Abel Tesfaye, known professionally as The Weeknd, performed at the Pepsi Super Bowl LV Halftime Show on Feb. 7, in Tampa Bay, Fla. The Weeknd is coming off the release of his fourth studio album, After Hours. “Blinding Lights,” the second single off the record, was the number one song on the 2020 Billboard Year-End Hot 100 Singles Chart. Although the show was very different this year — due to COVID-19 attendance restrictions — his dark pop and R&B styles were well-suited for the occasion.
The Weeknd is only the third singer selected to headline the show under the NFL’s new partnership with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. The league entered a long-term partnership with Roc Nation in 2019 that is designed to allow the label to advise on musical guest selections for performances like the Super Bowl. This year’s show was directed by Hamish Hamilton and produced by Jesse Collins — who became the first Black executive producer to work on a halftime show.
The NFL’s deal with Roc Nation came after artists like Rihanna and Cardi B turned down the opportunity to perform at past halftime shows in support of Colin Kaepernick. The former quarterback, who has been unable to find a job in the NFL since 2017, started kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality while with the San Francisco 49ers. In 2020, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he encourages players to peacefully protest and that he wishes he “had listened earlier” to what Kaepernick was protesting for. In addition to music, this agreement is supposed to help expand the league’s social justice efforts through the Inspire Change initiative. With the success of Shakira and Jennifer Lopez’s halftime show last year, Roc Nation chose The Weeknd to continue pushing the NFL down the path towards music diversification.
Since After Hours is musically different compared to his previous albums Starboy and Beauty Behind the Madness, The Weeknd used this performance to demonstrate how he’s grown as an artist and evolved his music. From “The Hills” in 2015 to “I Feel It Coming” in 2016, which featured French electronic music duo Daft Punk, The Weeknd has started to incorporate more disco, electronic and pop elements into the dark R&B style that has allowed him to talk openly about his fame, relationships and drug use.
After Hours evolves The Weeknd’s style even further by incorporating psychedelic, new wave and dream pop elements into a new display of his dark and crazy wild side. With a red suit and a bloodied self-portrait on the album’s cover, The Weeknd uses themes from the movie Joker and Las Vegas’ gambling culture to sing about regrets regarding his promiscuous behavior. This year, he and Dua Lipa utilized a combination of syncopation and steady rhythms, as well as a lot of ‘80s synth-pop techniques that were uniquely re-introduced prior to quarantine. The album’s production by Max Martin, Illangelo and Metro Boomin especially highlight The Weeknd’s sound, since his high tenor voice is mixed well with the synthesizers, drum beats and instrumentation. His versatility as both an impressive singer and performer helped to create a magnificent show.
The performance started out with an 80s-themed Las Vegas strip, filled with bright lights, a flashy convertible and a retro Pepsi logo. An angel in a white robe descended, joined by a red-eyed robotic choir in the stands as they sang a rendition of “Call Out My Name” from The Weeknd’s 2018 EP My Dear Melancholy.
The pre-built stage opened and The Weeknd emerged, singing “Starboy” and “The Hills,” both hits from Starboy and Beauty Behind the Madness respectively. He then retreated into a room full of gold lights, holding the camera close to his face while spinning and singing “Can’t Feel My Face” directly into it. When he reached the chorus, the camera was pushed away and his backup dancers appeared, dressed in identical red suits and facial casts reminiscent of his character from After Hours. The masked dancers bumped into each other, and The Weeknd escaped to transition into “I Feel It Coming,” with a fireworks display above the field behind him.
With an acoustic guitar-heavy live band and the choir in the stands, The Weeknd sang “Save Your Tears” from After Hours in a neon-lit cityscape before transitioning into “Earned It” from the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack. His choir, now wearing sparkly jackets and playing violins, joined in as The Weeknd glided across the stage. He moved onto the field, joined by his masked dancers in a lock-step dance rendition of “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls” from his debut mixtape House of Balloons. The performance ended with The Weeknd moving to the NFL logo at the 50-yard line for “Blinding Lights,” as his bandaged dancers lit up the entire field. Fireworks and smoke engulfed the stadium as he basked in the glory. Although the performance was very unconventional, The Weeknd delivered while staying true to his artistic roots.
After receiving zero Grammy nominations this year, The Weeknd was more motivated than ever to put on a spectacular performance. The Grammy Awards, which were rescheduled from Jan. 31 to March 14 due to a COVID-19 spike in Los Angeles, notably left him out, and he tweeted in response, “the Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency.” Fans are speculating that The Weeknd further dissed the Grammys with the release of his new “Save Your Tears” music video, in which he sings to a trophy before throwing it offstage. After planning to perform at the Grammys for weeks, The Weeknd felt that his performance was no longer needed as “in my opinion, zero nominations [means] you’re not invited!” In an interview with Billboard, he said, “Look, I personally don’t care anymore… I have three Grammys, which mean nothing to me now, obviously…I suck at giving speeches anyways. Forget award shows.” The Weeknd told The New York Times in March he would be boycotting all future Grammy award nominations and shows, saying, “Because of the secret committees, I will no longer allow my label to submit my music to the Grammys.”
Around 25,000 fans were allowed to attend Super Bowl LV. With a limited seating capacity, the NFL originally planned to fill about 20% of the seats at Raymond James Stadium but instead filled nearly 40%. With limited capacity at many NFL stadiums this season, many fans who would have attended in person ended up watching the big game at home.
Guest artists are usually invited to partake in the halftime show performance. However, The Weeknd wouldn’t have invited any special guests, regardless of COVID-19, saying in an interview with NFL Network, “there wasn’t any room to fit [guests] into the narrative and the story I was telling in the performance.” His diverse portfolio attracted a lot of viewers — and with many party hits spanning his four studio albums, such as “Starboy” and “Can’t Feel My Face,” The Weeknd’s creativity was on full display during the show.