The Weeknd performed at this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, breezily running through a medley of some of his greatest hits, including “Blinding Lights,” “Earned It,” and “I Can’t Feel My Face.” It was … fine! If you missed it, check it out here:
If that had been a concert, or an SNL appearance, or an awards show performance, or virtually any other venue where you could imagine the Weeknd performing a medley, this would have been good-to-great. Unfortunately, this was the Super Bowl, the biggest, most tasteless spectacle in the American cultural calendar, and the only venue where nonstop pyrotechnics, an army of dancers, and several Las Vegases worth of light bulbs could add up to something that felt muted and restrained. Where were the giant lions and the phallic guitars and the dancing sharks? Where were the surprise guest appearances from Big Boi, the Grambling State University Marching Band, and the Miami Sound Machine? Where were the madness and joy, Mr. Weeknd?
Everything about this performance was calibrated toward people who enjoy the music of the Weeknd and were interested in seeing him perform it live. That’s no small group of people, and good for them, but it’s not really what the Super Bowl halftime show is supposed to be about. The median halftime show at a football game is a marching band, a genre of performance in which the spectacle is so much more important than the music that the music is entirely unlistenable. The Weeknd subverted this, performing his music competently while failing to do anything all that cringeworthy or ridiculous, which is exactly the wrong approach. His Super Bowl halftime show was not a performance he will have any reason to regret—and frankly, it should have been.
It’s no secret how this happened. There’s been a long run of musicians styling themselves as visual storytellers, from Beyoncé to the Lonely Island, and the Weeknd apparently saw the Super Bowl halftime show as primarily a storytelling opportunity. Asked a few days ago if his performance would feature any special guests, he replied that “there wasn’t any room to fit it in the narrative and the story I was telling in the performance.” There’s nothing wrong with using a halftime show to tell a story, but that story needs to be a little more over-the-top than “the Weeknd wanders around singing songs by the Weeknd,” because the bar for this sort of thing has been set much higher than your average visual album. In 1995, for example, to promote the Temple of the Forbidden Eye attraction at Disneyland, Tony Bennett and Patti Labelle performed in a halftime show in which Mola Ram stole the Super Bowl trophy and Indiana Jones had to steal it back. There were parachutists, people on fire, sword fights, lasers, a song from The Lion King, and an Indiana Jones who looked almost exactly nothing like Harrison Ford. It was tacky, tasteless, appalling garbage, and it was perfect:
Now that’s what I call visual storytelling. Even in the bad old days of Super Bowl halftime shows, you could count on Up With People to deliver at least one moment so jaw-droppingly awful you knew you were getting your money’s worth. Take 1980’s Super Bowl XIV, where Up With People delivered “a special salute to the music and the energy of the fabulous swing era.” It was exactly as soporific as it sounds, until the group kind of gave up on their own concept halfway through the performance. “Everyone may not remember the powerful big bands, but we were all electrified by the little bands that came afterwards and made a lot of noise!” intoned the narrator, and then a white guy with a horseshoe mustache came out and sang “Johnny B. Goode.” You know you’re watching a great Super Bowl halftime show when you lose count of the number of different ways a performance is utterly misconceived:
The Super Bowl is the day we’ve set aside as a nation to celebrate all of the worst things about America: militarism, consumerism, and above all, our limitless capability to pretend self-evidently terrible things like Up With People are good, actually. We have a solemn responsibility to remind the rest of the world who we are—and to be fair to the NFL, packing a stadium full of people in the middle of a deadly pandemic goes a long way toward achieving that goal. Still, this year’s halftime show may have given the world the mistaken impression that we are a nation capable of competence or restraint. So today, in the interest of international harmony, I am calling on the NFL to put all of its promotional muscle behind spreading a simple message about the Weeknd’s performance: That dude is Canadian.