Boys Don’t Cry
Frank Ocean, the Cure, and Boys Who Do Cry
Last week, the L.A.-based rapper, singer, and songwriter Frank Ocean announced online a new project called “Boys Don’t Cry.” It could be a magazine, or an album, or possibly both. If the title sounds familiar, that might be because it’s the name of a song and a compilation album by the Cure. “Boys Don’t Cry” is also the name of a 1999 film, starring Hilary Swank, about a young transgender man. The film is named after the Cure’s song, and features a version of it. The Cure, not so much a band as a sensibility, seem inconspicuous until you start looking for them, when they become ubiquitous.
Next year, the Cure will turn forty years old. They have released thirteen studio albums and may yet release another; though the quality of their work has dimmed in recent years, their legacy is intact. The Cure has outlived post-punk, new wave, goth, grunge, rave, and many genres in between. They are their own genre: melodic, melancholic, and just a little bit whimsical. They have never been cool, not even as the youthful trio who released a seven-inch single, their second, called “Boys Don’t Cry,” in 1979. Right from the start, the British music press treated the Cure as something of an embarrassment—they were not as political as the Clash, too nice to be the Jam, and their moody despondency did not have the same touch of authentic despair as Joy Division, whose lead singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide in 1980. Despite critical mockery, the Cure has been commercially successful and intensely adored. The devotion they attract has made them easy to dismiss as the quintessential band of adolescent woe, Pied Pipers for the world’s ever-replenishing supply of tearful suburban teen-agers. I want to say that their best songs are their most heartfelt ones, but their worst songs are that, too, while some of their most perfect songs—like “Boys Don’t Cry,” or “The Love Cats,” or “Friday I’m In Love”—are absolutely throwaway.
The band’s founding member, Robert Smith, is instantly recognizable: black eyeliner, a smudge of bright red lipstick, a nest of wildly backcombed black hair. He is almost cartoonish in appearance, and once made a cameo appearance on “South Park.” Heavy makeup and teased hair were not unusual style choices for a male pop star in the nineteen-eighties, but Smith never deviated from his look, not even as the eighties rolled into the nineties, nor when the nineties gave way to the new millennium. As a young man, he was pretty but not properly androgynous like his contemporary Boy George was; you would be hard pressed to call Smith sexy. With their songs about primary emotions like love and sadness, the Cure are in many ways a boy band. They are very easy to become infatuated with, but they are safe, and safety is a great part of their appeal. Even at their most funereal—and they once wrote a song called “The Funeral Party”—the Cure make comfort music. Compared with the volatility of punk, or the bombast of Meatloaf and Led Zeppelin, who both placed high on the charts in 1979, the Cure were subdued—they took the heat out of playing guitar. “Boys Don’t Cry” arrived in the wake of punk, but it wasn’t about anger; it was about love. It’s a simple song about a broken heart, and it sounds like a summer’s day—a summer’s day that threatens to dissolve into rain.
There are many contemporary pop musicians making music that sounds like the Cure, but Frank Ocean isn’t one of them. And yet, like Smith, Ocean is very capable of writing songs that are in thrall to pasts made more painful, and yet more perfect, by memory. His second* mixtape, released in 2011, was called “nostalgia, ULTRA.” On its ninth track, “There Will Be Tears,” Ocean sings, “I can’t be there with you, but I can dream.” The “you” of the lyric is an absent father; in the song’s verse, Ocean remembers his grandfather as “the only dad I’d ever know.” “Hide my face, hide my face, can’t let ’em see my crying,” he sings, “’cause these boys didn’t have no fathers neither.” In this song, the command that boys don’t cry feels especially cruel, bound up with a version of masculinity in which fathers must never be missed, or mourned. “You can’t miss what you ain’t had,” Ocean goes on. “Well I can, I’m sad.”
Sad boys are hardly a new idea in pop music, but they have been more unusual in hip-hop and R. & B. than in, say, indie rock—at least until figures like Ocean and Drake claimed a space in which to be unremittingly, unapologetically melancholic. Drake’s “Take Care,” also released in 2011, is one of the greatest pop songs of this decade, and it sounds like the Cure. Featuring Rihanna on guest vocals, the song is a like a set of Russian dolls, version nested inside version. It is built around a sample from Jamie xx’s remix of Gil Scott-Heron performing “I’ll Take Care of You,” a song written by Brook Benton (he of “Rainy Night in Georgia”) and first recorded by the blues singer Bobby Bland in 1959. Jamie xx is a young English producer best known for his work with the xx, a London band whose signature guitar sound, reverberant but spare, is highly reminiscent of the Cure. That sound is a feature of “Take Care,” a song that serves as a miniature history lesson in pop music’s unending appetite for tales of thwarted love. Some days, I listen to nothing but “Take Care” on repeat.
Love thwarted and unrequited was a central concern of Ocean’s studio début, “channel ORANGE,” released in 2012. Shortly before the album’s release, Ocean published an open letter on Tumblr detailing his experience of falling in love with a man who had refused him. “I wanted to create worlds that were rosier than mine,” he wrote of his creative impetus. “I tried to channel overwhelming emotions.” The letter was addressed to “Whoever you are, wherever you are.”
The second-person “you” is a staple of pop music, because it allows a listener to feel as if the singer is addressing her personally, while also giving that listener license to put herself in the singer’s place, addressing a “you” of her own choosing. This “you” is the you of Drake’s “I’ll Take Care of You,” of Ocean’s “Thinkin’ ’Bout You,” which is the opening track to “channel ORANGE,” and of the Cure’s entire back catalogue, including “Boy’s Don’t Cry.” “I would break down at your feet and beg forgiveness, plead with you,” Smith sang on that song. “But I know that it’s too late / And now there’s nothing I can do.”
The difference between the “you” of Ocean’s songs and the “you” of the Cure’s songs is partly gender (Smith is always addressing a woman), but it is also circumstance. Smith retains the mystery of a pop star who found fame long before the Internet existed: like his hero David Bowie, Smith is a public icon whose private life remains so. Ocean negotiates more difficult territory. In addressing his Tumblr letter to “you,” he invited readers into the same intimate space he creates in his song lyrics—lyrics that are picked over for autobiographical clues on the Internet. An openly gay or bisexual pop star is still noteworthy and scrutinized; unlike Smith, Ocean does not have the luxury of his love songs being considered commonplace.
The announcement of Ocean’s new project was also published on his Tumblr: a photograph of Ocean, perched on a stool, a framed poster of a bright-green frog leaning against the wall beside him, and two issues of a magazine stacked at his feet. Each magazine features a different cover shot of Ocean, and both are called “Boys Don’t Cry.” That Ocean has adopted this phrase for himself—the title of a movie about queer youth, titled in turn after a two-and-a-half-minute pop song—makes a lot of sense. It feels defensive, celebratory, and ironic: if Ocean’s songwriting career has, so far, been proof of any one sentiment, it is that boys do cry.
Anwen Crawford & The New Yorker