Sometimes the Super Bowl shines a light on previously unheralded performers. Often, though, it spotlights established stars. Ditto the Super Bowl halftime show.
Maybe the least well-known Super Bowl halftime headliner in 30 years of featured pop stars, the Weeknd delivered a lavishly staged, tightly choreographed spectacle Sunday with more than 100 dancers but without a dazzling star. The Weeknd, the Toronto pop star born Abel Tesfaye 30 years ago, has a gorgeously angelic voice and a sumptuously atmospheric, often brooding synth-pop sound. But he's not a dynamic performer; his dance moves were small, his persona far from larger than life.
While his "After Hours" was one of the bestselling albums of 2020, he's not a household name like other such recent Super Bowl halftime headliners as Jennifer Lopez, Maroon 5 and Justin Timberlake. As his co-manager Amir Esmailian told Billboard recently: "We always had Super Bowl on our bucket list, but it came a few years earlier than expected." Indeed.
If you didn't know the cryptic back story behind the Weeknd's "After Hours" and the strange-night-in-Las Vegas story lines that play out in its video clips, then you might have found this halftime show to be too niche for the masses.
Using the Vegas theme, the Weeknd arrived on the Super Bowl stage in a flashy convertible surrounded by the facades of neon-lit casinos. The various Super Bowl sets were Vegas-worthy splashy — a multitiered bandstand filled with dancers and musicians, a tunnel of mirrors reflected in gold lights, and a football field full of dancers, dressed like the Weeknd except they had white bandages on their faces, part of a bit depicted in his video narrative.
With fast-changing sets built with a $7 million investment from the headliner himself, he breezed through snippets of nine songs in 14 minutes including "Starboy," "Can't Feel My Face" and climaxing with "Blinding Lights," which is still in the Top 10 on the pop charts. Unlike other halftime performers, the Weeknd invited no guest stars. For him, like Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, it will be remembered as a lost weekend in Tampa.
The theme of lesser-known names applied to the "honor America" songs before the game. Grammy-winning, rising R&B star H.E.R. offered "America the Beautiful," reflecting the beauty and diversity of America — a little earthy, a little majestic and a lot of soulful, with a soaring and magnificent electric guitar solo that was part Prince, part Hendrix and all passion.
There was considerable curiosity how country superstar Eric Church and admired but under-the-radar soul serenader Jazmine Sullivan would collaborate on "The Star-Spangled Banner." He started, all twangy voice and gently syncopated electric guitar, then she handled the second verse by herself. Sullivan mostly took the lead thereafter and Church provided low-end vocal harmony as they progressed in a more soulful direction, suggesting an uneasy but determined unity — fitting for our times.