Here it is, the first Super Bowl halftime show about the depravity of Super Bowl halftime shows. That might sound self-defeating, but last night, the 30-year-old Toronto star Abel Tesfaye just did more of what he’s done during his decade-long rise from indie mystery man to inescapable hitmaker. His sarcastically well-sung pop-R&B delivers sweetness with distinct notes of rot. He salutes head rushes and hangovers at the same time. Or, to put it in NFL terms, he makes mass entertainment about the way mass entertainment can give people brain damage. Were you left slightly amused, slightly bored, a little disturbed, and a lot confused last night? To quote Daniel Craig, “Ladies and gentlemen, The Weeknd.”
Arriving days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Tesfaye’s latest studio album, After Hours, proved to be spookily apt pandemic pop. In music videos and TV gigs, Tesfaye has been singing with his mouth bloody, or his head bandaged up, or his face swollen as if by bee stings. The costumes were part of a performance-art piece about the perils of pleasure-seeking and superficiality, which, again, has been his theme since his earliest mixtapes. All that’s changed over the years is the sugariness with which those themes have been expressed. The peppy hit “Blinding Lights” had TikTok kids and grandparents alike bopping to lyrics about driving drunk toward a late-night hookup. The Super Bowl booking made sense given the popularity of Tesfaye’s smooth singing and knack for ’80s-jukebox catchiness. Yet a question loomed: How would a lyricist obsessed with numbing powders and blackout sex avoid an FCC fine?
The answer was that Tesfaye would take America to church. He opened halftime with a glitzy, arresting trompe l’oeil: He sat in a classic car suspended amid casino-strip neon while slot-machine noises blinged. When he and the camera began to move, it became clear that this illusory cityscape was perched in Tampa’s bleacher seats. Monkish chanting sounded out, and a red-eyed, blue-robed figure levitated in front of Tesfaye. That figure might have been an angel or it might have been a demon, but the scripture lit up above it was unambiguous: RAYMOND JAMES STADIUM. Welcome to Vegas, welcome to the Super Bowl, welcome to a financial firm’s fun zone. The gods—money and diversion—are the same, regardless of what you call the cathedral.
The coolness of this opening got cooler when we saw the large choir of zombie monks lined up. But as soon as Tesfaye began singing from within a column of Blinding Light™, the spell broke a bit. The sonic mix of his 2016 hit “Starboy” was echoey and faint, so the finer points of Tesfaye’s lyrics about cutting cocaine lines and having a woman clean the table with her face were, alas, lost. The sound improved over time, and Tesfaye managed to flaunt his significant vocal chops while mugging at the camera with impressive hamminess. Still, he did not quite prove himself as a standalone superstar capable of holding an audience with pure charisma. Rather—and again, this is the point of his art—Tesfaye resembled a dive-bar cover singer, or a wax-model Michael Jackson, or even the holographic version of himself that will tour after he retires.
This uncanny-valley aspect of Tesfaye as a performer fit with the strange context of this year’s halftime show. The coronavirus didn’t cancel the Super Bowl, but it did make things weirder. About 20,000 people sat in the stands among cardboard cutouts of human beings who might have otherwise attended. So there was less pretense than ever around the idea that the Super Bowl halftime exists for the people at the game rather than for the people watching at home. Tesfaye’s act took place in a mock bandstand set up in the arena’s seats themselves, and often he seemed as though he was simply filming a music video. For one portion, he went inside a mirror-paneled maze that recalled a Yayoi Kusama installation, and batted chaotically at the camera. Clearly, a sense of being unsettled was meant to be part of the entertainment—and viewers at home indeed immediately began creating memes about relating to Tesfaye’s wooziness.
The Weeknd’s hit songs are so grandiose and his aesthetic sensibility is so well defined that the performance, for all its strangeness, often worked. The climax arrived as Tesfaye finally ran onto the field with a contingent of red-jacketed dancers wrapped in face bandages. While those Weeknd doppelgängers lined up and pantomimed in orderly fashion, Tesfaye herked and jerked down a central aisle. You could spend a few hours coming up with comparisons for this spectacle, and most of them are creepy things from the ’80s: Thriller, Watchmen, the films of John Carpenter. I was also reminded of Apple’s famous 1984 Super Bowl ad—but although Apple appropriated George Orwell to sell the myth of individuality through consumption, Tesfaye was making a more overtly cynical statement. He was a wannabe surrounded by wannabes. When the performance ended, those bandaged extras fell to the ground: a mass-culture massacre.
It’s tempting to give The Weeknd points for edginess, but his commentary on emptiness is pretty empty itself—a B-movie slasher with no takeaway. When the time came to ascend the biggest stage in the world, Prince was raunchier, Madonna was ruder, Janet Jackson actually upset people, and Beyoncé forced a political confrontation. Moreover, those greats blended provocation with a risky sense of hope. The Weeknd’s blank charm and eerie lighting feinted at meeting this bizarre moment in history but ultimately offered a shrug. Tesfaye probably calculated, correctly, that the next commercial break would try to tell us we’re all going to be okay.