It was showtime on a fuzzy July evening in 2011 and I was standing on the floor at the Mod Club in Toronto’s Little Italy for the Weeknd’s debut performance. I had never felt more alive. In front of his three-piece band, he was wearing an army print jacket rolled up to his elbows with a beaded bracelet hugging his right wrist. He seemed a little scared but no one in the audience cared. Four months after the release of the Weeknd’s debut mixtape, House of Balloons, we were just happy to be there, aglow in the presence of a then-mysterious artist music bloggers called “experimental.”
Aliveness was wafting all around me. About 600 of us became a “we” for 90 minutes that night. We—a group of self-described misfits, young Canadian fanatics—were finally joiners. Just days before, the indie weekly Now Magazine called the concert “easily the most anticipated first show by a Toronto act. Ever.” We were watching his every move. Drake was watching from the balcony, people whispered, and so were some major music execs. The very local singer Massari tweeted, “The man is a legend in the making. Even Puffys [sic] People are in the Green Room with us lol amazing!!” But there was nothing funny about the fact that all this hype was happening where we lived. For once we were not on the outside looking in, but inside and looking at each other.
“The best word I can think of to describe how I felt that night is euphoria,” the Weeknd, born Abel Tesfaye, tells me over email. “All those screaming fans were there to see me and I was overwhelmed. I was terrified, nervous, anxious and then when I sang the first note I felt euphoria. I was comfortable. I knew I was gonna do this for the rest of my life but I’ll never be able to duplicate that feeling.” Up until that exact moment, the Weeknd had maintained a degree of mystery to the public, having anonymously released his music on YouTube in 2010. The Weeknd’s early work was clearly the result of some study, a temperature-taking of the contemporaneous musical landscape, which was peskily slaphappy. (In Tesfaye’s breakout year, 2011, Katy Perry, LMFAO, CeeLo Green, the Black Eyed Peas, Kesha, Wiz Khalifa, Bruno Mars, and Maroon 5 were all hot.) Music bloggers suggested the Weeknd offered a softer darkness to the witch house or darkwave of the late 2000s (Crystal Castles, Purity Ring, SALEM—some of them also Canadian), but no one quite predicted the Weeknd’s role in popularizing a new sound—a rotund sotto voce croon, a kind of lost rhythm, a nihilistic exhilaration—that would seep into the gamut of R&B and pop music.
We didn’t know that, as Toronto kids, we’d have to give ourselves up before we gave him up to the elephantine labyrinth of American pop culture. It felt like he seduced the whole city with his serenades that night. For one evening we embraced, together, the instability, wreckage, and psychotic failures inside ourselves. And like a first high, we, too, knew we were never going to get that feeling back.
Twenty-one that summer, I might have been high that night but if I wasn’t, it didn’t matter because I felt high. The Weeknd’s first show was better than the hype, better than the drugs. In the early 2010s, this new sound altered one’s own experience of a reality that felt like it was about to burst. This was before standard beauty preferred a surgical look, before the synthetic opioid fentanyl was named a crisis, the summer before Occupy Wall Street, though class warfare had long become the routine of life. Everything was falling but the ride was long and twisted. Though I wouldn’t have put it that way then, being high was more than escape but rather a kind of mindfulness, a way to cope. As the Weeknd semi-sung on the gauzy but grave “Loft Music”: “They say my brain meltin’ / And the only thing I’ll tell ’em is / I’m livin’ for the present and the future don’t exist.” “I’m fucking gone right now,” the Weeknd’s lyrics urged in other songs. “I’m what you need,” he told us, and strangely, he came across as 100 percent earnest.
“A balloon is nothing if not captured breath,” wrote the poet and scholar Nathaniel Mackey in his 2017 epistolary novel Late Arcade. House of Balloons, the Weeknd’s breakthrough mixtape, is an apt metaphor for what comes after a party: the balloons pop, and the captured breath spreads itself around. The albums kept coming, mashing three of his mixtapes (House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence) into a compilation called Trilogy. What superfans distinctly memorialized as a discrete moment became repackaged, commercialized, and subsequently remembered as shorthand.
