Tuning into The Weeknd's Halftime show during the Super Bowl last night, it appeared, for a moment, as though the pandemic has been vanquished and huge stadium shows were back. Such was the illusion that the performance created by having the artist take to the stands in order to keep in line with social distancing.
For the first time in Super Bowl halftime history, the performance was not on the field in middle of a roaring crowd. Instead, thanks to a stage which was built within the stadium, the crowd became part of the performance.
Only 25,000 fans were admitted to the stadium in Tampa, Florida – accounting for less than half of the 65,000-person capacity — with the mass of people broken up by thousands of cardboard cutouts of fans, similar to those which have been used at football matches in the UK.
Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, had said that organisers had focused on making the performance a "cinematic experience", including putting in $7M of his own money in order to achieve the vision he was after. The result was a performance which inverted the stadium show by challenging the idea that the bigger the crowd, the more explosive the atmosphere. Tesfaye's show opened with him sat in a car surrounded by the bright lights of Las Vegas before slowly panning forward to show he was part of a 3D stage, not in front of a flat background. A sea of performers filling the Raymond James Stadium with red eyes then parted to reveal The Weeknd before he launched into 2016 single "Starboy".
Later came a moment where we witnessed him trapped in a hall of mirrors while singing "Can't Feel My Face", a single supposedly about the darker side of partying which has already been spun into a new meme about the moments of chaos that have consumed us of late. The footage of him crashing around inside gold walls offered the opposite of what a halftime performance would normally be, showing the performer trapped alone –here with figures dressed up identically to him, like daemons haunting him – instead of performing to a throng.
— NFL (@NFL) February 8, 2021
When it came to "Blinding Lights", his most recent single which has inspired a TikTok trend amongst teens despite the very dark music video and themes behind it, the singer finally took to the field. Again Tesfaye was swarmed by dancers dressed in the same red suit which he has repeatedly worn, all sporting bandages to continue the references to the dark aestheticism he has continually nodded to. There were times when it was hard to make out which of the red figures was The Weeknd, upending the idea of a star being centre-stage and impossible to miss at all times.
The pandemic has changed the nature of performance, with intimacy given a renewed significance and crowds becoming something we both yearn for and fear. In the 2021 Super Bowl halftime performance, the crowd became the performance, bringing the stadium to life in a different way. Instead of trying to ignore the void left by removing tens of thousands of fans, it leaned into the darkness and isolation at moments. At other points it was a frenzied rush of bodies churning across the field; breaking free of being alone, and having no idea what to do but run in circles.
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