How The Weeknd Became The World’s Most Unlikely Popstar

Abel Tesfaye has built a career on being completely and utterly unpredictable.

the weeknd photo

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Infinite Pop is a Music Junkee column about the past, present, and possibilities of pop music.

It’s been nine years and eleven months since The Weeknd released his debut mixtape House of Balloons. Back then, we didn’t know Abel Tesfaye’s name — he was just a beautiful, disembodied voice pushing R&B into dark crevices the genre had never before plumbed.

As he released two even more debauched mixtapes that year — Thursday and Echoes of Silence — it was clear he was already a fully mature artist with a singular vision. He was going to be big — but how big? Would he choose to take the path to real-life — not just internet — stardom?

The longer you’ve been familiar with The Weeknd, the more surreal it is that the House of Balloons guy just headlined the 2021 NFL Super Bowl halftime show. The man who once only sang about sex, drugs, and having sex while on drugs just played America’s crowning concert at the year’s most-viewed television broadcast. Inside Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida — one of the worst US states for COVID cases — The Weeknd performed to an audience of one-third masked humans, two-thirds cardboard cutouts.

Had the NFL chosen a more conventional pick, they would likely have delivered a solid, uncontroversial performance simply aimed at entertaining the global viewership. Yet, any attempts to convey normality — that “the show must go on” — would only have made the moment feel more uncanny. So, The Weeknd was the only correct choice for 2021. His brand of surreal, existential mania has become our reality.

Surreal, Existential Mania

In press statements, Tesfaye envisioned a “cinematic experience” and he largely delivered on that promise. In 14 minutes, he blitzed through seven songs, including four of his five Billboard Hot 100 chart-toppers. He delivered most of the set not at ground level, but in front of a 1930s cityscape-themed stage amidst the stands. Some fans had to crank their necks to see directly above them, but for the viewers at home, it was the kind of immersive, screen-filling live performance we’ve gotten used to in the COVID era.

The question going in was: How would The Weeknd deliver a family-friendly show while staying true to himself? He may not have sung the most explicit parts of his songs, but remarkably, it never felt like he was sanitising them either. Unlike most halftime shows, with their ungainly medleys of hits and clown cars packed full of guest stars, The Weeknd managed to give each song the attention it deserved — even if all but one were noticeably sped up from their studio versions.

And unlike most pop artists too, Abel Tesfaye remains a singer-songwriter at heart. His music almost always centres lyrics and narrative first, with melodies and production a close second. So he didn’t just deliver a recitation of ‘The Hills’, he sang it for what it is — a hit single about a drunken affair, named after a horror film — and it just so happened to be taking place in front of a giant mainstream audience.

His brand of surreal, existential mania has become our reality.

He performed his breakthrough hit ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ in a hall of mirrors, surrounded by masked doppelgangers. GIFs of Abel running around, frantically searching for nothing in particular, immediately went viral. It was the kind of visual metaphor that even kids can relate to — when you’re hyped up, or not feeling like yourself — while still accurately representing a song about being off your face on cocaine. Of course, he himself was the puppet master, stumbling through a structure that he commissioned.

Taking a deeper look at the setlist, you have to ask — are these songs really fit for a celebratory moment like the Super Bowl? ‘Starboy’ is a consciously over-the-top — even immoral — portrayal of a hedonistic rockstar. ‘Save Your Tears’, his most restrained track, is about breaking your lover’s heart and wanting them back. ‘Earned It’ sounds like a straightforward love ballad, but its nods to darkness — “You know our love would be tragic/So you don’t pay it no mind” — make it inseparable from its origins on the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack. Still, Tesfaye’s voice soared over the instrumental, ending the song with the kind of powerful belt he rarely unleashes. Everything worked, because he so fully committed to the melodrama in the moment.

Most fascinating was how ‘House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls’ — a song with an epically debauched climax — featured as an interlude between songs. We only heard the part of the chorus that interpolates Siouxsie and the Banshees — “This is a happy house/We’re happy here” — but it still felt like an ironic, knowing wink to his early fans and his underground roots. Here was an Ethiopian-Torontonian, whose band director was Oneohtrix Point Never, one of the 2010s’ defining avant-garde electronic artists, quoting lyrics by a British post-punk band.

That makes The Weeknd the first Super Bowl headliner of the modern era who isn’t strictly an artist of the mainstream’s own making. It also makes him the riskiest performer since Janet Jackson (at least in hindsight). But this time, there was no pushback from conservatives on the content of his songs or performance; no misogynistic angle to hang their hats on. In that way, the world has changed for the better. But maybe it was because Tesfaye hid his darkness in plain sight — and it just went over their heads.

