Living lyrically, literally: ‘Novocaine’

LIVING LYRICALLY, LITERALLY: ‘NOVOCAINE’

In which we apply human-like scenarios to popular songs, which may or may not have been written with said philosophical intentions in mind.

Rebellious analysis at its most ludicrous.

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The video for Frank Ocean’s ‘Novacane’ opens with one long-shot, panning slowly around a small, low-lit room as Ocean sits on the edge of a chair, blunt in hand and weighty issues on his mind as we peer into his imagination, which is depicted as containing near-naked women and surprisingly, a tiger. The song’s narrative takes us to a music festival where Ocean befriends a ‘brain-like-Berkeley’ dental student who supports herself by doing ‘porn in the valley’ – this grooming chatter leads to further friend bonding as demonstrated by shared tokes from a bong, the high of which surprises Ocean because it’s err, numbing effect turns out to be from novocaine rather than marijuana.

Ocean is an ultra-observant writer; never known to govern his gift and one who is seemingly as open with his heart as with his pen, which is what makes the underlying subject matter in Novocane that much more intriguing. Drugs and music are never too far apart from one another, and even though I don’t commonly associate festivals with novocaine, Ocean has spawned a layered melody of thought with this track. Here we have an expressive, articulate artist woefully recalling his lovelorn memories for a festival-found female (however, satirical that may be) and yet, he can only get close to her by being as high, and as numb as she.

When I last left a dental surgery (after being set up on a blind date by my dentist – tale for another article), I thought about the parallel between being physically and emotionally numb and what drives us to that point, and essentially, so far away from connecting to other people.

We mortals generally search for meaningful connections with other souls, but given the disposable nature of online communities and seemingly simple access to sex relationships, the art of truly connecting with people in real time has driven us in droves to festivals, seminars and other events in massive public forums – of course there’s usually a genuine interest in the subject matter at hand (the band, the director, the speaker etc), but we habitually attend these stadiums of collective culture to engage on a larger level, meet new people and bond with like-minds. It is then somewhat ironic, that we often consciously enter this state by numbing ourselves with drink, drugs and other in order to feel comfortable enough to connect.

“The festival experience became one of the primary influencers on my early adult life, and is still one of the most exciting environments for me to be in. It’s tattooed on my soul,” says Ben Suthers, Talent and Communications Manager for Big Day Out. “Not to cast aspersions on the hipster scene, but it’s a meta-modality; a scene. Hippies came together around politics and music. Turning, Tuning, Dropping were counter culture statements of intent, not memes to hang on your Facebook timeline.”

Personally, the word ‘festival’ is visually associated with Woodstock, and when I consider the drugs that were used at the time (primarily LSD and marijuana), my interpretation of their effects is that they were used to deepen emotion and stretch mental planes rather than to isolate and cut off feelings. Granted, I’m not the intellectual touchstone for recreational use of novocaine, but it is still used in the medicinal sense; “it makes dentistry a lot easier”, my tooth-doctor friend laughs, “pain free and less stressful – for the patients too!”

Ocean often talks about his writing from a craftsman’s perspective and he’s laughed off many of the pictures he paints with his words, such as having cocaine for breakfast, so perhaps he’s just figuring out his opinion and trajectory as he’s writing it. Lucky for his listeners, there is an abundance of relatable subject matter in this one-layered song – perhaps you too are numb to love, the music industry, life and drugs, or maybe you regularly flashback to a moment of perfect lust love found only whilst listening to a particular song at a particular festival on a particular day. The devil is in the detail and Ocean manages to pull threads from several angles, deepening the literal context and lateral fallout.

Naturally, nobody can judge whether or not certain behaviours are more or less acceptable down to their moral basis, but we can dig deeper at the motivation for self-medicating before connecting, especially when it’s coming from an articulate and deep-thinking musician whose impact ripples through an entire generation (and then some). “I’m going to suggest that it’s a song with a story that lends itself to reflecting the morality of the listener more than it does the morality of the singer,” says Suthers. “It isn’t necessarily clear that he needed to believe what he was singing about. Perhaps it was created for the drama. From Odd Future, to the reveal of his sexuality, to his desire not to tour with Kanye West, to his desire to simply not tour; so much seems to be about drama.”