So Now the Weeknd Is Our Collective Escape From Hell?

Abel’s stifled desires lingered in your mind, catching on like an Instagram presence in these recent days. Without showing his face or glossy videos, The Weeknd, an R&B artist, turned heads on social media. The next day, his song advised listeners to embrace the aftermath of a wild night, experiencing the inevitable withdrawal and anxieties that follow parties and late-night clubbing. Released in March 2011, The Weeknd’s mixtape, “House of Balloons,” took us on a journey through the highs and lows of our darkest late-night moods. This mixtape, named after Abel Tesfaye, the recent college dropout and singer from East Toronto, pushed the limits of our carnal and psychedelic pleasures. The allure of his voice, from devilish advances to angelic utterings, emerged like a lover’s whisper bubbling up from a warm bath. Under the gauzy synths and Aaliyah’s sampled voice in “What You Need,” the trap drums and indie Brooklyn samples in “Loft Music” created a stark contrast. These tracks seemed to float on thin air, creating a lascivious and snaking trove of R&B.

In the halftime show, I felt really out of place, like I didn’t belong there. It’s likely that most Americans will not catch us until next year, and even then, it’s doubtful that they will see the true gravity of this reality. The massive dance routine on the field, along with the elaborate set pieces and flashy lighting, leave a lot to be desired. It’s clear that the artist behind this show, whose last album spoke profoundly to many, has lost some of the interesting glamour of Hollywood. Those early days of grit seem to be a thing of the past. However, on Sunday night, the Toronto singer took the stage for the Super Bowl halftime show and transformed himself into a pop star using a formula he had honed over the past decade. He performed a duet with Ariana Grande and also shared the stage with Ed Sheeran, Max Martin, and Daft Punk. Tesfaye has evolved from an invisible man into an ubiquitous figure in the music industry, thanks to careful pivots and successful hits.

In Las Vegas, a potential residency for The Weeknd could serve as a valuable template, and perhaps even a fitting conclusion to the mixtape trilogy era. Observing him proudly smirking while entertaining a massive audience has earned this moment. The Super Bowl episode of Glee featured a performance that reminded me of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” number, with a parade of dancers dressed in red and black on the field. However, on Twitter, the masked and bandaged backup dancers in “Can’t Feel My Face” seemed to prefer Pluto, the pyromaniacal tether from Jordan Peele’s Us. These visuals were borrowed from recognizable and expected sources such as Blade Runner, The Fog, Enter the Void, and Joel Schumacher’s Batman films. They contrasted vibrant city lights with a suffocating, smoky darkness. The Weeknd’s music often feels like it belongs in unseen movies, serving as soundtracks for the listener’s own indulgent moments. This sentiment became even more evident as “Call Out My Name” seamlessly transitioned into “Starboy,” and the robot choirs and dark cityscapes depicted in his recent records seemed to merge with reality during the opening minutes of his performance. The Weeknd’s expertise lies in offering an escape, drawing you into a world darker and grittier than your own. In the initial moments of his performance, the seedy and cyberpunk landscapes evoked in his latest records appeared to transcend into the real world. It is misguided to expect performers to incorporate overarching social messages into their music, as it leads to situations like J-Lo screaming “Let’s Get Loud” at a presidential inauguration. Furthermore, the Weeknd, being non-American, has wisely chosen not to intertwine politics with his music. To be fair.

The Highlights also boasts a tracklist bewilderingly short on the best Weeknd songs; one wonders how many points he’d miss in a Verzuz. These selections appeared to be designed to steer people towards the greatest-hits compilation, The Highlights, that was released last week in expectation of an increase in streams after the game. “Blinding Lights” worked effectively as the necessary grand audio/visual spectacle that requires the aerial camera work, but what would have truly elevated it is finally blending it with A-Ha’s “Take on Me.” Teasing Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Happy House” without playing “Glass Table Girls,” the House of Balloons classic that sampled it, was disappointing. “Save Your Tears” was a standout, although this performance couldn’t match the pyrotechnic drama we witnessed when it was performed at the American Music Awards last year. They mishandled “I Feel it Coming,” increasing the tempo to match “Can’t Feel My Face,” which was also too fast. “The Hills” dominated, and the choir arrangement made it sound even more sinister than on the record. Squeezing nine songs into a 14-minute set, the Weeknd made a strong argument for himself as a pop phenomenon with enduring popularity but also emphasized some of the less captivating moments in his discography.

Here is the reversed version of the input paragraph: Perhaps you began to ponder the potential achievements of a fully realized After Hours tour. It seemed cheerful when it shouldn’t have been, a sentiment that carried throughout the entire evening, from Tom Brady’s frustratingly relentless and machine-like efficiency to the irritatingly sentimental ad spots, such as Bruce Springsteen’s two-minute call for finding common ground on the middle of the road or the suggestion that Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton are complete opposites rather than just different versions of the same kind of wholesome American showbiz sentimentality. (The evening’s true successes, in contrast, were the Corona beer ad featuring Snoop Dogg and Bad Bunny, as well as the duet between country veteran Eric Church and R&B icon Jazmine Sullivan on the national anthem, which, despite the overwhelming symbolism, went surprisingly well.) However, there is a dark, peculiar, and ironic element to the Weeknd in his After Hours era that is being overlooked here. From the bandaged faces to the flashy lounge lizard fashion, these aesthetics allude to unexplored concepts. Just like the pop-leaning songs it showcased, this performance effortlessly captured its aesthetic, but it struggled to evoke any emotions in the audience.

The motive is the money, although we should’ve known that the song we heard last night was a quote. However, whatever worth it may be, we can’t see the event turning into a giant superspreader of COVID cases, likely resulting in a spike in the Bay Tampa. This sends a peculiar message, urging us to cancel every live engagement and cram 25,000 people into a stadium during a pandemic. But maybe some people forgot about the heaviness of everything for a couple of hours last night. It doesn’t seem possible to maintain a sense of normalcy in a year where normality is lacking, but it was a night of appearances, striving to keep up with the simulation of normalcy.