How do you handle hearing pain in your voice—in your thoughts? Those nights we spend laying up in bed, in total darkness, listening to the ceiling fan whir above us while we wonder what all went wrong with our love lives are some of the hardest. So badly, as a people, we wish to be loved back. So much of our eccentricities—at least mine—can be traced back to the desire for love and affection. Even without context, a phrase like “Please, love me” has the propensity to cut to the bone. I think of all the times I was left emotionally battered, looking at the ruin of a relationship, wondering why, oh why, was I not loved back. I think of all the times Frank Ocean has sung about love and how, on “Bad Religion,” from his 2012 debut channel ORANGE, he taps into the pure pain of unrequited love.
Is there anything worse than giving your all and still being dismissed? Is there anything worse than pouring yourself into a person ultimately not worth your energy? “This unrequited love / To me, it’s nothin’ but a one-man cult / And cyanide in my styrofoam cup / I can never make him love me,” Frank sings on the first verse of “Bad Religion.” It’s startling how Frank paints a picture of suicide in the face of unrequited love. However, we struggle to blame him. We all remember loving someone—something—with our whole beings, and it being all for nothing. Perhaps the biggest fear when you begin any relationship is the fear of it being ultimately meaningless. Here, Frank Ocean personifies that fear and takes it to an end.
Set in the back of a taxi, “Bad Religion,” co-produced by Frank, Om’Mas Keith, and Malay, sounds glorious. Frank pulls out all the ballad stops to bring us to our knees as he is on his knees. The music is so inflated with sorrow and gorgeous string arrangements that we’re immediately overrun. Astringent chords cut through our hearts. Frank’s vocal is despondent. His desperation as he begs the driver to “outrun the demons” summons an image of tears, how Frank’s voice quivers. I think of all the times my voice cracked in the face of breaking news. I think of how I struggled to collect myself all the times I realized my love would go unmatched and unattended. No one owes us love, but that does not mean the prospect of going unloved is any less painful.
Listen to the way Frank’s voice thins on the repeated “Love me” lines. This is a broken man. By this point in channel ORANGE, we’ve seen Frank go through the worst of it, but never so openly. We’ve had tales of Cleopatra and storms in bedrooms, but we’ve never witnessed Frank Ocean break down so vividly. At this moment, as Frank pines over this unloving man, we realize for all the sheen of his pop star identity, he is a mere mortal. We resist the urge to place Frank on a pedestal. If anything, we crouch down and put our hand on his proverbial shoulder. “Fuck, man,” we say to his pain. “We hear you.”
“Bad Religion” is one of the rare times where the pain of the performer outweighs the pain of the listener. One of the rare times where for how heard we feel, our concern for Frank as a human being outweighs our desire to find ourselves in a song. Just listen to Frank crumble and fade away into the second verse. Think of how you crumbled, and your blood ran cold when you realized your love was taken for granted. Think of yourself, pale-faced and bruised, and now think of Frank, not hiding his truth from us for the sake of impactful art. For a moment, “Bad Religion” feels almost immoral, too intimate. Should we ever have access to a person as their body goes slack from aching too much?
The image of a “Bad Religion,” then, relates to how we give ourselves over to people who do not value us. No amount of prayer will turn someone’s heart from stone. The “Bad Religion” may be love itself, how unfulfilling it stands to be. And yet, we flock to love en masse. We swear by it. We live our lives guided by its principles and light. “Is this the way?” Frank seems to ask. Those who live by the bastion of love, they must have never experienced the pain of being acutely rejected. Or, perhaps, they have experienced that pain and lived through it. All of this is up for debate on “Bad Religion.” But first and foremost, “Bad Religion” is a startling portrait of the breakup, the one that bursts your brain and leaves chunks of grey matter all over the bathroom you just puked up in at the news that “This just isn’t working.”
To our reading, Frank does not play coy. On the outro of “Bad Religion,” he sings: “It’s a, it’s a bad religion / To be in love with someone / Who could never love you.” The meaning behind the song is granted to us without work. The work of “Bad Religion” is stomaching the scene of a young Frank Ocean at the precipice of disaster. We leave “Bad Religion” feeling gutted, perhaps frigid. We leave “Bad Religion” in search of solace and our own love. “Could it really be so bad?” we wonder to ourselves as the song comes to a close.
Before dwelling on the question too long, remember your youth. Remember the intensity of romance then, when romance was the only priority. Remember how the world crashed at every rejection. Now think of what it might mean to come into your sexuality, to find love and freedom in another person, and to have that mean nothing in the end. What could that sensation be, if not devastating, to an otherworldly degree?
The destitute Frank Ocean of “Bad Religion” is nothing if not a mirror into the lives of queer folx who so very badly wanted their first love to be their affirming, forever love. Once we realize life does not go that way, no matter how hard we swim against those powerful currents, it becomes easy to imagine a cup of cyanide and a brittle vocal tone. Of course, Frank is not condoning self-destruction. On “Bad Religion,” he’s not doing anything. He’s merely emoting at the highest degree. There is no lesson. There are only Frank Ocean’s hurt and our understanding. Some songs are better off that way: heartbreaking communions.