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How one hit song won The Weeknd a Super Bowl halftime show

TikTok fame and “the dark underlying themes” of “Blinding Lights” fit the moment.

The Weeknd accepts the award for Favorite Soul/R&B Male Artist onstage for the 2020 American Music Awards.
Kevin Mazur/dcp/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

He’s one of the most popular performers of the modern era, but The Weeknd probably isn’t the first person you think of when you envision the ideal Super Bowl halftime performer.

So how did he get the gig? Enter TikTok.

The Weeknd (real name Abel Tesfaye) has long been known for nihilistic, drug-fueled, orgiastic pop hits like 2015’s “The Hills” (“When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me”) and “Can’t Feel My Face” (“I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll both be numb”). That doesn’t make for much of a family-friendly, Super Bowl-ready image. Neither does The Weeknd’s current, highly perfected public persona, an alter ego version of himself that seems to visualize and externalize the troubled cycle of thrill-seeking, addiction, rehab, and relapse that he has said he struggled with for years. In the concept that accompanies his most recent album, 2020’s After Hours, he’s rocking bandages, bruises, and what might be described as a “bender aesthetic.”

“He uses all of these metaphors to intentionally obscure the terrible realities of life,” Charlie Harding, host of the Switched on Pop podcast, told Vox in an interview. The Weeknd’s oeuvre is not exactly primetime family fare.

So how did The Weeknd, of all artists, wind up nabbing the much-coveted Super Bowl gig, which will be watched by as many as 100 million people when he takes the stage Sunday in Tampa? In a nutshell: because of the internet — and because of one record-breaking hit song that’s arguably become a vital soundtrack for the Covid-19 pandemic.

TikTok helped The Weeknd’s 2019 single “Blinding Lights” become a cultural juggernaut — and the pandemic did the rest

The Weeknd probably wasn’t thinking “this will make a great TikTok meme” when he chose to open his single “Blinding Lights,” released in November 2019, with a 30-second instrumental, in a throwback to the great hooks of ’80s pop hits.

But it did make a great TikTok meme — specifically the “Blinding Lights” dance challenge, which started with a viral TikTok video at the beginning of March 2020, just as America was starting to confront the reality of Covid-19. That original video consisted of relatively easy group choreography set to the song’s catchy hook. It was short, simple, fun — and so throughout the spring, people quarantining at home danced away on TikTok to the song’s now-ubiquitous synth.


We did this in one take @jasonderulo @ondreazlopez_

♬ Blinding Lights - MACDADDYZ

The TikTok meme helped vault “Blinding Lights” to chart-topping status — and once there, it stayed and stayed. The song reigned over radio waves and the internet for most of 2020, eventually becoming the top Spotify song of the year and the longest-charting radio hit in history. It’s now one of the most record-breaking songs ever.

This isn’t the first time a TikTok meme launched a song to the top of the pop charts; Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” followed a similar trajectory in 2019, as have many other hits. Ironically, the “Blinding Lights” meme arguably united families, friends, celebrities, and even virtual classrooms, more than the song itself ever could. Because the song, like so much of The Weeknd’s music, is a dark, slick anthem to self-destruction, a nearly manic bop about using drugs to numb the pain. The meme, along with the instrumental hook itself, divorced the song’s music from its message — at least initially.

If the meme had been the only thing drawing people to the song, it surely would have faded away by summer. Instead, once the meme had served as a perfect gateway, the message of “Blinding Light” took over, and it was an eerily prescient pandemic anthem of distance and loneliness. “The city’s cold and empty,” The Weeknd sings. “No one’s around to judge me / I can’t see clearly when you’re gone.”

These themes clearly resonated with the lives of listeners in 2020. But they’re also examples of the way The Weeknd uses both his alter ego and his music to wryly deconstruct the free and easy escapism of pop music. From the beginning — Tesfaye first released his music anonymously on YouTube in 2010 before eventually, slowly, climbing into The Weeknd’s current full-bodied persona — he has always seemed to want to explore the relationship between the self and music, and how one can take us out of the other.

The Weeknd has always tried to deconstruct the relationship between his persona and the music he creates

To find out more, I turned to Harding, who co-hosts the Switched on Pop podcast (formerly part of Vox, now part of Vulture) along with Nate Sloan. Harding and Sloan just released an episode breaking down “Blinding Lights” — and Harding gave Vox the rundown on The Weeknd’s whole vibe — his persona, his aesthetic, and why it may all be closer to pop art than pop music.

An excerpt from our interview, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

So is The Weeknd doing something new with “Blinding Lights” that he hasn’t done before?

“Can’t Feel My Face” was his first, really big breakout pop hit. And that, too, has a very sort of peak 1980s, Michael Jackson kind of vibe to it. He’s not reinventing himself as much as he’s going deeper into a thing he’d already been doing. And we’re just in a period where everything 1980s is cool again. In “Blinding Lights,” people hear a lot of A-Ha’s “Take On Me,” “Young Turks” by Rod Stewart, and “Maniac.” But the argument that we make in our episode is that this is an ’80s nod with thoroughly contemporary production — it’s just maximalist.

That’s the Stranger Things influence, too, right? Like all that synthesizer coming at you as the point rather than background.

Yeah, totally. And then the big thing which really makes it contemporary is that the whole thing has a really deep, 808-style bass sound that’s this cross-genre connective tissue. And so when you pair an 808 with those ’80s synths, it sounds both retro and totally of the moment.

