The Weeknd Emerges From the Shadows at the Super Bowl Halftime Show
Throughout most of its decade-long career, the Weeknd has found increasingly artful ways to grab the limelight. It became immensely famous and loved as it coolly, skeptically, and effectively moved away from the harsh, sometimes silly spotlight of fame.
There isn’t much you can do to hide on the Super Bowl halftime show stage, however. It’s a locale flattening nuances, sandpaper intent. It’s live and heavily reviewed. For someone whose songs are often deeply immersed in traumatic and provocative subjects but shine so bright and convincingly that it is easy to overlook the fragile soul within, it is an unlikely, almost vulnerable place to find yourself.
That probably explains why the Weeknd at Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida re-specified the terms of the performance. What would normally be a hyperchoreographed spectacle with countless moving parts was instead something more focused and sometimes annoyingly intimate. Although their music tends to be more of a maximalist, the Weeknd has found several ways to make the performance appear small, a kind of secret whispered in front of an audience of over 100 million people.
In a performance that was clearly designed for home use, he focused intensely on the cameras. Behind him were a band and choir set in a neon cityscape, and he was often surrounded by dancers – whose faces were linked according to the famously skeptical iconography of his recent music videos – but often the weekend stood alone. His eye contact was intense. When he danced, he mostly did it in isolation. In the midst of a pyrotechnic affair, he was there, keeping his own time.
It was also, in part, the result of the particular circumstances surrounding the event that year: a large-scale affair reinterpreted with pandemic restrictions in mind. Instead of the usual stage set-up – put together in the midfield and quickly dismantled after the show – the Weeknd mostly performed from the stands and only stepped onto the field for the last minutes of his set.
He wore a glitzy red blazer and spectator shoes with an all-black ensemble, and at times acted like a cabaret mayor, a master of ceremonies for a space age function. He held onto the greatest of his many great hits. “Starboy” was alive and “The Hills” had a majestic swing.
After “The Hills” he turned to something special, walked into an overlapping maze and played “Can’t Feel My Face” amid a crush of faces that looked alike. The camera was hand-held and unstable, creating a glamorous chaos that this event normally does not put itself into.
Then he softened the mood with some of his biggest tent hits: the sun-shining “I Feel It Coming”, the oversized “Save Your Tears” and then “Earned It”, his theatrical ballad from the soundtrack “Fifty Shades of Gray”.
There couldn’t possibly be a more appropriate time for the Weeknd to host the halftime show: After nearly a year of avoiding other people, who better to set the terms of public engagement than pop music’s greatest recluse? Still, it was a joke this week to watch him stick his head out of the shadows, attend a brief, not-so-comfortable press conference, and do yuk-yuking with James Corden in a comedy sketch.
There are some responsibilities of this notoriety that are non-negotiable. Asked at the press conference if he would tone down his songs or his performance in any way, the Weeknd insisted on how garish and graphic his recent videos were: “We’ll definitely keep it for the families.”
That said, no calamity has been brought to any of the biggest, most watched, and most studied stages in pop music – take for example the raw carnal provocations of Prince’s rain-shaken performance in 2007 or the fiery-eyed political radicalism of Beyoncé’s takeover of Coldplay’s lukewarm set in the year 2016 or MIA’s middle finger in 2012.
Most of the time, as promised, he kept it on to PG, though he tossed a sly grin and tiny hip sash into it during “I Feel It Coming,” and the scattered chaos during “Can’t Feel My Face” pointed to much more sinister things than could be represented. His recent music videos have focused on the grotesque celebrity worship, but that narrative has been nodded but largely disregarded.
This is the second half show that was produced in part by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. That agreement came as the League sought to remedy the aftermath of Colin Kaepernick’s protests against racial justice. For the past several years, the NFL has seemingly been in constant crisis response mode. This season has been consistently challenged by the effects of the coronavirus.
Before the game, the rock-soul singer HER played “America the Beautiful” and injected a prince-oriented guitar filigree. And the national anthem was a duet between the phenomenally gifted soul singer Jazmine Sullivan and the country stoic Eric Church, who wore a purple moto jacket as if to overemphasize the political and cultural middle ground. The performance – robust, at times impressive – was so clearly striving.
During the Weeknd, the NFL picked one of the few undisputed pop stars of the last decade, a consistent hit maker with an ear for contemporary production and a penchant for the size and glamor of the greatest pop of the 1980s.
It was only in the last few minutes when he finally got onto the field that he realized how far he had come. At that moment, an excerpt from “House of Balloons” was playing, the dark theme song from his extremely dark debut mixtape, which was released a decade ago. At this point, the Weeknd was a total cipher, a Toronto culprit with an ethereal voice and no interest in sharing with the rest of the world.
That nod to his past was quick – a wink for long-time fans – and there was room for “Blinding Lights,” his exuberant 2019 smash that topped the Hot 100 for four weeks. It’s a great song that both evokes an idyllic future and evokes acoustic sensory memories of the glory years of mega-pop. In the field he was surrounded by hundreds of Weeknd-like dancers. In the beginning he moved with them in lock step. But as the song swelled up and the dancers began to rave about in strange patterns, the Weeknd moved to its own rhythm, keeping the camera gaze alone in the chaos.