When the Weeknd put out his first mixtape “House of Balloons” in 2011, his identity was largely shrouded in mystery. On Sunday, he took one of the biggest stages in pop, the halftime show at the Super Bowl.The Weeknd, the 30-year-old Toronto singer and songwriter Abel Tesfaye, began his set in the stands, emerging in front of rows of lights to perform “Starboy” and “The Hills” with a choir, then he relocated into a hallway of lights and mirrors for “Can’t Feel My Face” as dancers with bandaged faces swarmed him. With fireworks lighting up the sky, he returned to the open air for “I Feel It Coming,” a large moon rising over the cityscape projected behind him. While a musician in a glittery mask strummed a guitar, the Weeknd turned toward the more optimistic “Save Your Tears” and “Earned It,” accompanied by strings and ending on a long, triumphant note. An army of performers outfitted like the Weeknd dance-marched down the field and the singer energetically sprinted beside them to herald his grand finale: his recent hit “Blinding Lights,” an ecstatic, driving disco-pop song.The Weeknd has released four albums since 2013, including his breakthrough, “Beauty Behind the Madness” in 2015. While promoting his latest LP, “After Hours,” he has dressed in a black shirt and red jacket and sported an increasingly banged-up and bandaged face while spinning a narrative in appearances at the MTV Video Music Awards and the American Music Awards, as well as late-night shows and in music videos. (He has said the character he’s portraying “is having a really bad night,” and in music videos the plot involves possibly being overtaken by an evil spirit and committing murder.)The Weeknd’s halftime show faced a unique set of challenges because of the pandemic. About 1,050 people worked on the show, a much smaller group than most years, and preparations included frequent virus testing and social distancing in production trailers. This is the second Super Bowl halftime show produced in part by Jay-Z and Roc Nation: Last year, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira performed sets heavy on dancing and Latin pride for fans jammed elbow to elbow on the field — a scenario that was impossible in 2021.In a performance clearly designed for at-home consumption, the Weeknd focused intently on the cameras. Behind him was a band and choir interspersed among a neon cityscape, and often he was surrounded by dancers — their faces bandaged, in keeping with the fame-skeptic iconography of his recent music videos — but often, the Weeknd stood alone. His eye contact was intense. When he danced, he mostly did so in isolation. In the midst of a pyrotechnic affair, there he was, keeping his own time.There could maybe be no more fitting year for the Weeknd to be headlining the halftime show: After almost a year of avoiding other people, who better to set the terms of public engagement than pop music’s greatest hermit?
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