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  • Writer's pictureBrendan Stec

Playing hard to get

How Frank Ocean and Coco Chanel played hard to get... and what it teaches us about human desire


"You make me so happy it turns back to sad

There's nothing I hate more than what I can't have

And you are so gorgeous it makes me so mad"

—Taylor Swift, “Gorgeous”


Frank Ocean

Playing Hard to Get

Channel Orange (2012) is a beautiful album. Critically acclaimed, a bestseller, on more greatest-album-lists than I could count. I won’t attempt to put into words how much I enjoy it (just know it covers a lot of territory, from addiction to decadence to Cleopatra). It was R&B singer Frank Ocean’s first major album… and I can imagine he felt maybe just a little bit of pressure to follow-up with something equally brilliant, experimental, and captivating. How did he keep his audience excited while he prepared for the follow-up?

He essentially played hard to get. For the months (and years) after Channel Orange, Ocean laid a careful trail of vague hints about the next album’s release date on his tumblr page. He would drum up excitement, dropping all sorts of exciting details about the album over the Internet… surely it would be released soon… only to disappear back into an infuriating radio silence. Nothing ever seemed certain. Would there even be a second album? Four years went by.

Finally, in August 2016, with essentially no warning, Ocean at last released Blonde to explosive critical acclaim. Equally surreal and experimental like Channel Orange, it was a smashing success. And yet again, Ocean remained strategically out of the limelight, giving fans and critics the space to project their own interpretations onto an album they had waited so patiently to engorge.

What would have happened if Frank Ocean had rushed Blonde out the door 1-2 years after Channel Orange? Would there have been the same climactic build-up? The same speculative buzz of anticipation? The same explosive impact upon its release? Probably not.

Ocean’s strategy of playing hard to get was the differentiating factor, because it played upon a fundamental truth of human behavior. Humans are intrigued by what they cannot have, by what is just out of reach and around the corner. Consider what Montaigne wrote of this over 400 years ago,

“[T]here is nothing so contrary to our tastes than that satiety which comes from ease of access, and nothing which sharpens them more than rareness and difficulty.” (1)

There is a reason Harvard artificially depresses its acceptance rate, letting in roughly the same amount of kids today than it did in 1990 (while there are over 25% more college-aged students today). The more difficult an object or achievement or album is to obtain, the more valuable (and prestigious) it is perceived. And the more it is desired.

But when does this actually apply? In the romantic world, depending on your own psychological profile, you may be either dismayed or excited to learn that psychologists have found playing hard to get is actually an effective method to stir up romantic interest in another person. But only when the other person is already a little interested. It does not create desire out of thin air, but only magnifies what desire is already present.

That’s why playing hard to get worked well for Frank Ocean, who had already generated a surplus of desire via Channel Orange. His mysterious nature and the constant delays actually increased fan excitement, buying him time to churn away on his magnum opus.


I find it symbolic that one of Frank Ocean’s more recent songs… from 2017 mind you… is called “Chanel”. Though the relationship is likely coincidental, Coco Chanel herself was the consummate enigma just like Ocean is today.

Chanel first made a name for herself by designing decidedly androgynous leisure clothes for women. She understood that the women of France would be drawn to this taboo, of possessing a more masculine style that for so long remained a forbidden fruit (there's the wanting what you can't have idea again). Like Ocean, she also mastered a bit of the hot and cold stratagem to stimulate intrigue in her work. She would disappear (sometimes for years), and then would suddenly resurrect, announcing a major new project to stir excitement. She was deliberately vague. No one seemed to really know where she had grown up. She never clarified wrong rumors and even spread some false ones of her own.

Manipulative? Probably. But it all had a very magnetic effect on both her work and her personality.

Wanting What We Can't Have... Forever How do brands, artists, and entertainers (especially those keen on luxury) keep the fickle attention of their audience? They play similar strategic games as Chanel and Ocean. They find ways to play hard to get, by shrouding their narrative in mystery or exclusivity. They cannot let their products become too familiar, too accessible, or too formulaic. I think Ralph Lauren/Polo struggled with this over the years with an over-reliance on sales via mass-market department stores, such as Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, and a relatively stable (and easily counterfeited) style. Lululemon, by contrast, has strategically avoided accessibility. People occasionally moralize about lulu’s unrealistic beauty standards (which may be changing), but unrealistic is what they must remain to create the sufficient allure for their shirts... that are literally just one color. (I own several.) No one would be jazzed to buy a $130 gray sweatshirt unless with it you moved one penguin step closer, again asymptotically, towards some exclusive I'm-rich-and-fit! standard. People rightly rail against exclusivity when it seals people off from education or jobs. But in the aesthetic world, when exclusivity is played right, it keeps customers (and fans) chasing after what they do not (or even cannot) have. Chanel understood this fundamental truth of human nature, because she experienced it so poignantly herself. Growing up as a poor orphan, her life dream was to live in a luxurious mansion as an adult. But when that dream became a reality after moving into Étienne Balsan’s chateau, she felt the inevitable empty pangs for something else. What she had attained became boring, even contemptible. As Groucho Marx said, "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member." And by contrast, what remains unattainable still remains captivating. I could use that as a platform to preach against consumerism and its implication that happiness be discovered at the Tesla dealership. But I think we just have plain ole evolution, which has optimized us for survival and not happiness, to blame for our ceaseless striving for what we don't already have. To be safe, more (new stuff) has always been better. These days, Frank Ocean (a man with 3 million Instagram followers and only 3 total posts...) is building an enigmatic luxury jewelry brand called Homer. Not Simpson, but the poet. Obviously, the details are fuzzy. All I know is that the Bowery-based store is appointment only, and the jewelry on the website is already out of stock.


Further Reading (1) Essays, Michel de Montaigne

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