It is not so much that with the studio albums—Kiss Land (2013), Beauty Behind the Madness (2015), and Starboy (2016)—the Weeknd got more pop, as in happy, but rather, he got wildly popular. “One of the most visible pop stars in the world,” according to Pitchfork. Along with hyper-visibility came the common narrative about his fatalism and depression, and though these stories were consistent, they became less relatable as the accolades piled up. His contradictory ego began to scream the loudest, some complained. Over the years, the Weeknd still maintained a bad boy persona through his accounts of the demise of the party. Is he still doing drugs? “I have an off-and-on relationship with it,” he says. “It doesn’t consume my life but occasionally helps me open up my mind, especially when I’m creating, but when I perform I’m completely sober and try not to even drink. I’ve learned to balance thanks to touring.”
Being high is always bittersweet. Getting off drugs requires company, as in “Coming Down.” Love is a kind of withdrawal, as in “Blinding Lights.” Attachment demands numbness, as in “Can’t Feel My Face.” If taking a mental break from living with the terribleness of life under capitalism is glamorous, the turbulence of drug dependence hurt as much as it helped.
The Weeknd’s last full release, the 2018 EP My Dear Melancholy—complete with piercing melodies, sound as dilated as pupils—felt in many ways like a fuck-you to all the purist critics who said, with disdain, that he went pop. When I suggested as much to Tesfaye, he responded, “I try not to read too many reviews, especially if it’s negative, but I never made My Dear Melancholy with the intent on saying fuck you to anybody. It was just how I felt at the time. The sonic environment felt fitting for how I wanted to tell that story. I feel like I have sonic ADD and I can’t just stick to one sound and I feel like it irritates a lot of listeners but it’s just how my mind works.” At just under 22 minutes, the title of My Dear Melancholy literally addresses his state of sorrow. The EP’s opening track, “Call Out My Name” begins with an off-kilter trill, flowing into a crooning sex cry. We found each other / I helped you out of a broken place. You gave me comfort / But falling for you was my mistake. The album climaxes with “Wasted Times,” a song where Tesfaye somewhat crudely acknowl- edges romantic regret.
Since this is an essay about pop music, this is going to sound annoying, but listen: Freud made a famous distinction between mourning and melancholy. Both are responses to loss. Mourning has a love object (a person or abstraction), but melancholia descends into pathology, a painful lack of engagement with the world. It’s an apathy toward love. “In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty,” Freud wrote in 1917. “In melancholia it is the ego itself.” The Weeknd’s music suggests that melancholy is its own point. Sustained melancholia, a kind of narcissistic depression, is rarely considered an appropriate response to the world’s many shades of despair. Even diagnosable depression is meant to be medicated, fixed, or processed. The melancholic mourns something unconscious, and does so in a way that sucks at their ego, traps it, making a “fix” untenable. In a liberal-democratic society where the most-respected are the most-productive members, melancholia is psychopathological, and needs to be defeated at best or tempered at worst.
In 2019, Tesfaye went back to his early days, playing the Trilogy-era version of himself in the Safdie brothers’ film Uncut Gems. “I’ve been following the Safdies for years,” he says, a committed cinephile whose current obsessions include Claire Denis’ carnal thriller Trouble Every Day (2001), Brian De Palma’s neo-noir slasher Dressed to Kill (1980), Eckhart Schmidt’s West German, ’80s horror flick Der Fan, and Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986).
On the big screen, he plays it douchey, “a kind of almost satirical version of myself,” he says. His fictitious double refuses to sing unless he’s in black light. He performs “The Morning” and does lines with a white girl (Julia Fox) who comments on his erection. “He’s going to be major—even though he’s from Canada,” Julia says earlier in the film. The line is played for laughs.
