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The Weeknd, though underwhelming, made history with first Super Bowl halftime show held during a pandemic

The Weeknd performs at the Pepsi Super Bowl LV Halftime Show at Raymond James Stadium
The Weeknd performs at the Pepsi Super Bowl LV Halftime Show at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. His 2020 “After Hours” concert tour, which was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, will include a March 13, 2022, show at Pechanga Arena San Diego.
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

After being snubbed this year by the Grammy Awards, the top-selling Canadian singer had a lot to prove, but didn’t deliver much

How many ways did chart-topping vocal star The Weeknd make history with his Super Bowl halftime show Sunday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, despite delivering a visually arresting but musically tepid performance?

Let’s tally up the score.

The mustachioed singer, songwriter and producer — real name: Abel Makkonen Tesfaye — became the first Canadian artist to headline the big game’s halftime show. (Fellow Canadian Shania Twain performed at the 2003 Super Bowl, which was held at San Diego’s now defunct Qualcomm Stadium, but she was part of a halftime show lineup that included Sting and No Doubt, not a solo headliner.)

At 30, The Weeknd is the youngest male solo artist to headline — as opposed to make a guest appearance — a Super Bowl halftime show. (Lady Gaga was also 30 when she headlined the 2017 Super Bowl at Houston’s NRG Stadium.)

The Weeknd is also the first artist to headline the Super Bowl whose parents are Ethiopian immigrants — and who, by extension, is fluent in Amharic, the principal native tongue of his mother and father’s homeland.

He is the first halftime show headliner whose songs often focus on self-medicating and, not infrequently, self-destruction. His barely 14-minute performance Sunday featured at least three of those numbers, including “Starboy,” “The Hills” and the nominal love song “Can’t Feel My Face,” albeit in extremely abbreviated versions.

But the biggest first, sadly, is that The Weeknd headlined the only Super Bowl in the event’s 55-year history to be held during a global pandemic. COVID-19 has shuttered concerts and live music events nearly everywhere, except Florida, whose state government has for the most part reacted to the pandemic in what might kindly be described as a largely laissez faire approach.

Even so, safety concerns led to The Weeknd’s elaborately constructed and lit stage to be set up in the stands of the stadium, as opposed to on the field, and prompted The Weeknd to spend what he told media members was $7 million of his own money to beef up the production. (A number of music industry reports suggest that at least some of those millions were in fact provided by his record company.)

Coronavirus pandemic protocols also limited attendance in the 65,000-plus capacity stadium to 22,000. About 7,500 of those were vaccinated healthcare workers, who were given free tickets by the NFL. Audience cheers could be heard, but the cameras rarely showed even a glimpse of the crowd.

The extraordinary circumstances were as undeniable as The Weeknd’s meh of a performance, which was visually sleek, slickly delivered and largely devoid of musical (as opposed to actual) fireworks, let alone the kind of “wow” moments delivered by such past Super Bowl headliners as Prince, Beyoncé and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.

The Weeknd had promised last week at a press conference that his performance would be “completely live.” Alas, his pleasant but decidedly drama-free vocals on Sunday sounded so processed for much of his set that it was questionable exactly what he meant by “live.”

His performance took place mostly in front of a mock, multi-layered cityscape. It housed a well-choreographed choir and a string section, whose members may or may not have been miming their parts (not that it matters much at the Super Bowl). By rushing through eight songs in 13 minutes — about par for a halftime show — The Weeknd was unable to duplicate the moody dynamic tension that is a hallmark of his carefully produced studio albums.

Despite having previously collaborated with everyone from Ariana Grande and Drake to Daft Punk and, um, Kenny G, The Weeknd opted not to have any guest stars join him at the Super Bowl. That may have come as a particular disappointment to the meat-and-potatoes Canadian rock band Loverboy, whose career-defining 1991 hit could easily have been retitled “Working for The Weeknd,” at least for a night.

On Sunday, The Weeknd’s stage movements were largely understated, not a good look at an event that thrives on kinetic action. That came with his climactic “Blinding Lights,” which found him bounding across the stadium’s field with hundreds of lookalike dancers, each wearing identical red and black ready-for-the-Weeknd suits with bandaged heads — a nod to his hugely popular “Blinding Lights” video.

It was the eye-popping moment his halftime show cried out for. But it was too little, too late — a missed opportunity in a performance that found its star coasting when he should have been soaring.

The Weeknd’s performance was the second Super Bowl halftime show to take place under the National Football League’s partnership with Roc Nation, the entertainment company founded by Jay-Z. The hip-hop superstar also appears to have played a pivotal role in the NFL embracing a notably more socially conscious response to 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement than it did five years ago when now-former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players kneeled during the playing of the national anthem at games to protest police violence against Black Americans.

What Jay-Z has failed to do, at least thus far, is convince the NFL to have a hip-hop artist — any hip-hop artist — headline a Super Bowl halftime show for the first time. Now, that would really be historic.


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