“Bad Religion” is a track from Frank Ocean’s July 2012 album, Channel Orange. The song is framed as a conversation between the singer and a taxi driver, to whom he is confessing his bitterness and hopelessness towards an unrequited love. Like most of Frank Ocean’s lyrical mastery, there are many angles through which this track can be understand, each revealing a bit more insight into the song and its singer.
The song title and the first verses are a bit misleading at first. The song opens with the singer getting into a taxi, asking the driver to simply listen to him and “be his shrink for the hour.” A taxi is necessarily a private and generally uninterrupted space, which is why the singer can make this allusion to the taxi driver being his therapist. When considering the arrangement of a taxi, however, it is important to remember that one of the key features of a taxi is the partition, a barrier between the driver and the rider. The driver and rider never need to face one another, rendering the driver anonymous. This anonymity is key to the song, as it allows the singer to speak freely and without judgement; for the listener, we are invited to become the driver and to listen while the singer confesses to us. The driver tries to bless his passenger, who has asked him to “outrun the demons,” if he could. This leads the singer to plead, “don’t curse me,” although he eventually concludes that a prayer probably wouldn’t hurt him.
This, and the confessional imagery created by the anonymity of the situation, inspires a religious air of this being an actual confession of the singer’s sin. The sin here is his unrequited love, which is he sees as a “one man cult.” To him, he is not a victim, but a perpetrator of unrequited love. He compares the feeling to “cyanide in [his] styrofoam cup,” meaning that the emotion is unwelcome not only by his unrequited love but by the singer himself. This is a song that is just as much about self-loathing as it is unrequited love, and about the perspective of unrequited love from both the lover and the unwilling beloved.
Another layer is revealed in the chorus, as it becomes apparent that the singer’s unrequited love is for another man. “This unrequited love/ To me it’s nothing but/ A one-man cult/ And cyanide in my styrofoam cup/ I could never make him love me/ Never make him love me/ No, no,” he despairs.
On July 4, 2012, just six days before the release of Channel Orange, Frank Ocean created a post on his tumblr page describing his first experiences with loving another man as a teenager, and how he dealt with the aftermath of that realization. This subtle announcement was necessary to contextualize songs such as “Bad Religion” and “Forrest Gump,” which implicate Ocean’s non-heterosexuality. By coming out as having non-heterosexual desire on July 4th, Independence Day, Ocean made a symbolic statement equating his declaration with an expression of freedom and independence from the cultural and societal oppression regarding sexuality in America’s contemporary R&B scene and overall.
The song further critiques these forces by having the cab driver pray in Arabic, implying that he is a Muslim. In a post-9/11 world, American society has become infamous, in part, due to its Islamophobia. By releasing a track implying that judgement over sexuality is more of a “bad religion” than Islam, Ocean is criticizing the foundation of all these prejudices, which one can understand to be essentially the same.
I feel like I could go on and on about this song and this album in general. I’d strongly recommend listening to the entire album, which poetically addresses big topics such as race, sexuality, class, drugs, and community. The music is beautifully composed and no two songs are similar to the point that one would find them too repetitive. The album is complex and multifaceted. Like most people, I like to think of myself as also complex and multifaceted. This makes it difficult for me to express how exactly I can relate to Channel Orange or even “Bad Religion” in general. Suffice to say, it is to a large extent.