There was a freaky poetry to the Weeknd’s halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl where a crowd of 25,000 funneled into Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., and hopefully did not go home with the coronavirus. Pandemic protocols were met, but if you were watching the telecast in quarantine, the assembly itself may have appeared a teeny bit reckless – not unlike the Weeknd’s songs, which feel as tidy as pop hits but still find ways to leak nihilism in dribs and drabs.
For anyone on the couch wondering, “Who is this guy?” – fair question. He made his first digital splashes back in 2011 as a mystery man, refusing to assign a name or face to his voice – a floating, yearning falsetto that sounded like it was trying to escape the loneliness of living inside the body that had produced it. Now, nearly 10 years later, that voice is omnipresent on the pop charts, but despite all the hyperexposure, the Weeknd’s music still seems to come from lonely places. On Sunday night, he was dancing on the 50-yard line in a sparkly, blood-red suit, surrounded by dozens of doppelganger dancers during “Blinding Lights,” singing, “No one’s around to judge me.”
It would have been cool to hear him drop that line in an empty stadium, but instead, the place was packed. Or at least it looked like it. Alongside the living, breathing fans in attendance were 30,000 cardboard cutouts that the NFL had produced to help fill the empty seats, some of which bore the image of fans at home who had reportedly paid $100 for the honor.
So with plenty of surrealism to compete with from the jump, the Weeknd strode into his 14-minute medley with a gospel choir at his back – as required by Super Bowl halftime law – only this time, the singers wore glowing red Terminator eyes as they sang “Starboy,” a song in which the Weekend incriminates his audience for his success, his voice ascending parallel to his fortune: “Look what you’ve done!” Unfortunately, his voice was quiet and murky in the mix – a technical difficulty he probably was not too chuffed about, having reportedly funneled $7 million of his own money into the show’s production.
And it was a pity to hear him pushing so hard considering the intimacy of his best singing. The signature tremble in his voice can either sound urgent, as if he were shivering in the cold, or artfully blasé, as if he were singing along to a Ready for the World tune in his ear buds as he prowls the frozen foods aisle. But frosty sotto voce does not cut it at the Super Bowl, and musically, he sounded out of his element.
Then again, has anyone ever really been in their element during a halftime show? Prince. Beyoncé. Hopefully that list will grow longer someday. For now, the visual spectacle seems to count more than whatever melodized air is floating out of whoever’s mouth, and on this front, the Weeknd’s Sunday extravaganza blended corniness and dreariness into a creepy weirdness that felt something like success.
In addition to the singing Terminators and the marching doppelgängers (who wore bandages over their faces), there was a floating convertible, and a fizzing LED screen filled with champagne bubbles, and a towering sign that flashed the word “ALONE.”
Surrounded by 25,000 human beings, 30,000 cardboard silhouettes – and with another hundred-million-ish watching at home – the world’s loneliest pop star looked into the camera and smiled.