Was Frank Ocean Right to Screw Over Chipotle — and Brag About It on Tumblr?

You’ve probably seen the cute Chipotle ad where a scarecrow starts his own taco business to challenge the giant evil industrial food complex, set to Fiona Apple’s rather lovely rendition of “Pure Imagination.” It turns out that Frank Ocean was meant to record the song, but backed out, claiming that he’d been misled. As per Gawker, “Ocean’s legal team says he was deceived, shown a video with no Chipotle branding, and told the song would be used in a campaign to promote responsible farming. They also claim Ocean was promised final approval on the project.” The company is suing Ocean for the $212,500 it advanced him for the song, on the basis that, well, he never sang it, and Ocean responded this morning by posting this on his Tumblr. (Amusingly, a Chipotle spokesperson says the company hasn’t actually received the check in question: “If/when we get a check from Frank, we should be able to close the books on this. Right now, all we have is a photo online.”)

Ocean’s come in for some criticism about the way he’s handled this, with some commentators calling him naïve and others pointing out that Chipotle is a lot better than McDonald’s and all the other evil overlords of the fast-food world. The implication is that Ocean is aiming at the wrong target. But there’s also something rather disingenuous about presenting “ethical” fast food as any sort of solution to the way our food industrial complex operates. Better fast food is still fast food.

Most pernicious, I think, is the idea that animals being treated in the way they’re depicted being treated in Chipotle’s ad is inevitably an idealized fantasy. (It’s no accident that the ad is a cartoon, I’m sure.) In a world of consumers who have long since stopped taking advertising literally, the idea of the idyllic farm as portrayed in these ads has more semiotic resonance than anything else. No one believes that Chipotle’s cows really gambol happily in grassy fields, any more than they believe Quaker Oats are made by a jovial religious type or Kentucky Fried Chicken is from Kentucky. But still, this sort of imagery does have a measure of resonance, and this one basically says, “Look, the days of subsistence agriculture are long gone, but shit, we’re not nearly as bad as those other fast food restaurants!”

In this respect, by all accounts, it sounds like Chipotle is right — it’s admirable that a company whose business model is essentially the same buy-in-bulk-and-serve-the-exact-same-thing-at-every-restaurant idea that has fueled fast food businesses the world over is at least making some effort to ensure that its suppliers aren’t treating animals like walking slabs of meat. When the scarecrow ad first aired last year, Mother Jones‘ Dana Liebelson looked into just how credible the chain’s claims of sustainability were. The entire article is worth reading, but it’s basically summarized by Liebelson’s conclusion:

if you’re headed off to lunch after reading this article, and you want to eat organic, avoid GMOs, and get food that’s locally sourced — your best best is to go to a grocery store, read the labels very carefully, and make a sandwich. But if that’s not an option, you’re far better off going to Chipotle than McDonald’s.

Pretty much any analysis you’ll read of Chipotle’s culture says the same thing: it’s pretty good, as far as fast food chains go. There’s always the rider, though. In an essay entitled “Chipotle: We’re Conflicted,” Chow’s John Birdsall sums up the dilemma neatly: “If fast food corporations have to exist, better they should be a burrito chain that at least acknowledges the horrors of the conventional food system, committing to meat that’s something significantly better than feedlot Frankenmeat, even if it’s far from the ideal of placid livestock fattening slowly on pasture.” GOOD’s Erica Grieder says something similar: “It can only be as green as its business model allows, but to the extent that it is green, it might as well talk it up.”

The problem is that the idea of Chipotle representing a cultural shift only goes as far as: well, shit, fast food is obviously here to stay, so this is probably as good as it gets. Your average Chipotle burrito is still a whole heap of calories, and more importantly, it still perpetuates the culture of food-as-production-line, where a bunch of low-wage employees assemble your burrito the same way, every time. Again, it’s better than McDonald’s in that respect — your average entry-level Chipotle employee gets $21k a year, including health insurance and two weeks paid vacation.

But fast food has still been a massively destructive influence on society, with giant fast food corporations warping the way our food is produced and the economy in which they operate. Eric Schlosser’s seminal Fast Food Nation is compulsory reading on this issue: Schlosser points out that “The centralized purchasing decisions of the large restaurant chains and their demand for standardized products have given a handful of corporations an unprecedented degree of power over the nation’s food supply.” Just as destructive is their cultural influence, the homogenization that means your burrito is the same in NYC as it would be in Paris or Tokyo: “The basic thinking behind fast food has become the operating system of today’s retail economy, wiping out small businesses, obliterating regional differences, and spreading identical stores throughout the country like a self-replicating code.”

This stuff is hard. There are parts of America — many parts of America — where you can’t buy decent fresh produce. There are many people working jobs that involve long hours just to make ends meet (sometimes, irony of ironies, at fast food restaurants), with no time left over to buy groceries or cook dinner. If it’s a choice between people in this situation eating at Taco Bell or Chipotle, then clearly Chipotle is the better choice. But if we leave it at that, we’re selling ourselves short. There has to be a giant, fundamental change in the way this country eats, and that extends beyond a cute animation of a scarecrow.

All of which brings us back to Frank Ocean. He’s come in for a reasonable amount of criticism over how he’s handled this whole affair. This Tumblr post by writer Gabe Delahaye calls Ocean petulant for posting the image of the check on his blog, and yes, he probably could have made his point in a way that’s less likely to make people say, “Hey, what a dick.” But still, good on him. At least he’s showing some sort of interest in ethics, unlike contemporaries who are happy to pocket a shitload of soft-drink cash while promoting a campaign against childhood obesity, or get paid a king’s ransom to perform for tin-pot dictators.

If that sounds like exactly the sort of caveat-laden praise that people heap on Chipotle… well, yes, it is. But, y’know, baby steps.