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Listening to Frank Ocean’s ‘Moon River’—and 7 versions that came before it

Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean ASSOCIATED PRESS - NYT

Frank Ocean recently dropped a cryptic, deconstructed cover of “Moon River,” inviting us to reconsider the history of Henry Mancini and Johnny’s Mercer’s evergreen standard.

Ocean’s version of “Moon River” is more discursive than most, pockmarked with gaps, introduced with a singular young female voice that contrasts with his own. The song expands to a choir, the mirror reflecting against water, running slow and melancholy. Like his remaking of “Hotel California” as an immigrant story in Nostalgia Ultra's "American Wedding," Ocean reworks a song we thought we knew, breaking it open until the subtext becomes text.

But this is only the latest of many queer interpretations of “Moon River” that have been recorded over the years. Here are seven other versions that Frank Ocean might be cribbing from.

Eartha Kitt

Eartha Kitt rarely did melancholy, and she always got her man. But she takes “Moon River” surprisingly seriously. Her feline vocal tics still scratch at the melody, but her interpretation, with an elegant backing of cocktail piano, means what it says. The way she phrases “huckleberry” reveals how a singer can be both inside and outside of a lyric.

Judy Garland

Performed live on her television show in the early ’60s, Garland’s version starts with a subtle, almost wounded harmonica solo. We wait for her voice to emerge, and when it does she sings softly, demanding close attention. Garland could be a belter when she wanted to be, so this initial quietness feels like telling a secret. Even as the track gets louder and her voice rises along with the music, her phrasing remains exquisite.

Aretha Franklin

Franklin just completely obliterates any of the song’s sadness. She belts the track, hard and fast. The horns are thick. And when she reaches the line about chasing after the same rainbows, it’s a moment of liberty and joy. In short, this is a spectacular example of missing the point of a song, but done with such panache that the misinterpretation opens up entirely new meanings.

R.E.M.

“Moon River” is also a song of the South. Songwriter Johnny Mercer was from Savannah; R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe was born three hours north of there, in Decatur, and his version is about being queer, sad, and Southern—all at once. Singing live on the British chart television show Old Grey Whistle Test, Stipe makes the song less cryptic, more overtly sexual, turning sadness into camp, longing into having, and beauty into a kind of tawdriness.

Angels in America

Two men, lovers, one of them dying, at the edge of the apocalypse, dance to “Moon River.” Two ghosts wait—for the angel of death, for the end of world—and watch the dance. The song, at first instrumental, soon ebbs into the Henry Mancini version. For a play that’s often very angry, and often very intellectual about its anger, to end on this small moment, mostly silent, mostly focused on the bodies of its characters, compounds the loneliness at the heart of the song.

Morrissey

Morrissey isn’t sad so much as he is enamored with the idea of sadness. This cover, with its bombastic production and his keening voice, brims over with an excess of meaning, not an excess of feeling.

Elton John

Sometime in the 21st century, the nostalgia of many boomer rock stars moved past the electric guitars of their youth to the lush productions of an even older age. The aging Elton John has often performed “Moon River” in concert, emphasizing showmanship over melancholy. The standards are not ossified, his performance insists—they can be brought back to life by any performer with enough ego and authority. John has earned that authority through age and persistence. The ego? Well, that was always there.