That “even though” is a bigger deal than it seems. Tesfaye was born to Ethiopian immigrant parents and raised in Scarborough, a region east of downtown Toronto, before he dropped out of high school, moving out to Parkdale in Toronto’s west side. For many of the young, black, brown, and poor people in Canada’s most-populous city, Toronto lacks industry connections of all kinds, affordable housing, and creative infrastructures, especially when compared to cities in the United States. In response to his upbringing, along with La Mar Taylor, Ahmed Ismail, and Joachim Johnson, the Weeknd now runs the nonprofit HXOUSE, a “Toronto-based, globally focused think-center” that works with young artists of many disciplines. Global capital obviously floods Toronto through real estate, technology, and development, but in an exorbitantly expensive rental housing market, the lofts of “Lost Music” are unaffordable. A condo company in Tesfaye’s old neighborhood of Parkdale, a 14-story new development, is eerily called XO Condos. Five-hundred-square-foot boxes, currently unbuilt, are being sold for upwards of 0,000 dollars. XO is, of course, also the name of the Weeknd’s record label, which includes Canadian hip hop acts Nav, Belly, and 88Glam.
Today, ostensibly, he’s made it. “I feel confident with where I’m taking this [new] record,” he reveals. “There’s also a very committed vision and character being portrayed and I get to explore a different side of me that my fans have never seen.” He says that the first drop, the anti-romance song called “Heartless,” follows where My Dear Melancholy left off. “It was the first song I wrote after that album, so it felt fitting for me to put it out,” he says. “I play a character in the video who becomes compromised and then overcompensates with all the sins that Vegas provides. It’s a great introduction to the next chapter of my life.” In the music video for “Heartless,” set in Las Vegas, this new character, with his Lionel Richie mustache, Herbie Hancock glasses, and a slappy grin, was in fact inspired by Sammy Davis, Jr. in the 1973 film Poor Devil. In one scene, he licks a frog. It’s an all-knowing corniness that can be a bit of a one-note gimmick, its arc to be determined by the forthcoming album.
In the final scene of the video for “Blinding Lights,” which premiered in January, this new jittery nouveau-riche character stares into the camera but also beyond it, blood between his teeth. The look is a mix of Joker and Béatrice Dalle in that aforementioned Claire Denis film he loves so much, Trouble Every Day. After a journey through a hall of mirrors, a good high, a good ass-whooping, it’s hard to tell whether he’s laughing or crying. There’s something funny and something tragic in that ambivalence. This sense that we play characters both louche and garish feels like where we are at the turn of this decade, after years when it seemed no one had a self.
The first time and only time I took a limousine, I was in Las Vegas. The limo was white and belonged to an older man my friends and I had just met. He did so much coke in his hotel room I thought he was going to die. He didn’t. We went to Benihana on the strip to eat. I didn’t. In other words, we fear our own power while we walk that thin line between playing a part and playing ourselves, unvarnished. Sitting here, with the agitated humming of my laptop, I cannot forget the feelings of alienation that first drew me to the Weeknd’s spirited cries and the drive to turn my ugly reality into goals. Perhaps it’s not clear that this is an essay written by someone who chases melancholy, someone who yearns after sadness even after she’s found it, even after she has learned the end of the script.
I am often curious about how much time celebrities spend alone, not surrounded by managers and hairstylists and bodyguards and lovers and fans. “I spend most of my days alone now,” the Weeknd tells me. “I don’t like to leave my house too much. It’s a gift and a curse but it helps me give undivided attention to my work. I enjoy being a workaholic, I think, or I’m just addicted to it. Even when I’m not working I’m always somehow still working. It distracts from the loneliness, I guess.”
PHOTOGRAPHER AND VIDEO: DAVIT GIORGADZE
FASHION: CHRISTIAN STEMMLER
HAIR: BROOKLYN BRAND
MAKEUP: CHRISTINE NELLI
TAILOR: YELENA TRAVKINA
DIGITAL DIRECTOR: JOSHUA GLASS
LOCAL PRODUCTION: VIEWFINDERS
PRODUCTION: SASHA BAR-TUR FOR CR STUDIO
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