is an extension of how trapped Frank Ocean feels by his emotions. When he teases America as certainly not free, he admits to himself not being free. This decision beefs up our reading of the song as entirely self-aware. Frank knows he’s making mistakes left and right, but he cannot stop. It is not a matter of willingness—this is America, where the body is trapped, and the heart is a target.
All of this brings us to the terror of the track: The breakup. “She said, ‘I’ve had a hell of a summer / So, baby, don’t take this hard / But maybe we should get an annulment / Before this goes way too far,’” Frank recounts. The humor of the verse carries over into this sentiment. What is “way too far” in the case of marriage? What is “way too far” in the case of lifelong commitment? By this point in the song, though both the listener and Ocean himself are aware of the cracks in the scheme, we are incensed. How could this be?
Frank Ocean is a master of heartbreak because he pens songs that summon the most base and wounded question in the human zeitgeist: Why? Why me? Why us? Why now? And so on. These questions bring us to the third verse, where Frank is resigned and ready to give up whatever he has to, to make this breakup as quick as possible. His resignation comes with fresh wisdom, too, as he admits: “But if you stay, oh, if you stay / You’ll probably leave later anyway, it’s love made in the USA.”
Really, “American Wedding” is the sound of American heartbreak. The trapping sensation, the impulse—You know, getting your wedding band tattooed—it all coalesces into a uniquely Western experience. Our pop culture zeitgeist tells us a fast and altogether thoughtless love is the key to happiness. Just look at sitcoms. But Frank Ocean uses “American Wedding” to warn us against giving in to this senseless imagery. American heartbreak is callous and grandiose, is painful for years to come, because our media rubs it in our faces just as much as they push explosive love. Frank Ocean is working in layers on “American Wedding,” telling a simple story with a sleek subplot.
“American Wedding” is an inevitable song. We know the ending before the first notes of The Eagles sample. We knew the ending from our lives before Frank Ocean. The ending baked into our bones. And yet, through his candor and his self-awareness, Frank makes “American Wedding” a novel and relatable thing. We align with him. We believe him. And despite his mistakes, we never stop believing in him. Heartbreak may have been new to the Frank Ocean of 2011, but the young man wrote like a seasoned veteran. For that reason, we fell in love with his universe.