The Super Bowl halftime show tends to oscillate between cover-the-kids-eyes controversy (Janet Jackson's nipple; MIA's middle finger) and red-or-blue-we're-Americans-too pop spectacle (Bruno Mars bopping to a song from a car advert; Katy Perry bopping next to foam sharks).
In 2020, faced with the ongoing fallout from the Colin Kaepernick protests (Jay Z, Rihanna and Cardi B all refused to play), organisers plumped for Maroon 5, a band so inoffensive that the only post-show headlines were about the fact they chose to accept the gig in the first place. So this year, we were due something a bit spicier. Cue: the Weeknd, with an evisceration of Hollywood that's been a year in the making.
Appearing in a blood red jacket we've seen before, with a black shirt, black tie and black trousers, the Canadian singer came across like lost soul from a pre-Peak TV era, a mothballed chat show host appearing under Vegas lights that illuminated not the city's glamour, but rather how it serves as a retirement home for celebrities on the downslope. 'Blinding Lights', the second single from his fourth studio album, After Hours, was starting to take on new meaning.
What followed was a slick, synth-backed 14-minute show that included a gospel choir, Eighties neons and, yes, lots of bandages. They've been signature ever since the Weeknd began the campaign trail for After Hours: at the MTV Awards in August, the 30-year-old appeared bruised and bloodied; at the American Music Awards two months later, he was wrapped in full Invisible Man dressings, peeling them back in the video to 'Save Your Tears' to reveal a grotesque, pumped-up face, all jutting jawlines and sky-high cheekbones.
The grim operation has been widely interpreted as a comment on the procedures and the broken promises of Hollywood: bright young thing, drawn like moths towards the spotlights, only to be chewed up by the system and then entirely redrawn at the end of a scalpel. The disfigured result was eventually surrounded by hundreds of phantom clones in the exact same bandages, as dancers entered The Weeknd's performance in its most meme-worthy chapter (a crowded hall of golden mirrors that spilled out onto the pitch during a remix of electronica duo Shindu's 2011 hit 'Happy House').
For The Weeknd, fame is an eternal work in progress, each augmentation a comma, never a full stop. For every ascendant star, there are countless others who, like the dancers during the halftime performance, collapse under the weight of arena spectaculars and 300-date tour schedules.
It's all part of the Canadian singer's beat – especially during the After Hours phase. For the Weeknd, Hollywood titans exist in an Upside Down of the Stranger Things vein (Eighties synths included). This Hollywood is familiar yet unsettling, another dimension of the 'dark side' well-documented in a thousand hard-boiled film noirs and the ghostly wails of a Lana Del Rey record. The Weeknd's current incarnation is the sort of man she sings about, both a victim and a perpetrator of celebrity's cruel cycle, with its fast cars and charming men and churning meat grinders. In his vibrant suit, the Weeknd is the cosmetically enhanced face of this other Hollywood.
As statements go, it was kin to Beyoncés 2016 Super Bowl show, where she pre-empted the release of Lemonade album with a performance that celebrated Black women and the Civil Rights movement, with backing performers in Black Panther berets dancing in a human 'X' that was surely a nod to Malcolm.
If this year wasn't quite so charged – celebrity culture will always be a softer target than systemic racism – it did see the Weeknd's After Hours era come full circle. Though he seemed to be performing in the red suit that's been something of a uniform over the last 12 months, closer inspection revealed something new. Under the blinding lights of the biggest stage in American entertainment, in a near-empty stadium filled with artificial screams and bloodied dancers, his red jacket, once a block of scarlet, now shimmered under the weight of sequins. His grisly induction into fame was complete. The Weeknd was shining.
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