The Weeknd Gave Us the Chaotic COVID Super Bowl Halftime Show of Our Nightmares

Everything about the Superspreader Bowl, as this weekend will inevitably become, seemed intent on manufacturing the image that everything in the country was business as usual: unnecessary football game, excessively large crowd, dangerous partying, and hyperbolic capitalism passed off as entertainment, pandemic be damned. At least the halftime show was an essential reminder that we are still in the midst of a dystopian hellscape, no matter what alternate reality was being presented at the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay.

During the brief break from Tom Brady’s victory lap, The Weeknd sprinted through a medley of his biggest radio hits as if he was suffering a macabre seizure.

It was undeniably one of the strangest, darkest, and headiest uses of entertainment’s biggest stage there’s been, but also a canny staging of a kinetic, if unsettling, performance style during a time when the logistics of a traditional spectacle would be irresponsible and an audience, both in the stands and at home, could use a little stupefying.

Even if the talented showman’s vocals were often drowned out or too distorted to discern, the stagecraft certainly captured our attention.

Some might still be reeling from flashes of Hannibal Lecter, the red-dressed Tethereds from Us, or the New Directions kids doing spooky drag for that “Thriller/Heads Will Roll” mash-up from Glee—all of which were apparently evoked during The Weeknd’s act, depending who on Twitter you follow.

Some might have been impressed by what seemed, at first, to be a shrewd copout to orchestrate a performance meant to play to the audience watching on TV. The grand, explosive, people-packed pop-star extravaganza we’ve come to expect is untenable in a pandemic, so better to pander to the folks at home. From the couch, at least it looked interesting. But then a flash mob of short-circuiting dancers in bandages stormed the field, and there were echoes of the scale we had missed after dynamo blowouts performed by Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, Lady Gaga, and Beyoncé in recent years.

Some might wonder how a song from the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey had made it to the Super Bowl Halftime Show. (I say it is about time.)

And most of all, some might wonder why we were doing any of this at all. (It can’t be referenced enough: PANDEMIC!) But hey, at least the dancers were wearing masks, and those masks were covering their noses.

The Weeknd, whose album After Hours was one of the biggest of 2020 and who has reigned over the music charts with singles like “Blinding Lights,” “Starboy,” and “I Can’t Feel My Face,” is both a safe and an unusual choice for the much-hyped Super Bowl gig. On the one hand, he has a lot of good, hit songs. On the other, his eccentric, almost cerebral performance style is a stark contrast to the typical crowd-pleasing, dance-heavy, arena-style shows recent pop star acts have staged.

Especially during a pandemic, The Weeknd’s more avant-garde approach was going to play weird. So the best thing he did was play into that weirdness.

The whole thing started with the singer in a Pepsi-themed neon lights diorama, posing in a sports car as his back-up ensemble began to sing. That ensemble was dressed as a choir made up of the ghosts of C-3PO and his family, a creative decision that never really explained itself, but nonetheless established the eerie-glamour vibes that echoed throughout the set.

For most of the first half of his performance, The Weeknd sang in front of a proscenium set, a dazzling skyscape adorned with words like “Touch,” “Alone,” and “Enough,” which I assume to be pandemic-related, but also assume I’m not smart enough to get.

With the set and effects doing most of the work—I’m fairly certain fireworks started going off at the first beat of the “Starboy” opener and never stopped—you missed the stadium spark that a performer like J. Lo, Prince, or Lady Gaga would bring to the show, especially with the audio mix doing such disservice to his vocals. But settling into that lower energy actually leant the usual bombast more intensity.

Take his sojourn into the trippy cube of gold lights and mirrors to perform “I Can’t Feel My Face,” during which he violently jerked the camera around himself. Disorientation was the point, which is certainly a different note for a show typically meant to rouse, connect, and engage.

Disorientation was the point, which is certainly a different note for a show typically meant to rouse, connect, and engage.

You could hear the collective “whaaaat is happening???” of a nation as extras with face bandages burst in and started crashing against each other, eventually parading their act out military-style to the field as The Weeknd worked through “I Feel It Coming,” “Earned It,” and “Blinding Lights.”

(Maybe it was a reaction to the pearl-clutchers who were scandalized that J. Lo and Shakira performed last year in what amounted to bathing suits. The Weeknd’s dancers even had the skin on their faces covered up.)

The whole thing was morbid, a horror show happening on a night meant for distraction, gluttony, and indulgence; something this deep is not meant for this arena. In that way, The Weeknd was making his point.

He’s spent the last year brutalizing audiences through his public performances—or, rather, confronting America with its own brutality, ugliest instincts, and tendency toward depravity.

There was much speculation over whether The Weeknd himself would appear at the Super Bowl with his face wrapped in those same bandages, or makeup used to make himself look bruised or bloodied, or with prosthetics to make it look like he’d just had cosmetic procedures done on his face.

The Weeknd has used the performances, press, and public appearances for After Hours to act out a storyline, loosely a bad night in Las Vegas, that had him playing a character in a red jacket who gets beat up and then careens down a path that becomes increasingly surreal. Frequently, performances included a bandaged nose, but then his entire face would be wrapped, like someone who had just undergone plastic surgery. Recently, he appeared with the aforementioned “after-surgery” prosthetics.

Asked what all of it symbolized, he told Variety that, “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.”

It’s a fascinating take to have for the person who is headlining the biggest show in entertainment on capitalism’s most fruitful night for an operation desperate to keep up appearances of normalcy during a deadly pandemic.

There was, frankly, so much happening during his performance that I’m not sure what to read from it in specific regard to any of that.

But it’s fun to think what the folks at home were shaken into thinking after that performance, let alone whether the crowd live in Tampa Bay finally pulled their masks up over their faces so as to cover their agape mouths.

Maybe that’s the whole, damning statement about our current national state of mind. What in the hell are we doing expecting the normal right now, when things are anything but? The Weeknd had us dancing through our own self-destruction.

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