The other big thing is that there are all of these nods to things that feel like pandemic life — reaching out for someone’s touch, and “Sin City is cold and empty.” Cities feel cold and empty right now. And I think that it’s pivotal because the song peaked right at the start of the pandemic, when every millennial to boomer joins TikTok and families are sheltering in place for the first time. And so the dance challenge becomes huge and helps propel it to the top of the charts — No. 1 for four weeks back at the beginning of the pandemic.

Which is wild, because the song itself is dark.

Right. He has a very nightmarish kind of R&B pop aesthetic. It definitely has a haunting kind of quality to it, as all of his music does. What’s happening is the TikTok dance serves as a complete distraction from the actual meaning of the work. I describe it as probably the most expertly rolled album that I’ve ever seen.

The song first premiered in a Mercedes commercial, which makes sense because of the music video for “Blinding Lights,” where he’s driving around in a car. So you have those resonances, but what’s even wilder is the album. So right after the Mercedes commercial is the “Heartless” video; it comes out at the top of December of 2019. And “Heartless” is a much darker song. A big thing for The Weeknd is he has a very different look for each era. Now he’s got an ’80s-style ’fro with the creepy mustache and Ray-Bans and the red suit. And so that red suit look debuted in the “Heartless” video where he’s out gambling with his friends in Vegas and they go on a drug bender. Like, he goes from having a fun night out with all his friends to things starting to go south. At the end of it, he collapses.

And when the “Blinding Lights” video comes out, like, two weeks later, it just picks up the narrative from the “Heartless” video. He’s still in this suit. Now we get the bloodied version of him. His face is all kinds of beat up. And then he goes on all of these live events. Before the pandemic shut things down, he goes on Jimmy Kimmel, but the imagery around it looks like he’s just rushed back from Vegas to get to the stage.

He’s beaten up. He’s now got a little nose brace on. And when he gets off the stage, he kind of fumbles all through the Kimmel green room area. Like he’s still on that bender. He kind of stumbles out, he’s really in bad shape.

He then goes on Saturday Night Live. Also looking all beat up. He goes to several different awards shows [including the MTV Video Music Awards on August 30, and the American Music Awards on November 22]. But they’re obviously pretapes that are done in almost a music video style all around Los Angeles — and in each of the videos, he’s looking progressively worse. We see him getting up off the ground, kind of like he had just collapsed after Kimmel, and his nose is all bruised. The bandage has come off, but clearly his nose is broken — and he performs, again not looking good!

Then, in a following video, I think this was the American Music Awards video, he’s on a bridge over the LA river and he’s using full facial bandages now. And then we finally get to the “Save Your Tears” video, which came out on January 29, 2020. So we’re now more than a year out from the release of After Hours’ first singles, all the bandages have come off, and he’s just totally botched plastic surgery. And so you have these ongoing narratives of plastic surgery and body transformation.

People are still frequently like, is The Weeknd a person? Is it a group? There’s a disassociation between the voice and the person behind it.

I think “The Weeknd” is an alter ego. He’s basically doing narrative nonfiction about his life. We can think about “Blinding Lights” being his relationship to the expectations of celebrity — the very dissociative and alienated kind of perspective around fame. [As a complete album,] After Hours is also a lot of dealing with the aftermath of the breakup of his latest relationship and also his attempt at sobriety. It’s definitely a larger performance, but it feels like him taking the struggles of his life — in relationships, drug abuse, and fame — and then taking them to the nth degree and showing the really ugly side. Almost in a Cindy Sherman kind of way.

So in that mode, I’m not sure that what he’s doing is new, but it maybe feels new because it’s so intense and performative.

It kind of feels like [the work of] a really great visual artist who’s been working in a bunch of different mediums and had a bunch of different shows. And then there’s a culmination show where all the things that he’s been working toward really gel together in this work, which is this combination of R&B, hip-hop, and very pop-driven tracks. I think what’s kind of neat is that he’s doing this thing where he’s presenting alienation in really dark tones, but it’s accepted in a way where it’s just like, this is fun, pop music, like he’s tricking us.

And then also you have changing aesthetics and expectations of relatability in pop stars. I think that has a lot to do with the shift from EDM as the center of pop music between 2010 and 2015 toward trap, which is much darker and deals with much more challenging subjects.

So, given the shift in aesthetics, why is The Weeknd working? I think part of it is definitely TikTok.

And from an aesthetic point of view, I think he’s done a really good job of doing this larger-than-life, mega-celebrity performance art — giving you just enough of what seems like his actual real life that we’re tricked into [believing] it. The dueling ’80s and contemporary sound are also kind of like a trompe l’oeil tricking us into accepting that as nostalgia, but that’s also rooted in the present. Maybe it’s even like a certain kind of pop art.

That’s the meta point of the song and the meta point of his entire ethos: He’s using the pop music itself the way he’s using the drugs — to keep reality at bay.

And, strangely, by using the facade of pop music, we have all been fooled about the actual meaning of his work, so that many of us haven’t engaged with it more deeply. And I think the takeaway is not that he shouldn’t have the Super Bowl, but more that the dark underlying themes that are happening in our world right now are in his music. And so just as we’re able to dance our troubles away, those troubles also require a deeper level of engagement — to see that there’s a lot more going on.

The Weeknd will perform the halftime show during Super Bowl 55 on Sunday, February 7. The game will air on CBS, and kickoff is at 6:30 pm Eastern.