For This Year’s Super Bowl Halftime Show, We Really Only Needed The Weeknd

The SBLV halftime show was an eerie representation of isolation and denial of death.

Whether it was the fact that thousands gathered for a nationally televised super-spreader event, country recording artist Eric Church’s purple outfit (alongside superstar Jazmine Sullivan), or the atrocious Bruce Springsteen Jeep commercial, many moments from last night’s Super Bowl LV centered around coming together, a country united. That is, besides what many pop culture lovers consider the night’s main event, the halftime show led by Abel Tesfaye a.k.a. The Weeknd. In a stark comparison to Miley Cyrus’s Pregame Show, which featured ’80s rock ‘n’ roll icons Billy Idol and Jone Jett, and shoutouts to Bikini Kill and Britney Spears, Tesfaye’s performance balanced isolation and self-indulgence.

For the past year, the talented crooner has been promoting his latest album After Hours, over time revealing the disturbing yet poignant concept and character—donning a gaudy red suit jacket, shapeshifting from drugged-out gambler to surgically enhanced oddity—at the album’s center. After Hours doubles as a homage to film classics, while also taking jabs at the superficial, exploitative underbelly of the entertainment industry. “The significance of the entire head bandages is reflecting on the absurd culture of Hollywood celebrity and people manipulating themselves for superficial reasons to please and be validated,” he told Variety.

The Weeknd poured seven million dollars of his own money into this performance, which is why there were some incredible, eerie cinematic elements. Directed by Oneohtrix Point Never (who also worked with Tesfaye on the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems), the show opens with Tesfaye in a bedazzled red coat, face intact, inside a flashy car floating mid-air. It’s the kind of image that would look great on top of his own sponsored slot machine. Maybe he’s about to go over a cliff? Maybe his life and entire discography will flash before his eyes and millions of others’. Soon after, a demonic cyborg donning an angelic white cloak descends to their seat within an entire choir of demonic cyborgs. Nothing weird here.

The best—and creepiest—part of the fourteen minute performance was when he transitioned from the symphonic “Earned It” off of the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack into career favorite “House of Balloons.” With his hundreds of bandaged clones, The Weeknd secured the empty football field as a harrowing chorus sang Siouxsie Sioux’s eerie lyrics: “This is a happy house / We’re happy here.” The clone army militantly marched in place. Fun, fun, fun. “This is fun to me,” Tesfaye sings, his vocals soaring. One can’t help but think that it probably felt euphoric to play for thousands in a stadium when concerts have been put on hold indefinitely.

One of the most significant elements of this immense showcase was the lack of cameos, either friendly or bizarre. The Weeknd, who was shut out of Grammy nominations this year, has many songs featuring Grammy-nominated friends including Ariana Grande, Lana Del Rey, and Daft Punk—all of whom Tesfaye nodded to in the performance without presenting any of their voices live. This solo performance, also a nice promotion of his recent greatest hits album The Highlights, cements him as a household name that doesn’t need to bolstered by any adjacent stardom. A decade ago, Abel Tesfaye was an underground favorite, a mysterious indie artist who plagued us with ballads about his love affair with coke and codeine cups and a lot of vacuous intercourse—now he’s taken up the entirety of Raymond James Stadium. At times it felt like he was breaking the fourth wall—as he winked into the camera, for example, which acknowledged the millions at home but still felt like he held a dirty secret that’s yet to come to light.

Compared to the accompanying videos for the After Hours singles, yes, The Weeknd’s performance was pretty low-key. There was no decapitation, necrophilia, or scary plastic surgery reveals. His silvery coos and red jacket brought to mind Michael Jackson for some, while his black leather gloves conjured an image of a once-beloved footballer. However, with the recent Armie Hammer sexual assault allegations and additional suspected cannibalism details, the timing of Tesfaye’s character—who seems to sit alongside Patrick Bateman, Raoul Duke, and Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker—makes this performance all the more unsettling.

Last year, we were blessed with both Shakira and J.Lo, each icon equipped to do their own thirteen minute show. But this year, as Lady Gaga said on Chromatica, we only have The Weeknd. He didn’t cringily take off his top like that Maroon 5 guy did. (And he still couldn’t mind his own damn business this year!) Nothing was pastiche or oddly anachronistic for 2021. Rather, Tesfaye gave us his hits while focusing on this past year’s cold loneliness. Most of the country is isolated amidst the pandemic, going stir crazy from being in quarantine or suffering from an escalating mental health crisis. Like The Weeknd dancing in his mirrored box of blinding lights, we are forced to dance alone. And as we slowly become more and more unhinged from reality, the beauty of standards of social media become reinforced.

At the performance’s end, Tesfaye walks off alone surrounded by the bodies of clones he brought to life. There must be hundreds of clones lying on the field as thousands cheer. It’s an unnerving representation of how the U.S. has handled the pandemic—hundreds of thousands dead while countless citizens deny the very existence of their death’s cause. Maybe it’s that The Weeknd skillfully turned his very raunchy, graphic discography into a PG-rated performance (what Fox News has called “underwhelming,” likely for other reasons). So many remained ignorant to the hints of residual cocaine, death, and numbing sex for the Pepsi-sponsored show.

Maybe it’s that the line “At least we’ll both be beautiful and stay forever young,” hit different this year trapped inside, as opposed to the year it came out when many ignorantly thought we’d soon have the first woman president. Maybe it’s that the most shocking part is, we don’t even know how to be shocked anymore. It seems, the subtleties of The Weeknd’s performance will ripple out and haunt us for a while.

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