Headlining the Super Bowl half-time show has always been a tall order, a challenge not only of slinging a medley of hits but of charisma, choreography and a nearly too-broad appeal. Most stars recruit extra help – Katy Perry brought in Missy Elliott, Coldplay essentially (and wisely) ceded their 2016 show to Beyoncé and Bruno Mars, last year’s headliner Jennifer Lopez pulled a two-hander with fellow Latina superstar Shakira, and Maroon 5 got assists from Travis Scott and Big Boi in 2019.
Which makes the decision by the Canadian R&B-pop singer the Weeknd, real name Abel Tesfaye, to perform the 2021 halftime show sans guest stars doubly ambitious, given that he was already facing the constraints of a diminished audience and the pall of the ongoing pandemic. The brooding R&B crooner, who put $7m of his own money toward a show in line with the surreal, dreamy-but-anxious vision of his 2020 album, After Hours, largely delivered on a difficult task with a sometimes unnerving, rousing performance for a bad trip of a year . (A good portion of his audience were cardboard cutouts, as the NFL adheres to social distancing guidelines.)
The Weeknd’s 14-minute set made the most of its half-empty stadium and lack of audience by playing, sometimes chaotically but never boringly, with his staging and the audience’s point of view. The 30-year-old Toronto native began with a stage set in the stand, the city of Tampa’s skyline (which hosted this year’s Super Bowl) styled like the Vegas strip, backed by a masked choir that immediately brought the requisite hyped energy. Wearing an oversized red glitter jacket, black leather gloves, and black-and-white brogues – in keeping with the 80s lucid dream of his After Hours era – the Weeknd riffed through several of his (censored) hits from across his near-decade of fame, ranging from his days of dark, drug-fueled R&B as a star on the Toronto underground scene through his synth-laced pop hits of more recent albums.
After blitzing through The Hills, I Feel It Coming, Save Your Tears and an unsettling performance of I Can’t Feel My Face, the Weeknd slowed things down, and stretched out the vocals, to one of his breakout hits, Earned It, backed by a violin orchestra. (Twenty years after Janet Jackson was fined and blacklisted for accidentally exposing her breast during her Super Bowl performance, courtesy of Justin Timberlake, we have the theme of the R-rated Fifty Shades of Grey film performed – genuinely well, with gravitas – as the ballad of the halftime show).
The Weeknd promised a “cinematic experience”, and indeed, the unsettling, if daring, selfie interlude for I Can’t Feel My Face in a funhouse filled with bandaged (in the Covid era, it might be more appropriate to say “masked”) dancers felt like a PG attempt at simulating a bender. But no one could accuse this performance of being boring, or the Weeknd of lip-syncing.
Minor mic volume issues aside, the singer demonstrated impressive vocals and stamina, particularly on Earned It and the show’s highlight: an on-field finale of Blinding Lights, the top song of 2020 and an inexcusable Grammy snub that is impossible not to bop to. Accompanied by dozens of bandaged, matching backup dancers performing riffs on the song’s TikTok dance craze, the Weeknd sailed over the blistering synth – a strangely uplifting, pleasingly chaotic end to a strange set in a strange winter.
Adding to the odd, sometimes funny discordance was the necessary censorship required by the family event for a music catalog that skews heavily toward drugs, sex and swear words, on top of the Weeknd’s violent imagery for After Hours (he appeared at shows like the VMAs bandaged and committed further to his bit with a music video that appeared to depict extensive plastic surgery). It was a bit risible, at least for the contrast, to hear a medley of songs about cocaine where the coke isn’t actually mentioned, or to have the line “I just fucked two bitches ’fore I saw you” conveniently omitted from The Hills. Or, as the Weeknd put it in a pre-Super Bowl press conference: “It’s a very cohesive story I’m telling throughout this year, so the story will continue, but we definitely will keep it PG[-rated] for the families. I’ll do my best.”
So it was a pleasingly middle ground performance – not outright explicit, at least to viewers unfamiliar with his discography or unaware why he says “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you” – but still daring and slyly confrontational, true to the artist who, after a surprising total snub by the 2021 Grammy nominations, tweeted simply: “The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency …”
Selfie moment aside, the Weeknd did his job: if the goal was to somehow bring the mood up in a pandemic through music that generally hews closer to darkness, then mission accomplished.