The Super Bowl Halftime show is the biggest stage on Earth for a musician, and the Weeknd made the most of his 12-odd minutes on Sunday night, delivering a tightly choreographed, technologically dazzling set that not only lived up to some of the most iconic performances of the past, it also touched on songs and images from all across his decade-long career — and he did it under strict pandemic restrictions, before a stadium that was approximately one-tenth full.
In the week leading up to the game, the Weeknd had said that his main stage would be located in the stands — although he would utilize the field as well — and that it would continue the cryptic bad-night-in-Las-Vegas storyline that has accompanied all of the videos and TV performances around his blockbuster latest album, “After Hours.” All of those things proved true (although the connection to the storyline was even more cryptic than ever), but references to previous albums were present as well. And although he appeared in videos and TV performances late last year with his head swathed in bandages or with exaggerated plastic surgery — a visual statement he explained exclusively to Variety last week — he looked natural and sported just a mustache and a light beard, along with a pair of square sunglasses that he soon discarded.
The performance centered around an enormous multi-level wall-like stage, designed as a neon-lit theatrical cityscape, assembled beneath the stadium’s giant video screen/scoreboard. It occupied an entire end of the stadium; according to his manager, the Weeknd spent some $7 million of his own money on the performance. The wall was lit up with signage and lights that recalled both the Las Vegas setting of many of the “After Hours” videos as well as the red-light-district-inspired stage set for the Weeknd’s tour behind his 2013 album “Kiss Land.” His band, led by musical director Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lopatin), were arrayed across the top of the wall.
The show opened with the Weeknd, dressed in a glittery version of his now-familiar “After Hours” red jacket and black pants, seated in a fake sports car at the top of the cityscape. As ominous choral music played, he got out and walked around the fake buildings, sitting down on a neon-lit platform as a huge, sinister-looking creature in a white robe with glowing red eyes was lowered from a point above him. It joined several dozen dancers, seated further down the cityscape, who were all wearing billowing white robes and helmets with red lights for eyes.
As his hit “Starboy” began, the two halves of the cityscape parted and the Weeknd emerged in a wash of bright lights while the dancers performed robotic moves to the song, looking like some kind of evil choir (and actually recalled the robots from the video for Herbie Hancock’s 1983 hit “Rockit”). As the music segued quickly into his 2013 hit “The Hills,” the Weeknd went back into the brightly lit hallway behind the wall, which was filled with illuminated words — “Feel,” “Good,” “Nothing,” “Alone,” “Hours” (nothing is random in the Weeknd’s world). He sang closely into the camera, which wobbled to create a disorienting effect. As the music segued quickly into his 2016 hit “I Can’t Feel My Face,” several dancers, wearing “After Hours” red suits and with their heads wrapped in bandages, appeared in the hallways as well, sometimes stumbling around in a disoriented fashion but also snapping to attention at times (the song, although from an earlier album, also created another layer of meaning for the bandages).
Suddenly, he was back on the main stage for his 2016 hit “I Feel It Coming,” and again singing directly into the camera as fireworks launched at the opposite end of the field.
In fact, that tactic was perhaps the most striking difference between the Weeknd’s Super Bowl performance and all the ones that came before: In the absence of an audience on the field, he simply sang to the television audience, creating a greater sense of intimacy than the stadium-sized halftime performance usually has.
As he sang, a giant backdrop appeared on the huge video screen at the top of the cityscape, depicting a nighttime sky complete with a fake moon. That segment of the performance continued with “Save Your Tears” — featuring an acoustic guitarist wearing a glittery mask — the first song he performed from “After Hours,” and then his earlier hit “Earned It.” The choir had doffed their white robes and were now wearing glittering jackets and miming playing violins.
During the brief interlude that segued into the final segment of the performance, dozens of millions of viewers were confronted with something that many wizening new wave fans would find almost impossible to imagine: hearing Siouxsie & the Banshees during the Super Bowl halftime performance. The Weeknd sampled the British postpunk group’s 1980 song “Happy House” for the song “High for This” on his debut mixtape, but here it was just an interlude leading into the finale, which of course was his 2019 smash, “Blinding Lights.”
The Weeknd was accompanied by more than a hundred dancers dressed as the head-bandaged character, who filled the entire field and moved in mechanized lock step. The Weeknd sang the song while walking down the center of the field, surrounded by the dancers, who were alternately marching or swirling in circles. He finished as a barrage of fireworks exploded in the sky above him, and walked slowly off the field as the dancers laid down.
Each year, even before the Super Bowl halftime performance is over, the court of public opinion begins ranking the show in the long pantheon of classic ones: Prince, Michael Jackson, Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen and Lady Gaga — and, for some, the Weekend’s proclaimed favorite, Diana Ross — are usually part of those conversations. While it’s unfair to compare performances musically — opinions of an artist’s music are subjective, after all — it is fair to say that the Weeknd succeeded in staging what may have been the most technologically dazzling halftime performance in history, under what were undoubtedly the most challenging conditions.