‘Sin City’s cold and empty.’
The first time I watched The Weeknd’s music video for his lonesome synthwave ballad, ‘Blinding Lights,’ I was struck by a kind of familiarity with the story. It occurred to me that I know what it was he was smiling at in the opening shot through that uncanny, bloodtoothed smile of his. And watching his Super Bowl halftime performance yesterday, not to mention his appearances leading up to it — I’m speaking of that mawkishly twee advertisement-sketch he did with everybody’s favorite insufferable man-child, James Corden — I know what it was he was laughing at as his bruised face flushed in and out of focus atop that solitary highway overpass.
It was not special, nor was it the first time I had such an experience. It was about three years ago and it was 2:30 in the morning. I had been drinking with a kid who I don’t think I even have the capacity — nor the privilege — to call a friend. He gave me a ride home because we were looking to continue the ‘party’ elsewhere. That familiar mercurial mania of drunkenness. When we got back to my apartment I called a friend who told me I should go over to this house he was at. We hopped back into his car and drove there. When we got there, I was too belligerent and unpredictable to be let in. They told me to go home. I walked back out of the house, a nearly full tallcan of forgotten beer in hand, and told him that we were effectively ‘barred’ and forced to resign to the possibility that the end of our night was nigh if not finished. He asked if I wanted a ride back to my house. I told him no. He said okay and that I should hit him up if I wanted to kick it sometime. I said I’m down and dapped him up and he started over to the driver’s side of his car, opened the door, and got in. The half of his passenger’s side window, open, beckoning some thantotonic impulse in me as he began to drive away. I still clearly remember the oneiric motion of the can in mid air as it soared into that open window, and with a shuddering splat, like some kind of slipshod bomb, detonated inside his car. I had thrown the nearly full tallcan through the open passenger window.
The skid of his tires and a quick open of his door. He came straight up to me and with a bellowing hollar that kid yelled unholy murder in my face. I smiled. I do not remember for how long I wore this grin but it was there — I enjoyed this sick display of dereliction. He knocked the left side of my jaw and I crumbled to the ground in a compulsive slump. I laughed as he crouched down and nearly blew my eardrum out with his invective roar. He straightened himself up and kicked my left side ribs and I fell splayed on my back like a kind of pathetic, witless baalist in the tactile grips of an unspeakable jouissance. I cannot remember what words he was cursing me with as he walked off, back to his car, driving off. I just kept laughing. I do not recall how I got home.
What is the point of this story? Does this post’s title not betray the identity of the subject at hand? (The Weeknd — not me.) The point is to define the Torontonian’s relationship with a kind of palpable suffering and comedy both his celebrity and time are plagued with.
That is to say, what interests me so much about The Weeknd’s ‘Blinding Lights’ and the entirety of After Hours, specifically, is not so much the music or the story it tells — the album, I would wager, hosting some of his most lonesome music, the kind of desolation those of us might expect to feel in the year 2077 — more so than its relationship with his image. We expected this kind of dour, antisocial ‘Weeknd-er,’ that lyrics on tracks like ‘Blinding Lights’ or ‘Snowchild’ illustrate, back in 2014 and 2015; back when his celebrity was huge, of course, but perhaps not as matured, or, rather, not as much of a commodity in the advertising ecology of primetime TV. Now, however, his music still takes that severe tone, albeit for a different purpose and in a different way. Where The Weeknd has always served as a kind of mirror for the darker aspects of our cultural imaginary — not unlike 808’s Kanye West — his most recent performance at the halftime show seems to expose something as dark as it is comedic. Who The Weeknd has become illustrates the objective irony of late-capitalism through a purely psychological register, essentially, alienating that pallid Real which haunts his music and films so avidly, instead making room for Pepsi or Cordan to step in and create something of their own that they can use. This move has transformed The Weeknd into something that he has always been and has always been self-conscious of — one of the many reasons his ‘character’ is such a desolate depressive — only not to the degree that we see now: an object, a commodity. This effectively creates for him the same conditions that found me in the middle of a parking lot on my back laughing up at an opaque, dark 3 a.m. sky. It is a kind of humor, really. You end up laughing at the illness. Not just of the conditions in which you find yourself at that moment, but of your existential experience.
Right here, there might be an impulse to jump to a pedantic absurdist or nihilistic conversation, pettily hashing out whether or not life has any objective metaphysical meaning, and perhaps invoking a poor reading of Camus or Schopenhauer — I would advise against that. It is not where I am taking this. Subjects such as that ought to be resigned to priests and the elderly. What I am talking about has much more to do with a cultural sickness experienced simply by existing in our media-spectacle culture. A condition which Zizek does wonders to explain. ‘Global harmony and solipsism strangely coincide,’ he writes, ‘That is to say, does not our immersion in cyberspace go hand in hand with our reduction to a Leibnizian monad which…mirror in itself the entire universe? Are we not more and more monads, interacting alone with our PC screen, encountering only the virtual simulacra, and yet immersed more than ever in the global network, asynchronously communicating with the entire globe?’ While what Zizek is talking about refers to a more digital locus for our age’s cultural anxieties, it stands as a testament for what is still the issue at hand: the humorous despair of our cultural condition. An ineffable sadness and infinite loneliness, the pleasure principle weightless in comparison to this objective misery — these were the tears of his short film After Hours, he has everything and not a thing in the world. It is a devastating sentence. What effectively occurs after such a recognition and after the catharsis of weeping, however, is a kind of schizoaffective laughter. A state wherein all eyes of no one in particular seem to be watching as you slip into a madness none care about nor relate to.
This is why The Weeknd laughs now. Where before his glazed eyes in 2015’s ‘The Hills’ video could barely muster a crease to display emotion, now his manic gaze — peering through the same blood on his worked face, at the same stain of place, the same abandoned and affluent streets, the same doomed subjective experience of one who is defined and commodified as an object, with the same horrifying apathy — shimmers in a neurotic comedy. There is no escape, he knows. Might as well play at the Super Bowl halftime show, placate Pepsi, and do some hollow sketch with James Corden. No better than some Pizza Hut crust or an insurance policy — no better than an act on Jimmy Kimmel. At least, you can still have a good laugh and get paid.