When it comes to the US’s biggest sporting event of the year, the NFL’s Super Bowl Championship Game, there’s no shortage of fanfare. Those who don’t follow football could attend a game and still have an amazing time given the highly-produced halftime show and a slew of ads displayed on the jumbotron.
Given the touch-and-go scheduling for major sports leagues throughout 2020, the Super Bowl halftime show this February 2021 was bound to be different. Typically, popular artists and groups work together to create an unforgettable show—oftentimes putting forth time and money without any major paycheck.
In short, the Super Bowl halftime show is exactly the event and venue most performing artists dream of. As the most-watched and most bet-on event in US sports, a stunning halftime performance is one way for a pop artist to dazzle and outshine the stars in the big game. While sports fans may be focused on NFL odds and wagers, others may attend a Super Bowl party just for the halftime performance and big-name ads.
Take Super Bowl XLI in 2007. The Colts defeated the Bears 19-17, but the game is largely remembered for Prince’s incredible halftime performance. Not only did Prince have the attention of some 100 million viewers, but he got to design a show without worrying about selling out seats or delivering standard tour fare.
But in the history of halftime shows, few artists have had the gall to perform alone like Prince did… until the Weeknd took the stage this year. Though he didn’t deliver on the wow quite like Prince, the artist is making waves for the message behind his Super Bowl LV performance (along with a few halftime commercials).
A Foray Into Performance Art
For most viewers, the Weeknd’s halftime performance was a letdown. However, Abel Tesfaye, the Canadian crooner who goes by the Weeknd, spent months carefully preparing his performance both behind closed doors and in the public eye.
Similar to Joaquin Phoenix’s 2010 performance art endeavor with I’m Still Here, the Weeknd began planting seeds for his performance as early as November 2020. Shortly after the NFL announced the artist would be performing at Super Bowl LV, the Weeknd appeared at the American Music Awards with a conspicuously bandage-covered face.
Coming off a successful launch of his album After Hours, fans wondered if the artist had undergone surgery or was creating a persona. As it happens, Tesfaye was carefully building a message leading up to his February 7 performance in Tampa Bay.
The message behind the bandages? A second look at the ‘superficial’ aspects of life prevalent in the film and music industries. Tesfaye used this analysis to highlight his own character (as the Weeknd) and how it’s easy to lose oneself amidst the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood lifestyle.
Unfortunately for the Weeknd, his performance didn’t capture the positive attention of many audiences. Some considered his message a bit outdated, while others felt his musical performance wasn’t quite risky or lively enough. In other words, the Weeknd opted to strike out and put meaning behind his show.
However, the Super Bowl isn’t the MET, and the NFL hasn’t taken any risks since the Janet Jackson debacle of 2006. Audiences want a rousing and dynamic performance that gets the blood pumping just like a football game does. While the Weeknd deserves credit for his thoughtful performance, Raymond James Stadium simply wasn’t the right venue.
Legendary Halftime Heroes
The Weeknd may not have hit the mark, but he wasn’t as far off as other groups in the past. After all, to be remembered for a high-buzz halftime show that happens once a year is difficult—especially with competition like U2, Prince, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (in 2002, 2007, and 2008 respectively.)
While Prince delivered a stunning performance with the help of Mother Nature (who opened the skies for his performance of Purple Rain as though it was planned), the widespread celebration of the show surprised many. Typically, names like U2 and Tom Petty who have brought audiences exactly what most football fans want and expect: flashy light displays, no-nonsense rock’n’roll, and a road-weary man with a guitar singing songs about America.