Rising star The Weeknd helped close out weekend one of Austin City Limits Music Festival on the Honda stage Sunday night. Music writers Deborah Sengupta Stith and Eric Webb unpack his world of sex, drugs and R&B.
DSS: Well, that was pretty epic. So much of booking a fest like this is betting on futures and I know a lot of us scratched our heads when they booked the Weeknd as a closer, but it certainly paid off. Also, fireworks! Fireworks early! Fireworks often!
EW: I interpreted the fireworks as a “Take that, Drake!” moment, though they probably were not. I think that anyone who was at the show came away assured that, yes, the Weeknd can headline a giant festival show no problem. As one woman next to me said as the first song started: “That voice!” The stage was lit like a strip club, he was his own hype man and he brought a lil’ Bey to the place. Can’t say that he didn’t turn it out.
DSS: There is something about that voice. I’ve read about how his vocal quality stylistically draws from Ethiopian pop music. I worked in an Ethiopian restaurant for a summer in college and it’s true. That high trill conveys impending tragedy. Also, he plays levels better than almost anyone in the pop music game right now. That voice set against the stormy backdrop of his music has a very powerful effect. It creates an aura of dark romance. I totally got how you can get swept up in it. Twenty minutes or so in you’re thinking, “Maybe I do want to go out and make a few terrible decisions that might ruin my life.”
EW: He’s like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, but if the serpent was a professional Michael Jackson impersonator. (By the way: I did not expect him to play his cover of “Dirty Diana,” but I was still disappointed that he didn’t.) Now that we’ve brought up the “bad decisions” elephant in the public park, let’s talk themes. For the bulk of this set — with all its imposing, elastic beats and soaring R&B emotion — I felt like Tipper Gore. My chief thought: “This is morally irresponsible.”
I am completely on board with all the ways that bad behavior can and should be expressed through music, be it as wish fulfillment or an honest look at one’s less-than-rosy reality or something else entirely. But the Weeknd, who was once a fairly anonymous weaver of nihilist fairy tales, is a mainstream pop act who gets vast oceans of people to sing about testing out kitchen furniture for purposes it was not intended for. I find it kind of insidious that his empty, oft-misogynist lyrics are anthems now. He’s taken the most sordid luxury rap boasts and tells them in the language of love songs, and that seems manipulative in all sorts of ways when young women are screaming gleefully next to you at a festival.
DSS: It’s true. He gives a strip club jam like “The Morning” the feel of a Romeo and Juliet style saga. The way he sings it, making it rain is some kind of pinnacle emotional experience. His gift is sweeping emotion and it almost doesn’t matter what he’s saying. Like when he switched the words of “Often” to say “Ask me how many times I come to Texas, I say Austin.” Dude, I don’t even think that’s a sentence, but the crowd went wild.
But do the words matter? That’s a really good question.
The level of engagement I saw from this crowd was incredible, and I was pretty far back. People were dancing and singing along to all of those, yes, quite terrible words. Earlier today, I had a conversation with Jidenna, who actually has a degree in Ritual Studies from Stanford (crazy, right?). He was talking about the ways artists put people in a trance. “Every musician’s a shaman of some sort,” he said.
I thought about that a lot watching this set. There was definitely some kind of Dionysian effect. Where it all started to fall apart for me was with some of the manufactured pop jams off his new album. It started to feel very contrived.
EW: I think that shift into “pop Weeknd,” which is the version of the Weeknd that booked an ACL headliner spot, is the root of my discomfort. I will say this: I felt that he set up an arc of sorts for the set that salvaged it. I doubt this registered with anyone who wasn’t trying to unpack the larger ethical considerations of the song from “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but the last few numbers offered a needed counterpoint. I’ve always appreciated the line “When I’m (expletive) up, that’s the real me” in “The Hills.” It’s a glimmer of self-awareness in coalmine of soul-rot. And on “Prisoner,” the confession that “I’m a prisoner to my addiction/I’m addicted to a life that’s so empty and so cold” answers all the questions I needed answered. Dedicating “Wicked Games” to Austin as an apology for bailing out on ACL the last time he was booked was class, and he said he loved us. That’s nice, but assuming that I know what his definition of “love” is … ew.
DSS: I got that too. If you were paying attention at the end the “beautiful danger of the seamy underworld” mystique he set up took a very dark turn.
DSS: It’s worth noting that there were almost no “chair people” on the perimeter of the Honda stage to slow the stampede of young ladies who rushed forward when Abel Tesfaye took the stage. This set was entirely about youth movement. Also, going forward every ACL Fest headliner is going to need fireworks. Anything else will be a letdown.
EW: Ariana Grande’s “Love Me Harder” compatriot brought the showmanship, the raw talent, the dance party and, yes, the controversy. Speaking of Grande, the vocal modulator they ran on her part in that song is the only time I will associate her with Darth Vader.
But if the first weekend of ACL 2015 had to come to an end, I suppose a deeply unsettling sonic orgy was as good a way as any.