The moment The Weeknd opened his mouth to scream “Tampa Bay,” as he kicked off his Super Bowl LV halftime performance, I thought to myself, I wonder who’s responsible for his audio levels because they’re about to lose their job. As he sung the first few bars of “Starboy,” things didn’t get much better for me so I can only imagine how people who weren’t already familiar with the lyrics were feeling. Why was his mic so low? He’s a vocalist and yet there are points where he’s belting a note and it’s barely punching above the instruments and cheering crowd. There were points when his face was right in front of the camera lens and I questioned if we were hearing him through the mic on the camera as opposed to his microphone. But at least while the sound technician was MIA, the camera people were present and on their game, because that steadicam shot used in the last few seconds of his performance is just *chef’s kiss*.
As is typical of a halftime performer, The Weeknd performed a carefully selected medley of hits. After kicking things off with “Starboy,” he segued into “The Hills,” “I Can’t Feel My Face,” “I Feel It Coming,” “Save Your Tears,” “Earned It”, and “Blinding Lights.” To me, it felt more like a hand full of songs played back-to-back as opposed to a career-spanning mashup curated specifically for this event. Maybe I was just waiting to hear “Heartless” and have him bring out Ariana Grande to perform their 2014 duet, “Love Me Harder.”
A lot of people felt like he had something to prove going into this performance given the drama with the Recording Academy over his planned Grammys performance and nominations snub, and it seemed he chose to prove himself on his vocals rather than the spectacle we’ve seen delivered by other pop stars who’ve graced that stage. Given the COVID protocols preventing the NFL from filling the stadium with spectators, The Weeknd had the opportunity to build his stage within the stands as opposed to center field. That decision threw out all the usual bombast of a Super Bowl performance which is what made him and his music uniquely suited to that moment, as he emerged from a dark platform to perform in front of a mechanical city. Then he went inside the wall to perform “I Can’t Feel My Face” in a fun-house hallway of mirrors, and that made it feel like a COVID-era pre-recorded awards show performance. However this sequence did launch the meme of the night.
Undoubtedly, the highlight of the performance was when he hit the field with a parade of dancers all in his signature character’s image: a red suit jacket and bandaged face. That was the climax, when you were finally reminded you’re watching a Super Bowl Halftime show. That was when it became a grand event.
What I’m still trying to figure out is what he was trying to say with this performance. He previously confirmed he wouldn’t have any special guests because there’s no room in the narrative to include them. But when he jumped from song to song, I was finding it hard to follow a narrative. What did stand out to me was the mechanically lit-up eyes on his choir during the first song — very C-3PO, or as others pointed out, the Jawas, from the Stars Wars universe. Then at the end of the performance all the dancers are strewn across the field as if they’re dead, holding lights in front of their eyes. The lights eventually go black. Does that mean “The Character” is dead? He’s explained The Character’s bandages are supposed to represent people manipulating themselves for validation and overall superficiality, so perhaps he’s saying those damaging behaviours will be the death of us?