I spend a lot of time listening to poet Tommy Pico speak on love. In the Valentine’s Day-themed episode of his podcast “gabfest,” Pico and his three co-hosts bring up a very salient point on love: Worship and idolization aren’t necessarily love. How many of us, though, put our loves on pedestals so high we have no idea how we built them in the first place?
Pico and co. posit this is not love at all, but unhealthy obsession; this is not love and cannot possibly last. Eventually, people reveal who they really are. Pedestals crack and crumble. Idols tumble down into human territory. We’re left with a choice: Do we accept the person we love, not solely their image? Can we, even? These are the questions percolating as I listen to Frank Ocean’s “Monks,” a sleeper hit off channel ORANGE.
“Monks” is, among other things, about Frank’s relationship with a series of women attending his concerts. He positions each concert as a religious experience. Worship is baked into the text of “Monks.” Frank is on a literal pedestal: the stage. The women of the track are inclined to see him as holier than, simply because he is an artist. And as Frank alludes (“African girl speaks in English accent / Likes to fuck boys in bands”), the women of the track are no strangers to this exchange of energy. Power imbalances aside, “Monks” rests on the power of lust. Frank is forthright about the sex: “Likes to watch Westerns / And ride me without the hands.” But it is within the subtext of “Monks” that we find our meaning. That is, we discover “Monks” is a warning on the perils of worship through the lens of lust.
For one, the mention of “Westerns” sets us up to understand the dynamic of groupie and artist and as an indictment of American ideals. Our society is responsible for propping Frank up on his pedestal simply because we see him on the stage. Capitalism has manufactured the cult of celebrity to sell us the narrative the talented are inherently better than us. True, Frank is using sex instead of sales, but in a nation where sex and money are linked in more ways than one, we’re not exactly stretching our reading.
Secondly, during the sex scene of the first verse, we struggle to see if Frank is commanding his partner or if he’s speaking to the crowd: “Wave ’em high, girl, to the sky / But you’re beautiful to me / Life in the clouds / Keep em high, y’all.” The switch from “girl” to “y’all” tips us off about the sex of the song being performance. There is no difference between the fictitious Frank guiding the crowd and fictitious Frank fucking a woman. In both instances—of worship through the lens of lust—Frank is positioned as this greater being, and either the audience or the woman is inherently lesser. In this light, of course, we stand to disagree with the narrative of the verse. Such is the point: Frank is trying to dissuade us from worshiping our partners.
One verse down, and we’ve established Frank is playing as an unreliable narrator to teach us a lesson. In the second verse, Frank advances the notion of worship and performance. “Monks in the mosh pit / Stage diving Dalai Lama / Feet covered in cut flowers / They mosh for enlightenment,” he sings. We get the sense of stage and performance as spiritual. However, knowing what we know from the first verse, we have to understand Frank’s portrayal is not pure. The mention “enlightenment” can be read as sarcastic. At the least, it can be read as sarcastic. The great turn of this verse, though, comes with Frank removing himself from the narrative. The “Indian girl” of the second verse finds herself a man and wishes to run away. On the bridge, Frank assumes the voice of the boyfriend, but we know it’s not him.
Frank’s narrative turn is meant to showcase a difference in urgencies. The rambunctious sex of the first verse has an urgency by virtue of the worship of the situation. That is, fan worshiping artist. The urgency of the “Indian girl” hoping to escape with her lover feels purer by contrast. Here, Frank attempts to show us the power of love when worship is excluded, when two people meet on equal and human footing. Frank borrows lines from the first verse (“You’re beautiful to me”) on the bridge, but instead of us reading the lines as the lip service they were, we genuinely believe the character of the boyfriend. We read his urgency as excitement, not a manipulation. The fantasy of worship is no more—all that is left is acceptance and love.
This brings us to the thesis of the third verse: escape. We’re still following the girl and her boyfriend. We’re witnessing their escape from her “father’s army.” Literally, we can assume Frank is painting a picture of disapproving parents and dated social norms. Figuratively, when paired with the first verse, we can take the imagery in another direction. We can take the imagery to be an escape from the perils of worship replacing love. We see love as something to be earned, fought for, and something that must develop throughout hardship. We see love as dynamic, and not something that blooms because we idolize our partner.
To this point, Frank concludes the third verse with, “We’re lost in a jungle underneath these clouds / There’s a monsoon that never ends / A coke white tiger woke us from our slumber / To guide and protect us ‘til the end.” These gorgeous lines give us the impression the couple’s love will last, if only because they’ve lived through so much together. To close the song, once again, Frank borrows earlier lines from his performer-self: “We’re in the clouds / Wave ‘em high now, to the sky.” As with the bridge, we believe the words of the boyfriend much more than we do the words of the fictitious Frank Ocean.
“Monks” concludes with love beating out worship, with a celebration. The journey of “Monks” presents a valuable lesson: Love is not implied, it is worked at. Love can be glorious and sudden, but it does not exist naturally. Frank warns us against using worship to supplant true love, and by employing multiple narratives and an unreliable narrator, we get the sense Frank takes this lesson very seriously. Bringing it back to Tommy Pico, he and his podcast cohorts land on love as being something you can only feel once you reveal yourself to a person, and they reveal themselves back. The work of vulnerability is privileged. Risking lives and running from archers, “Monks” personifies that work. Groupies be damned, there is more to love than the rush of standing upon a pedestal.