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The Weeknd’s Halftime Performance Made Perfect Sense for a Strange Super Bowl

A blowout in a pandemic got the show it deserved, presented by Pepsi

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Weeknd played the Super Bowl halftime show. I’m honestly having trouble processing this; I refuse to even attempt to embellish this. The Weeknd. The Super Bowl halftime show. He played it. He played a buttload of songs about cocaine and meaningless sex at it. What in the damn hell, man. The Weeknd opened with two straight songs with bleeped-out f-bombs in the chorus (“Starboy” and “The Hills,” dis-respectively) during the Super Bowl halftime show. The Weeknd played “House of Balloons” (but not “Glass Table Girls”! Such restraint!) during the Super Bowl halftime show; the Weeknd played “Can’t Feel My Face” during the Super Bowl halftime show. That one is extra about cocaine. He played the song about S&M from the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack. His vocals were often mixed so low that it’s possible he did the “Hills” verse with the line “I just fucked two bitches ‘fore I saw you” in it and I just missed it. Pepsi authorized this; Pepsi sponsored this. I liked his shoes. The Weeknd. The Super Bowl halftime show. We’ll get through this together.

It all made perfect sense, really. This was the halftime show that Super Bowl LV deserved, with a 68-year-old Tom Brady running rampant and the Chiefs offensive line staggering around like a pack of Pepsi’d-up models in the Weeknd’s bathroom and 25,000 fans gathered in the stadium in Florida during a global pandemic. What a fiasco. The NFL: When we’re fucked up, that’s the real us.

What a decade Abel Tesfaye’s had, though: Not quite 10 years after March 2011’s House of Balloons, the first semi-anonymous Weeknd mixtape, set what used to be called the blogosphere aflame, there he was, still rocking the goddamn red suit and commanding the stage at (I’m saying this for the last time) the Pepsi Super Bowl halftime show and regaling tens of millions of rapt viewers with his spirited rendition of (last time for this, also) “House of Balloons.” No special guests whatsoever: not even Daft Punk to liven up “Starboy” or “I Feel It Coming.” (I was really hoping Ariana Grande would show up to do “Love Me Harder,” but she’d probably have eclipsed him.) Just a medium-charisma megastar and his Weird Robot Choir and his fireworks and his giant banks of blinding lights and his army of red-suited and face-bandaged doppelgängers and his smash pop hits about (this might not be the last time) meaningless sex and cocaine.


Eh, it beat the hell out of Maroon 5. The truth is that the Weeknd, for all the comically unlikely pop hits he’s improbably reeled off in the past 10 years, has never quite gotten the hang of the whole charisma thing: He is by meticulous anti-pop-star design a moral absence, a soul-deadening void, a low-wattage malaise. He has the dance moves of a guy who really wishes he could moonwalk but cannot; for all his lithe and lascivious vocal dexterity, he does not have a show-stopping Super Bowl halftime show voice but can engineer the climax of “Earned It” (that’s the S&M song) so that it sounds like he might. His stage—adorned first with the Robot Choir, then a live-human orchestra/choir/whatever generating some of the ebullience that he, by stylistic definition, pointedly lacks—was set at one end of the field, without the usual pack of overenthusiastic front-row fans that always looked fake as hell but always helped feign a certain Big Event energy anyway. The sight of other people enjoying themselves would have ruined the illusion.

And so he pulled out other tricks. He ducked back into the blindingly lit crack in the stage that he emerged from and moshed a bit with all those red-suited and face-bandaged doppelgängers during “Can’t Feel My Face,” the camera indeed pressed right into his face and spinning dizzyingly. The claustrophobia and vertigo and Zoom-debacle chaos of it all fit the moment well, it must be said. The memes have already begun.

And then, climactically, he ran onto the field with all his pals and led a spirited singalong of (my apologies, but I’m saying this again) “House of Balloons,” a.k.a., the song right before “Glass Table Girls.” This is / A happy house / We’re happy here / In a happy house. This song is about cocaine; this song is about fuckin’ Tom Brady winning his 14th Super Bowl. What a bizarre mixture of the celebratory and the malevolent; what a tremendous PG presentation of a hard-R-rated songbook. The Weeknd’s Super Bowl halftime show (!!??) both peaked and concluded with “Blinding Lights,” the ecstatic and nauseous and ultra-poppy and lurid smash hit that dominated a 2020 that sure as hell dominated all of us. He made perfect sense on that stage from a commercial perspective, from a chart perspective, from a streaming-numbers perspective; from any sort of close-reading lyrical or content perspective, he made absolutely no sense on that stage at all. But this year of all years, the Weeknd’s incongruity, his flagrant wrongness, made him just right.