The Dark Knight Rises

I thought the show was a touchdown — at least in the top 10 of the last 30 years. The Weeknd pulled off the rare performance with a single thematic throughline, and did so safely (as far as we know) in the middle of a pandemic — an impressive feat indeed. But… was it really a complete triumph? Is that even possible while America is still so fraught? Let’s do what Abel Tesfaye would do, and dive all the way in.

Some reacted differently, describing his performance as restrained, or his stage presence as lacking. A halftime show is about spectacle, sure, but that’s not the only metric by which we can judge them. The Weeknd wasn’t doing party-pleasers like ‘Uptown Funk!’ or ‘Let’s Get Loud’… but that’s not a flaw — it’s simply the truth of his art.

Pop music isn’t necessarily just about the bright and celebratory. Pop is a vessel for whatever you want it to be.

Pop music isn’t necessarily just about the bright and celebratory. Pop is a vessel for whatever you want it to be — as long as you’re condensing music and culture into their most concise forms. The Weeknd’s ability to embody discomfort, emotional contradictions, is a deeply pop trait not unlike Lorde, Lana Del Rey, or reputation/folklore-era Taylor Swift. He makes music that doesn’t just soundtrack parties, but narrates the depravity in the room and the participants’ internal conflict. As it turns out, tens of millions of people can relate to those feelings. It’s a minor miracle that he’s been able to translate them to a pop stage for almost six years now.

A decade ago, Abel Tesfaye was “basically homeless”; couch-surfing, recording music, and just staying alive. But once he came up with the concept for The Weeknd, a dark R&B project, it seemed as if everything fell into place. In 2011, he built an online following with his Trilogy of mixtapes — which for a long time, were only free downloads that you couldn’t even purchase on iTunes.

Even now, it’s truly remarkable that The Weeknd culminated a complete artistic arc in just one calendar year. House of Balloons was the thrilling introduction, a character study in self-loathing indulgence; Thursday and Echoes of Silence took things deeper and darker. So much so, in fact, that they exhausted the potential of that sound. The Trilogy still holds up, though it can only blow your mind once. The year after Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, there was a latent hunger for music that wasn’t clearly pop or indie; that was brazenly hedonistic, yet self-aware about it, not entirely without shame.

If Tesfaye had never released another note of music, Trilogy would still have been one of the dominant aesthetic influences of the 2010s. Hip-hop, alternative R&B, and later on, trap-pop like Post Malone and even Taylor Swift all absorbed The Weeknd’s penchant for numb, desensitised melodies. Trap beats and 808s provided a different source for the music’s rhythmic base, but The Weeknd’s productions with Doc McKinney and Illangelo created the atmospherics: swirling synths and chiming, grimy guitars. Of course, no one has yet been able to imitate what he did as a singer, nor had his unique Ethiopian vocal influence.

At three points in Tesfaye’s career, he could have chosen the path well-trodden. After Trilogy, he could have continued to make mood music for downward spirals. He tried to smooth out his sound on his debut album for Republic Records, 2013’s Kiss Land, but ended up with a record of meandering melodies and song structures. It made a minor splash. He could have turned back. And after his 2018 EP My Dear Melancholy, he could have continued to wallow in romantic despair.

Many artists would rather stay underground and never risk their credibility, than swing for the fences and risk it all. Instead, Abel Tesfaye took the winding road to become, arguably, the most self-made popstar of his generation — because he might never have become one at all.

Lest we forget, it was actually Ariana Grande who first pulled a tentative Abel Tesfaye into the mainstream on ‘Love Me Harder’, giving him his first Billboard Hot 100 top ten hit. On 2015’s breakthrough album Beauty Behind the Madness, and 2016’s Starboy, he rose to the challenge, working with Max Martin and Daft Punk on singles that were guaranteed pop hits.

Not every album track was great — some felt like watered-down versions of his earlier work. But the rebranding itself succeeded so well that there’s an entire dimension, those first four years, that many have no idea exists. Still, Tesfaye never made another body of work as cohesive as Trilogy… until After Hours.

