The final image of R&B superstar The Weeknd’s Pepsi® Super Bowl Halftime Show performance was a statement on the current state of COVID-19 affairs in the United States.
Completing his performance with number one hit song “Blinding Lights,” an army of bandaged and bloodied white-masked dancers collapsed on their backs in the center of Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium bathed in an eerie red light. The message was unmistakable, a bleak, direct referencing to the over 450,000+ dead in the United States from the COVID-19 pandemic. [Today, February, 23, of course, the C-19 toll has zoomed to 501,663.] Makes one wonder if America will bingo 1 million by end of the year if not the spring.
For his part, in interviews with outlets such as Variety,Weeknd said the bandages and spotted blood surrounding them represented a “character” who was “having a really bad night.” In the same interview, the singer also said the bandages served as a commentary on plastic surgery in Hollywood. Hmmm?
Were the white KN95 face masks paired with the bandaged ensembles purely utilitarian, worn at the request of directors fearing for performers’ safety? In a vacuum, maybe. But paired with what can only be described as a staged mass death at the center of a gathering of 25,000 people during our deadliest year, expecting the audience to read anything other than a COVID reference would be just plan dumb.
Before that final moment, the audience was zoomed through a catalogue of hits from the Canadian singer’s catalogue, along with a cacophonous journey from city-skyline set to all-gold blinged-out fun house, culminating in the dramatic denouement at center field.
The staging, choreography, lights and sound were impressive, albeit paired-down from the usual center-field placed stage surrounded by screaming fans. The audience had a strange and intimate experience within that gold fun house as the Weeknd performed with a “selfie stick,” giving us an almost-too-close glimpse at the performer while spawning thousands of memes online.
The irony of a singer known for his songs about sex and drug use performing at a “family” event was not lost on this reviewer. Lines such as “cut that ivory into skinny pieces,” from the hit song “Starboy,” may have left little Billy asking mom and pop just what the singer meant by that?
Lest we forget this performer won a Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award for “Can’t Feel my Face,” a song which references the numbing effects of cocaine and the Weeknd’s enjoyment of doing cocaine with a female partner. He of course performed this track during the halftime show as well.
It is interesting to see the NFL and its network partners (CBS this year) selecting an edgier performer than the usual Maroon 5 or Coldplay types. The sound, as in almost every halftime show, was spotty. The visuals and pyrotechnics as stated earlier, as impressive as ever.
The lasting image is one of death, in a stadium of revelers – jam packed, pandemic-ly speaking, of 25,000. In the old ‘normal’ it could have been 75,000. It was either an extremely self-aware statement on that dichotomy or a tone deaf choice of creatives out-of-touch with the death and pain most of America is still experiencing.
Jack McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or jackmcallister.com