A closer read on Abel Tesfaye's performance.

By Alex Suskind
February 08, 2021 at 08:18 AM EST
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When he first appeared in 2011, with a handful of pulsing, dark R&B songs about disposable sex and late-night coke sessions, few (no one?) could have predicted that the Weeknd would one day land on the NFL's shortlist for Super Bowl halftime performers. But Abel Tesfaye's initial choice to stay in the shadows and avoid chasing pop stardom didn't last long. He ditched anonymity, signed with a record label, recorded songs with Drake and Ariana Grande, scored a handful of No. 1 hits, and, eventually, sold over 75 million records worldwide.  

Those numbers make him a viable Super Bowl choice, but his selection for this year's show still felt off-kilter, particularly for an organization as stodgy as the NFL. It was a far cry from the legacy acts and pop stars-your-grandmother-has-heard-of pipeline the league typically dips into on these gigs (you can thank Jay-Z's Roc Nation, who took over halftime production duties last year, for having a hand in the process). The Weeknd may be successful, yet he clings to a sort of anti-pop star mystique and lacks the gilded pomp and precision of a Beyoncé or Lady Gaga. If anything, news of the Weeknd performing in Tampa Bay felt like an offshoot of the fake fever dream-aesthetic he cleverly employed on his most recent album, 2020's After Hours, which saw him play a character who stumbles nose-first into an ugly pit of celebrity worship.

But Tesfaye opted to play it safe on Sunday night, coasting on his laurels and avoiding anything too left-of-field. He emerged from a sports car in a glittery red jacket, before making his way to the front of a foreboding set piece and launching into an uptempo take on "Starboy," his 2016 collaboration with Daft Punk (sans Daft Punk this time; at a press conference earlier this week, the Weeknd said there would be no guest stars during his performance, a promise he followed through on). More hits followed: the doom-and-gloom affair of 2015's "The Hills"; the Fifty Shades of Grey S&M of "Earned It"; the snow-white drug-despair of "I Can't Feel My Face" — a NSFW song that is almost as funny to hear being performed at the Super Bowl as it is to learn it was once nominated for a Nickelodeon Kid's Choice Award nomination. It was a greatest-hits setlist, and it might have worked well if the sound wasn't off; the Weeknd's voice often felt lost in a thicket of lush strings and synths. 

Credit: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Even the few fun creative elements — a dizzying funhouse hallway filled with bright lights, which has already been memed to infinity; the hundreds of backup dancers wearing the same facial bandages the Weeknd wore during his After Hours music videos — couldn't quite get over the show's lack of tech-savvy pageantry, which has become a staple of recent Super Bowl halftime shows. In the Weeknd's defense, that may not have been his fault. Due to the pandemic, the NFL was forced to cut back on the number of people who worked on the show, while coronavirus restrictions relegated him to singing mostly in an empty section of the stands — a first in the game's 55-year history — as opposed to the field for the duration, limiting the flexibility and space previously afforded to halftime performers (this choice in the name of safety seemed strange considering 25,000 people were in attendance at the game, but hey, I'm just a music journalist). Given the parameters, the Weeknd tried to put his own spin on the show by keeping it intimate: pulling the camera in close, employing a dizzying fisheye lens, starting a mini mosh pit inside the funhouse. But the approach felt ill-suited for a performance that draws more than a 100 million viewers ever year; it was closer in spirit (and not nearly as clever) as his recent deconstructed late-night performances.

The biggest missed opportunity of the night: not furthering (or finishing) the blood-curdling story he started with After Hours. Its narrative lost some luster after he explained it in an interview but it still felt ripe enough to expand on a grander level. Instead, he nodded to it without presenting anything new. Before tackling "Blinding Lights" as the set closer, he gave a hat tip to his boundary-pushing early days, with a short overture of "House of Balloons," the title track from his 2011 debut mixtape. It was a symbol of how far the Weeknd has come in the last decade, a testament to his voice, his perseverance, and his hitmaking skills in an increasingly disposable and erratic industry. But it also felt like a reminder of the risks he might have once taken. "Blinding Lights" indeed.

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