In this era where pop albums rarely get more than three videos or singles pushed to radio, Abel Tesfaye has portrayed the red-suited After Hours character since the release of ‘Heartless’ in November 2019, just over 14 months ago. Honestly, it’s heartwarming that he’s still at it; that we have a direct lifeline to any artistic project from pre-COVID times. Yet in those videos, he’s licked a toad, sped recklessly around Las Vegas, committed murder in an elevator, had two drug-induced existential crises, had his own head decapitated, fetishised then sewn onto another body, and gotten grotesque plastic surgery — and the story might not even be over.

By explicitly playing a movie character on a stage, Tesfaye’s both deepened the impact of The Weeknd’s depravity, while softening our emotional relationship to the human being behind it. The protagonist of Trilogy was an amoral fuckup; the character of the After Hours videos is a hyperbolic maniac. But the singer of After Hours is an immoral hustler in search of a redemption arc; he’s ‘Scared to Live’, the ‘Hardest to Love’. Not only is that more relatable — it’s a story with a future.

The central paradox of The Weeknd used to be that this god of depravity wanted to make pop music at all. Now, that’s flipped: it’s impressive that such a gifted pop musician can still carry such darkness. He’s given us two approaches to the same material: the singer-songwriter alt-R&B stuff was about indulging in detail. But pop music is about giving the listener emotional catharsis. It’s about being a vessel for change.

The Speed Of Blinding Lights

I’ve deliberately avoided mentioning the elephant in the room until now. In November 2019, we started listening to ‘Blinding Lights’ on repeat, and have never stopped. It’s about the feeling of wanting to run away from something, to someone in another place. It doesn’t matter if the destination is the right one; there’s no alternative.

‘Blinding Lights’ is without question the biggest Weeknd song, possibly the best, and the one that most embodies him — precisely because it’s not typical for him. The song’s bright ‘Take on Me’ synthpop stylings are undeniable, beloved by kids and adults alike, yet neither can look past the darkness at its core. Both elements are perfectly in balance, like an infinite loop that can’t be figured out.

It’s impressive that such a gifted pop musician can still carry such darkness.

That makes it the rare song that improves with every listen, overexposure be damned. It’s close to two-billion Spotify streams; 61 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 — and after the Super Bowl, may even return to #1 after nine months. Unlike ‘Old Town Road’, ‘Blinding Lights’ shows no signs of going away. When he performed it at the Super Bowl, surrounded by a field of masked, socially distanced doppelgangers, it felt like the one unifying musical moment we’ve had in the last 12 months.

And yet, The Weeknd’s still not entirely a household name. Many casual Super Bowl viewers expressed surprise that he was the one behind all those hits. If they want to catch up, he’s just released The Highlights: a physical disc and a greatest hits, in an age where streaming has made both obsolete. Mostly, it’s a flex — a reason to show off how many great songs he has, yet its existence proves that not all of your parents know his name or face. Maybe that’s the way he prefers it.

For example, take the recent, infamous Grammys snub, which saw one of 2020’s biggest, most critically acclaimed albums shut out of the nominations completely. It has no inherent meaning, because neither the Recording Academy nor the voting bodies act rationally, nor speak with one voice. But from the outside, it sure looked like an act of disrespect, rooted in a systemic bias against Black artists and the R&B genre. Abel’s reaction was anger, confusion, then ultimately, begrudging apathy. Maybe he has even more to prove before the Grammys will truly honour him. Maybe it means he’ll never be a comfortable establishment figure.

It really doesn’t matter. As for the rest of us — we’ve well and truly accepted Abel Tesfaye for all that he is. It’s safe to say that there’s never been anyone quite like The Weeknd. Maybe Marvin Gaye, who tapped into a similar vein of heartbreak on 1978’s Here, My Dear. But The Weeknd has had such a sustained run, and every step of the way has been so unpredictable, that he defies comparisons.

Ten years later, it is beautifully ironic that Abel Tesfaye has become a very good role model. He proudly represents both his Ethiopian heritage and his Toronto upbringing. And he seems to be a genuine, thoughtful human being. At last year’s VMAs, he accepted the Video of the Year award with a soft voice and a mournful expression: “It’s really hard for me to celebrate right now and enjoy this moment. So I’m just gonna say: justice for Jacob Blake, and justice for Breonna Taylor.”

Fame hasn’t changed Abel Tesfaye’s character; it has only amplified his best qualities. His Super Bowl performance well and truly crowned him as pop music’s dark knight — and he’s only 31. What’s left for him to do? Throw out the playbook, and reinvent himself once again.

Richard S. He is a pop songwriter, producer, and award-winning journalist. He tweets at @rsh_elle.