Tracking the Swaggermetrics of Frank Ocean and Louis C.K.

07/30/2012 11:44 am ET | Updated Sep 29, 2012

The other day, a funny thing (or four) happened on the way to the (Internet) forums: first of all, I learned that no one calls them forums anymore. Secondly, netizens in China are actually debating the definition of "swag" and whether Frank Ocean has it. (Hat tip to Hua Hsu) Thirdly, people in China know who Frank Ocean actually is, and some of them even believe he has swag. And fourthly, comedian Louis C.K.'s show Louie, which has effectively ended all reasonable debate on what is the best show currently airing on television, filmed a yet-to-air episode in Beijing, featuring actual car pile-ups and everything. (No word, though, on whether the pile-ups were caused by a car chase through the city to elude Chinese authorities, á la Christian Bale.)

It struck me then that this is really why we love the interwebs: it allows us to find truth in random, seemingly unconnected places, even if that truth is absurdly biased and meta, and sometimes produces memes that make some of us nod our heads sagely and profusely and others huffy that they didn't post about it first.

So before someone says it in a much more SEO-friendly fashion: Frank Ocean's Channel Orange and Louis C.K.'s Louie are rare examples of great art that succeed because of -- not in spite of -- their willingness to provide endless grist for the social media mill. And yet, by "framing" their work in an increasingly digital yet disconnected world, both men deepen and enrich our ideas about what it means to be human without the hashtags.

When Frank Ocean posted his gut-wrenching declaration of unrequited love in the days leading up to the release of Channel Orange, it was lauded as both a publicity stunt and a feel-good cathartic triumph for the singer himself. Listening to the album is a similarly loaded experience: certain details feel thrillingly intimate, as if he's singing about someone you know but have since lost touch with, while at other times, he seems further adrift, working around the edges with veiled references and indelible imagery that adds an abstract touch, like the narrator of a cautionary tale told many times over.

Of course his canvas is the Internet itself, where reality is fluid and floating somewhere just beyond our grasp, offering us only the illusions of anonymity, community, or in certain cases, celebrity. Loneliness is in the eye of the beholder, as are slippery labels like emotional/physical destitution, addiction, and religion. When he croons "super rich kids with nothing but loose ends/super rich kids with nothing but fake friends," he could very well be describing your Facebook news feed. Then again, hope springs eternal: like everyone else, he's "searching for a real love" -- and I have a feeling he's not talking about

Louie C.K. has a much more diabolical purpose in mind: to have the Internet collapse upon itself in trying to decipher where "Louie" the TV persona ends and Louis C.K. the real-life comedian begins. Everyone recognizes the punchline, even as it's unclear who's in on the joke: whether it's the stand-up comics who appear in cameos as some version of themselves (most notably, Dane Cook); actors like Melissa Leo (whose star-turning role in episode "Telling Jokes/Set Up" is perhaps the most blatant example of abject horror doubling as humor in the history of network television); or of course, Internet commentators like the passionate, occasionally unruly, vaguely cult-ish lot at the Onion A.V. Club.

Throughout the show's existence, Louis/Louie is constantly trolling us in new and impressive ways. Think it's too clever by half to reference his half-Mexican identity in an episode featuring a Cuban lifeguard, drowning jokes, and a one-sided, not-exactly-heterosexual man crush? Well think again, Internet. Have a problem with the fact that Louie's ex-wife on the show -- the mother to two very adorable and very white daughters -- is black? Then feel free to join the (very small) club of comment threads that constantly harp on the continuity errors, narrative illogic, and loose plot threads, as if shows like Lost never existed.

For the most part, however, Louie is rightfully hailed as the vanguard of a new form of episodic television. So why does Louis C.K. get a free pass? Well for one, he's I-just-snorted-milk-out-my-nose hilarious. But perhaps it's also because he doesn't show open disdain for his audience, and unlike the obvious troll that is obvious (ahem, Aaron Sorkin), he's not on a mission to civilize, but to provoke his fellow humans to act as, well fellow humans: capable of the kinds of foibles, identity hang-ups, and emotional highs and lows that don't always translate into Twitter followers or spambots. Like Frank Ocean, his work is both of its time and timeless, a paradox that is easier to swallow once you realize that somewhere on the Internet (probably China), the concept of swag just went viral.