The Weeknd’s Super Bowl Halftime Show Was The Right Kind Of Sweaty Chaos
The first time Tom Brady won a Super Bowl, Abel Tesfaye was 11 years old. At that point, Tesfaye, raised by his Ethiopian-immigrant grandmother in Toronto, was already beginning to embark on the wild life that he’d later chronicle as the Weeknd. Tesfaye spent the better part of a decade immersed in the Toronto party-kid universe, living as recklessly as a preteen could. (Tesfaye has said that he smoked weed for the first time at 11 and that other substances followed shortly thereafter.) I don’t know whether Tesfaye watched the Super Bowl that year or not. If he did, then he saw U2 play the Halftime Show.
Tom Brady didn’t play in the Super Bowl in 2011. That year, the New York Jets bounced Brady’s Patriots out of the playoffs, and the Packers beat the Steelers for the trophy. The Halftime Show for that Super Bowl was the Black Eyed Peas, something that I don’t remember at all.
About a month after that Super Bowl, a shadowy R&B project called the Weeknd released House Of Balloons, a dark and magnetic debut mixtape. The Weeknd was Abel Tesfaye, a 21-year-old American Apparel clerk, though we didn’t know that at the time. For the first little while, Tesfaye stayed out of photos and kept his identity hidden. What we heard on House Of Balloons was a soft, vulnerable voice cooing about sex and drugs and sex on drugs over flickering samples of Beach House and Aaliyah and the Cocteau Twins and Siouxsie And The Banshees. Music critics flipped their shit for the Weeknd, and the rest of the world got on board pretty quickly. By the end of the year, Drake and the Weeknd had shown up on each other’s songs. When Tom Brady played in the 2012 Super Bowl, losing to Eli Manning’s New York Giants for the second time, Abel Tesfaye was a cult star.
Still, a lot of weird shit had to happen for Abel Tesfaye to be the Halftime Show performer when Brady won another damn Super Bowl last night. The Weeknd had to emerge from the internet as a fully-formed superstar with multiple #1 hits to his name, translating his zonked-out drug-dirge music into sparkly, effervescent pop without quite losing his edge. He had to release one of the biggest albums of the plague year, and he had to make grand spectacles out of all his promotional appearances. The NFL had to go through multiple waves of damage-control overdrive, first squashing the dissent of its outspoken Black athletes and then attempting to veer hard in the other direction without actually addressing the issues raised by those Black athletes in any substantive way. None of this was preordained. It’s exceedingly weird that any of it happened — that the Weeknd was able to turn the most mainstream of cultural events into his own claustrophobic art-party.
This sort of thing just isn’t supposed to happen. Super Bowl Halftime Shows usually go to long-established superstars with secure legend status, or to blandly acceptable mainstream-pop institutions that could at least make chart-based arguments for legend status. The people who play the Halftime Show are stars — or, at the very least, entertainers. (Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, who did great work last year, are both.) The Weeknd isn’t really either of those. You don’t go to the Weeknd for sparkly escapist fantasia or for play-the-hits professionalism. You go to the Weeknd for vibes. Vibes are simply not something that can be communicated through the medium of the Super Bowl Halftime Show. (In the past, only Prince, Beyoncé, and I guess MIA have really managed to use the show for anything other than please-like-me pandering.) And yet the Weeknd somehow pulled it off.
It helped, of course, that this was the rare Super Bowl where the Halftime Show performer wasn’t surrounded with smiley rich people who were trying to get on camera. This year’s Super Bowl probably shouldn’t have happened, and it definitely shouldn’t have happened with fans in the stadium. The NFL’s dark determination to carry on with business as usual gave the night a palpable end-times undercurrent. The Super Bowl itself was a teeth-clenched death-march — Brady racking up one more smothering victory, intercut with ads about how we here at Toyota believe that we, as a people, are stronger together. So the Weeknd’s bugged-out psychedelic light show felt like an indication that life, somewhere, exists — that something other than grim inevitability can slide its way into the culture every once in a while.
I should clarify here: The Weeknd’s halftime show wasn’t great. Abel Tesfaye is not an athletic singer, but he’s a capable one, and he hit his notes. The NFL’s sound team did Tesfaye no favors, keeping him low in the mix and turning his immaculately mastered club-pop into aural mud. The Weeknd has hits for days, but many of those hits are awfully internal, and they don’t necessarily translate into stadium shakers the way something like “Hips Don’t Lie” does. Still, the songs all sounded big and cool and weird. (Oneohtrix Point Never served as the show’s musical director. I don’t know what that means, but it’s one more unlikely occurrence.)
Music aside, the Weeknd’s entire spectacle was truly self-indulgent. The indulgence is what worked. All through his long After Hours promo tour, the Weeknd has been wrapping his face in bloody bandages to make some kind of obscure point. He didn’t wear those bloody bandages on the Super Bowl stage, but a whole lot of dancers did. Even if you don’t like the Weeknd’s whole facial-bandage gimmick, perhaps you can appreciate that the logical endpoint of that whole stunt was for Abel Tesfaye to run around the field at the Super Bowl while dozens of clones in mummy headwraps marched in lockstep to a damn Siouxsie And The Banshees sample. (Does Siouxsie get paid for that? She should.)
All of it was ridiculous, and that ridiculousness was presumably intentional. Here, after all, was Abel Tesfaye, in sparkly red jacket and Hulk Hogan mustache, leading a choir of robots on a dais of Jeopardy podiums lit up like a Vegas casino. Here he was, running around and looking feverishly confused in a lit-up hallway — the whole action moving backstage, like in a falls-count-anywhere match at a wrestling pay-per-view. Here he was, belting out “Blinding Lights” as fireworks perfectly frame his face.
The Super Bowl Halftime Show usually has big-name surprise guests. Not this year. If prominent Weeknd collaborators like Daft Punk or Ariana Grande or Future had shown up, it might’ve popped the crowd, but it would’ve detracted from the atmosphere of the thing. Instead, the world got to witness the Weeknd in full feverish freakout mode, singing about cocaine and S&M and hopelessness on the grandest stage possible. That, in itself, is a strange little victory, and we’ve got to take those strange little victories where we can.