Photo Credit: Illustration by Davor Hikl
How Listening to Frank Ocean's 'Blonde' Saved Me From Having a Panic Attack
For years, fans have looked to their musical idols to help get through their hardest times. Read how Frank Ocean's masterpiece, Blonde, helped soothe a writer suffering from anxiety during a harrowing flight.
“We’re now boarding.”
Normally I’d be relieved by this announcement. However, as I waited at a crowded airport gate, on August 20th, 2016, I realized this time was different. Having only been diagnosed with generalized anxiety a few weeks prior, I was barely keeping it together. The SSRIs I’d been given to cope had a three month “wait” before they began working. Same went for the Klonopin that was too low to stop the growing heart palpitations and lightheadedness each attack brought. The only solace I found as I made my way to my window seat was the new Frank Ocean album, Blonde, which had dropped only an hour prior. Like a kid on Halloween leaving their favorite candy for last, I wanted to savor this moment, knowing I’d appreciate the album exponentially upon first listen whilst flying 50,000 feet in the air. I didn’t let my excitement deter me to the easy option. I’m glad it didn’t.
With the flight attendants performing their routine instructions, I let myself relax and take in Frank's art.
As the melodic beat of “Nikes” crept through my headphones, I felt safe. A feeling not usually attributed to my time on a plane. This time was different. The silvery chords of the guitar plucking ever so lightly as Frank’s digitally altered voice lay perfectly atop. Showcasing multiple styles during its five minute run time, it was like a dream during peak REM sleep. Taking the listener on a musical journey, a beginning middle and end, all within a matter of minutes. Its brevity not undermining its effects.
Only minutes in I found myself rewinding to catch a quip of FKA Twigs' "gel" a few breaths divide of a mention of Trayvon Martin. “RIP Trayvon that nigga look just like me.” The moment marking a deliberate choice by Ocean to comment on the increased police violence on black people. Frank Ocean has always had a way with words and this album is no different. If anything it's more chaotic. Covering multiple topics, waxing poetically about statements of his youth, love, loss, longing, and sex.
It’s this chaoticness that forced me to focus in on the album and his lyricism. Allowing myself to forget my surroundings and circumstances of this first listen. In that moment I was no longer flying in a metal box of death — my anxiety speaking — but instead wrapped up in this multifaceted musical experience. Enduring a panic attack is to experience death itself, as it can often times mimic a heart attack. Heart palpitations and tingling hands taking over all your senses, diminishing your ability to focus on anything else. It is this ability to alter our focus off our anxiety symptoms, and onto an arbitrary activity or thought, that gets us through the attack.
“Nikes” is one of the only songs on the 17 track album that features drums, or any percussion at all. A stark contrast from the introspective guitar and electronic synths used almost exclusively throughout. Most notably in “Pink & White,” which uses Beyoncé's vocals as a background to prop up Frank’s lyrics. Creating an ethereal atmosphere that instantly relaxes you. For me, this meant zeroing in on Beyoncé's runs and vocal fluctuations, leaving no room for thoughts of anxiety or doom. These wandering thoughts occupying my mind into a sound sleep. I wouldn’t fully appreciate the album until a third or fourth listen, as I went in and out of consciousness shortly after pressing play. Slowly nodding off during the fade out on "Solo," only to be awoken by the uniquely familiar sounds of "Futura Free" — having only heard it in my dreams.
Photo Credit: Vickey Ford for Okayplayer
Blonde is exactly one hour, edited down to a perfect 60-minute experience. With songs like “Good Guy,” which some would argue is more like an interlude, lasting a little over a minute, stripped down to a few piano chords and Frank’s broken down musings, like he’s speaking directly to you.
With each ending came a replay as I finally realized during the plane's descent that I’d made it through the entire flight with not even a slight hiccup of anxiety. No heart palpitations, which even today — three years later — plague me on my worst days. Nor any doomsday thoughts or loss of breathe that usually accompanies the worst episodes.
It’s been long believed that music can help us feel better, putting us in a better mood, or effecting our emotions dependent on the genre or lyrics. Sad music makes people cry. Happy, upbeat tempos make people feel good.
Only more recently has it been studied, and largely accepted, that listening to music can have significant positive effects on patients living with anxiety, depression, dementia, and even cancer patients receiving chemo.
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Per the study conducted by McGill University’s School of Psychology, what makes music so effective at enhancing our moods is its ability to lower the stress hormone cortisol in the body. As well as “increasing the immunoglobulin A, an antibody that plays a critical role in immunity of the mucous system.”
McGill’s findings end with the question of what’s next. Lending a framework to the questions and ways of thinking that make way for the normalization of music as a remedy for certain illnesses.
This ongoing research has umbrellaed under the creation of music therapy, which not only utilizes listening to music, but singing and playing instruments. Each outlet eliciting different emotions, triggered by the music. Broadening their reach, musical therapists also deep dive into the different emotions music can evoke from a listener. Like why music with certain tones or lyrics evoke the same levels of emotions as crying, and can lead to the listener shedding similar tears.
With musicians increasingly lending their voices to promote mental health awareness by speaking on their own struggles, it allows listeners to draw comparisons to their own experiences with their favorite artists. Eliciting an, if they can do it so can I approach. Although Frank Ocean hasn’t directly spoken about having anxiety, only mentioning being depressed via a now-deleted tweet, listeners are able to read between the lines. It’s why from the beginning of time fans have looked to their musical idols to get them through their hardest times.
Tiffanie Woods is a writer and content strategist living in New York. When she's not curating the perfect playlist, she can be find talking about her affinity for skincare and Drake. @tiffromthe6