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Hollywood Insider The Weeknd Super Bowl Halftime Show

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PhotoVideo: Super Bowl Halftime Show/NFL

The Weeknd has had quite the rise over the last decade. Since the Aquarius emerged from the corners of the Toronto R&B scene, along with fellow genre-bender Drake, Abel Tesfaye aka The Weeknd has made a name for himself in pop music. Because of his star power and undeniable talent, it is no surprise that the NFL gave The Weeknd the primetime spot at this year’s Super Bowl LV Halftime Show and the performance this year certainly didn’t disappoint.

Let’s look at what got The Weeknd to this point, and why the performance was such a resounding success. 

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The Weeknd’s Previous Work and After Hours

Combining earworm melodies with his trademark hazy, hedonistic, and sometimes experimental aesthetics, The Weeknd’s music has maintained relevance since his debut series of Trilogy mixtapes hit the internet in the early half of the 2010s. Abel has since become a household name, with albums like Beauty Behind the Madness and Starboy receiving Billboard success and critical appraise, while never sacrificing any of Abel’s ingenuity. 

But The Weeknd’s latest creative endeavor, 2020’s After Hours, marked a major turning point in his career, as his artistic dominance reached new heights on the ‘80s New Wave-inspired album. The album’s lead single, “Blinding Lights,” was the Number One song on Billboard for many weeks, and the majority of the other tracks are just as good, but it has been the music videos and live performances of the album’s hits that have made the record the cultural artifact it now is. The Weeknd’s unnamed, red-suited character that he portrays in the videos and talk show appearances, appears to be a bizarre combination of Tyler Durden, Hunter S. Thompson, Michael Jackson, and The Joker, and the various clips he appears in all connect together to create a greater narrative about the depths of depravity that often come with fame. The visuals are also stunning, with the lighting effects in the “Heartless” video making for some of the most gorgeous work I’ve seen done in a music video this year. It’s been an amazing rollout to follow, and might be the music highlight of the last year.

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However, the Recording Academy apparently didn’t get the memo. In one of the most notorious snubs in GRAMMY history, The Weeknd missed out on all categories for After Hours. Rumors surrounding the situation have suggested that The Weeknd was offered a major spot at the 2021 GRAMMYs show, but had to decline for the Super Bowl. The GRAMMYs punished Abel for this, leaving him out of all categories as retribution. The Weeknd has expressed his frustration on social media, referring to the organization as “corrupt” and “racist.” The backlash online has also been harsh, as The Weeknd would have likely been the consensus pick in many of the major categories, given how dominant “Blinding Lights” and After Hours as a whole has been as part of the cultural zeitgeist.

The Weeknd Super Bowl Halftime – The Performance Itself

All drama aside, The Weeknd did what he had to do at the show. Abel successfully livened up another boring win for Tom Brady and his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, over Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, with a dizzying performance that captured many of his biggest hits and maintaining the visceral, chaotic energy of the After Hours album and coinciding visuals. There were occasional audio issues that drowned out The Weeknd’s voice, but these were minuscule problems in the greater context of the show, as the set design, backup dancers, and Abel himself oozed with swagger. The light displays mimicked the moody urban vibe of the album perfectly, and I don’t think I’ve seen The Weeknd have that much fun in a performance ever. 

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The set combined most of his major hits (although a few personal favorites, such as “Low Life,” “The Morning” and “Often” were curiously missing), essentially giving an uninitiated Weeknd fan an introduction into everything that makes him who he is. His performance of Beauty Behind the Madness cut “The Hills” was my personal favorite of the bunch, but every song he played, even the ones taken from earlier in his career, was pitch-perfect, and it made an otherwise sleepy event so much more exciting. But there is no denying that the most meme-able moment of the night came when he ventured inside the stage, filming himself under golden lights and colliding with a mob of dancers. His expressions throughout the sequence were hilarious and showed just how invested he was in the show, something that is appreciated after previous shows have lacked that sort of energy. 

The costume design also perfectly matched the Weeknd’s frequent themes of superficiality, toxicity, and vanity.  A huge swarm of dancers were covered in the plastic surgery gauze from the “Save Your Tears” video, a look that resembles the Austrian independent horror film “Goodnight Mommy.” This cinematic quality crept into every aspect of the performance, especially the lights and pyrotechnics, which contrasted with the otherwise dark set design wonderfully. The Weeknd himself was expressive in an almost movie-like way, likely stemming from his previous acting experience in the Safdie Brothers’ 2019 film “Uncut Gems,” where he co-starred with Adam Sandler

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Overall, the performance was everything a Weeknd fan could have asked for. It was as exciting as it could have possibly been, with The Weeknd playing some of his greatest songs in an act that was nothing short of mesmerizing. The visuals were risky for a show of this magnitude, but were somehow accessible, toning down the hedonism for a general audience, while still retaining the trademark dark qualities that make The Weeknd so unique as an artist. Would I have liked to see one of his collaborators, such as Drake, Future, Daft Punk, or Rosalia show up? Absolutely. But this was his moment, and he nailed it. I just can’t wait to see what he does next because if this last year was any indication, The Weeknd is just getting started. 

By Patrick Nash

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