Sunday, April 18, 2021
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Sundays are for The Weeknd

Super Bowl Sunday featured some of the most widely touted and legendary athletes in football history. Fans were hyped — the matchup depicted arguably the greatest athlete to ever lace it up and the young buck ready to carry the torch. Others peripherally watched the NFL’s blockbuster event to indulge in beer and hot wings and to spend time with company — sometimes guilty of watching just for the commercials and/or the 2021 Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show.

The first half of the game concluded at 21-6, a score many would consider trending towards a blowout and likely tuning out. However, the U.S. pastime gave the audience something to look forward to; Canadian singer/songwriter Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, “The Weeknd,” was this year’s Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime performer. Tesfaye is a multi-platinum, two-time Grammy Award-winning artist.

Photo provided by The Weeknd @TheWeeknd/Twitter.

After CBS Sports released an announcement in November 2020, fans were eager to watch the performance The Weeknd put together. His manager, Wassim “Sal” Slaiby, announced that he contributed $7 million of his own money to the performance to be exactly “what he envisioned” — a 15-minute “cinematic experience.” On one of the largest spotlights in front of 25,000 fans and 30,000 cardboard cutouts, unpaid by the NFL, The Weeknd showcased a memorable performance that can only be summarized as nothing short of spectacular.

Before The Weeknd even took the stage, fans predicted what to expect from Tesfaye. There were many odd clues that toyed with fans about the performances. One such clue was the images that surfaced of the singer’s plastic surgery, which was actually makeup that made him look like Robbie Rotten from “LazyTown.” The Weeknd remained silent on what he was preparing. Ardent fans speculated that he would perform some of his hit songs from his most recent album “After Hours” and continue the storyline the album was dedicated to; however, what they correctly assumed eventually amounted to much more. After opting to perform at the 2021 Super Bowl instead of the Grammy Awards when he did not receive any  nominations for Grammy Awards, Tesfaye was prepared to set the stage ablaze and silence his critics.

As fireworks exploded in Raymond James Stadium, the set opened with a Las Vegas-night-lights aesthetic, and The Weeknd was dressed in a sparkling red blazer and sitting in a classic car. The ominous stage below contained bleacher-like rows casted by a midnight blue light to slightly illuminate the vocalists who were dressed in white choir robes and robotic masks with beaming red eyes. The background vocalists sang “Call Out My Name” like a church choir as an angelic figure descended on the stage. As the choir bleachers split in two, the star of the show walked through the golden entrance to perform “Starboy” and a rock-esque version of “The Hills” alone under a crimson spotlight.

The transition to the golden-lit maze of the set effectively transported the audience to a scene reminiscent of the “Heartless” music video. With a wide-angle frame and twinkling yellow lights surrounding him, The Weeknd sang “Can’t Feel My Face” while stumbling through the twists and turns of the maze and its blinding lights, foreshadowing a later song. Fans did not waste a moment before creating a meme that quickly spread throughout social media after the artist conveyed a confused state while he navigated the tunnels. 

As the song hit the chorus, the audience saw the emergence of background dancers in identical costumes who wore bandages that covered their entire face; the visual itself was initially confusing because it slightly resembled the tethered child, Jason, from Jordan Peele’s horror film “Us.” Many questioned if the significance behind this particular outfit was related to the film; however, The Weeknd told Variety in an exclusive interview the outfit represented the “absurd culture of Hollywood celebrities and people manipulating themselves for superficial reasons to please and be validated.”

The show, themed after a bad night in Vegas, continued as he made his way out of the maze to perform “I Feel It Coming” and “Save Your Tears” on the very top of the set as though he were on top of the world. He was larger than life and stood taller than the buildings while more fireworks went off behind him. It led to a smooth transition back to the stage while his violin-playing background performers continued his R&B classics with fan-favorite “Earned It.” At this point, the performance returned to being more illustrative of Tesfaye’s ability as a singer by lessening the theatrics. It was pure dopamine and reminded viewers of his vocal talent. There were no memes to be inspired by this segment, and it served as a perfect buffer before arriving at the climax of the show.

Photo provided by The Weeknd @TheWeeknd/Twitter.

The true noteworthy spectacle of the performance was the sequence leading into the musician’s hit single, “Blinding Lights,” where hundreds of the tethered-like dancers marched in a militant-style choreography to “House of Balloons” as The Weeknd stumbled through them. The most euphoric part of this performance was when the performers broke formation before reorganizing again to march to the rhythm of “Blinding Lights” in near darkness. The only lights that seemed to illuminate the field were the glaring finger lights attached to both gloves on each background dancer. The Weeknd concluded the performance in a strong and dramatic fashion with his dancers collapsing around him as he posed in a wide, open-armed stance in front of a nova gleam of fireworks.

There were many remarkable details to be noted throughout the 15-minute performance. One such detail was the manipulation of lighting, which had a significant impact on the range of atmospheres The Weeknd tried to create. The show felt like an abstract adventure; the audience was guided through several sets that all felt uniquely their own while tying into the overall “bad night in Vegas” experience.

This is also one of the few times the Super Bowl Halftime Show did not have a live audience on the field, so there was far more space to work with. Although Super Bowl Halftime Shows are becoming more of a display of dazzling and larger-than-life sets instead of a focus solely on the talents of the artist, The Weeknd’s performance showed that you can have both. The strategic use of his set paired with his smooth vocals did not demand a circuit-shorting set like Beyoncé’s show in 2013 or cartoon gimmicks like Maroon 5’s show in 2020. This year’s show may be remembered as a top solo performance because The Weeknd opted not to have any other features on the set — a bold but necessary move that would highlight how talented of an artist and performer he is.

Some may have had issues with a few of the technicalities of the show — sound mixing was a notable problem. While The Weeknd’s voice can be heard clearly, the instrumentals sounded far off. CBS was under fire by fans for audio issues; however, it was not much of a complaint for those who watched it live. No Super Bowl performance can go without any hiccups, and it was not the performer’s fault.

Despite not being paid direct monetary compensation from the NFL for his headlining, The Weeknd may reap in a much larger return from his $7 million investment. The 15-minute show spurred Justin Timberlake’s music sales up to 534% in 2018. Meanwhile, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira gained a significant 335% and 230% streaming spike in 2019. The Weeknd’s  remarkable performance last Sunday will likely lead to an upward commercial and financial trajectory for him; CBS reported that over 96.4 million viewers tuned in during his performance. You could argue that there were two winners that came out of the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl LV’s Halftime Show was one to kick off the year of 2021 right. The Weeknd’s performance marks as one of the biggest performances of his career, adding to his numerous career accomplishments.

Jaidee Maximo Villaflor is a Sports Staff Writer. He can be reached at jaideev@uci.edu.