A couple months ago, and incidentally the last time I posted on here, I wrote a review of The Weeknd’s latest album, Beauty Behind the Madness. In that post, I worried that the artist was sacrificing what made him unique, in favor of the widespread success he clearly craves. Seeing the Weeknd in concert last week brought a whole lot of those feelings back, but also introduced some new ones I wasn’t expecting.
This was a show intended to make you believe that Abel is now a rockstar worthy of the arena he performed in. The show featured a stage that allowed the singer to rise high up above the crowd, a move reminiscent of what Drake did on Would You Like a Tour. Instead of making him closer to the fans, though, it seemed to exist in order to make him seem larger than life, untouchable rather than accessible. A similar effect was created by the fence-like partition behind which he started the show and repeatedly returned. There was clearly a deliberate #mood intended.
The songs on Beauty Behind the Madness that are made to match that mood are also the ones that I dislike the most. As You Are, Dark Times, Prisoner, and Angel are all joyless in a way that I know others have always regarded The Weeknd’s music. It’s no coincidence that these are the last four songs on the album – completing the transition from the R&B/pop he came up with to straightforward rock and roll. The songs are big in a way that fills an arena like this. But they also seemed to suck out the air. (Though I may have been the only person that cared, only one song off of Kiss Land was performed, which is a pity since that album maybe does the best job of splitting the difference between his present and past.)
That R&B/rock (and thus, black/white) distinction is frequently on my mind, and came into stark relief here. Compared to the two previous Weeknd shows I’d been to in the past four years, this crowd was whiter* and more suburban – the target demographic, really. The difference factions in the audience were apparent by how they moved – whether fans were rapping the lyrics back or vaguely swaying along. Neither group was entirely disappointed.
The ones there for the older material weren’t neglected – it accounted for almost half of the performance. That music was clearly meant for more intimate locations, and didn’t hit the way it did when The Weeknd used to do clubs and small theaters. There was a difference between the effort he exerted and the reaction he got back. (I overheard more than one person say they didn’t recognize a lot of those songs.) It’s a relief, to me at least, that The Weeknd hasn’t chosen to abandon the stuff that put him on the map. Unlike just about every concert ever, though, he made no effort to single out the “day one” fans. Maybe he can’t afford to alienate those who have brought him to this place in his career. Maybe there’s a little bit of resentment towards those who may wish to hold him back.
The Weeknd truly shined when he let his pop sensibilities take over. Where R&B is apparently too niche, and stadium rock too forced, pop is a natural fit. The height of the concert was Can’t Feel My Face. (Surprisingly, it wasn’t the finale. The Hills took that honor, though I’m not sure why.) Excessive radio play caused me to forget that the song is true pop perfection. Abel did his best MJ impression, and the crowd was along for the ride. The performance did what pop does best – transmit pure joy – and I got my entire life. Somehow the moment that veers the farthest from what initially made me like The Weeknd, the moment that is perhaps the most transparently manufactured, ended up being the most transcendent. In that moment I forgot all my “real fan” gripes and let the man do what he now does best.
*One moment I didn’t appreciate: during Crew Love, Abel stuck his mic out for the crowd to sing along “there’s a room full of niggaaas”, a statement which decidedly did not apply to the venue that night. But that’s a whole other post for another time.