The Weeknd Emerges From the Shadows at the Super Bowl Halftime Show


For almost all of his decade-long career, the Weeknd has been finding ever more ornate ways to duck the spotlight, becoming immeasurably famous and popular while maintaining a cool, skeptical and effective remove from the harsh, sometimes goofy spotlight of fame.Out on the stage at the Super Bowl halftime show, though, there isn’t much one can do to hide. It is a locale that flattens nuance, sandpapers intent. It’s live and heavily vetted. For someone whose songs often dive deep into traumatic and provocative subject matter, but gleam so brightly and convincingly that it’s easy to miss the brittle soul within, it is an unlikely, almost vulnerable place to find yourself.Which probably explains why, at Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., the Weeknd rejiggered the terms of the performance. What would ordinarily be a hyperchoreographed spectacle with countless moving parts was instead something more focused and, at times, unnervingly intimate. Even though his music tends toward the maximalist, the Weeknd found several ways to make the performance appear small, a kind of secret whispered in front of an audience that tops 100 million.In a performance clearly designed for at-home consumption, he focused intently on the cameras. Behind him was a band and a choir interspersed among a neon cityscape, and often he was surrounded by dancers — their faces bandaged, in keeping with the fame-skeptic iconography of his recent music videos — but often, the Weeknd stood alone. His eye contact was intense. When he danced, he mostly did so in isolation. In the midst of a pyrotechnic affair, there he was, keeping his own time.That was also partly the result of the unique circumstances of the event this year: a grand-scaled affair reimagined with pandemic restrictions in mind. Rather than the usual stage setup — assembled at midfield, then rapidly disassembled after the show — the Weeknd performed largely from the stands, only descending to the field for the final few minutes of his set.Wearing a glittery red blazer and spectator shoes with an all-black ensemble, he sometimes appeared like a cabaret mayor, a master of ceremony for a space-age function. He stuck to the biggest of his many big hits. “Starboy” was vibrant, and “The Hills” had a majestic sweep.After “The Hills,” he pivoted to something more peculiar, walking into an overlit labyrinth and performing “Can’t Feel My Face” amid a scrum of face-bandaged look-alikes. The camera was hand-held and unsteady, communicating a glamorous mayhem that this event usually doesn’t dabble in.Afterward, he tempered the mood with some of his biggest-tent hits: the sunshiny “I Feel It Coming,” the oversized “Save Your Tears” and then “Earned It,” his theatrical ballad from the “Fifty Shades of Grey” soundtrack.There could perhaps be no more fitting moment for the Weeknd to be headlining the halftime show: After almost a year of avoiding other people, who better to set the terms of public engagement than pop music’s greatest hermit? That said, it was jarring this week to watch him poke his head out from the shadows, engaging in a terse, not wholly comfortable news conference, and yuk-yuking in a comedy sketch with James Corden.There are some responsibilities of this level of fame that aren’t negotiable. Asked at the news conference whether he would temper his songs or performance in any way, given how lurid and graphic his recent videos have been, the Weeknd insisted, “We’ll keep it PG for the families, definitely.”Which is to say, there was no mischief injected onto one of pop music’s grandest, most-viewed and most scrutinized stages — take, for example, the raw carnal provocations of Prince’s 2007 rain-shellacked performance, or the fire-eyed political radicalism of Beyoncé’s takeover of Coldplay’s tepid set in 2016, or M.I.A.’s middle finger in 2012.Mostly, as promised, he kept it PG, though he did toss in a sly grin and a tiny sashay of the hip during “I Feel It Coming,” and the scattered mayhem during “Can’t Feel My Face” suggested far more sinister things than could be represented. His recent music videos have focused on the grotesquerie of celebrity worship, but that narrative was nodded to but largely sidelined.This is the second halftime show produced in part by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, in an arrangement struck while the league was trying to address fallout from its handling of Colin Kaepernick’s racial justice protests. In recent years, the N.F.L. has seemingly perpetually been in crisis-response mode. This season was consistently challenged by the impact of the coronavirus.Before the game, the rock-soul singer H.E.R. performed “America the Beautiful,” injecting some Prince-minded guitar filigree. And the national anthem was a duet between the phenomenally gifted soul singer Jazmine Sullivan and the country stoic Eric Church, wearing a purple moto-esque jacket as if to overemphasize the political and cultural middle ground the performance — sturdy, sometimes impressive — was so clearly striving for.In the Weeknd, the N.F.L. opted for one of the few unimpeachable pop stars of the past decade, a consistent hitmaker with an ear for contemporary production and an affection for the grandeur and sheen of the biggest 1980s pop.Only during the last couple of minutes, when he finally emerged onto the field, did he acknowledge just how far he had come. Playing at that moment was a snippet of “House of Balloons,” the murky title song from his extremely murky debut mixtape, released a decade ago. At that point, the Weeknd was a total cipher, a Toronto miscreant with an ethereal voice and zero interest in sharing himself with the rest of the world.This nod to his past was quick — a wink for longtime fans — and it gave way to “Blinding Lights,” his exuberant smash from 2019, which topped the Hot 100 for four weeks. It’s a sterling song that evokes both an idyllic future and triggers aural sense memories of mega-pop’s glory years. On the field, he was surrounded by hundreds of Weeknd-alike dancers. In the beginning, he moved with them in lock step. But as the song swelled, and the dancers began to swarm in odd patterns, the Weeknd moved in his own rhythm, holding the camera’s gaze, alone amid the chaos.

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Behind the Weeknd’s Halftime Show: Nasal Swabs and Backup Plans


When the Weeknd headlines the Super Bowl halftime show on Sunday, the stage will be in the stands, not on the field, to simplify the transition from game to performance. In the days leading up to the event, workers have visited a tent outside Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., to receive nasal swabs for Covid-19 tests. And though a smaller crew is putting on the show this year, the bathroom trailers have been going through three times as much water as usual — because of all that hand-washing.Amid a global pandemic, the gargantuan logistical undertaking that is the halftime show has gotten even more complicated.In a typical year, a massive stage is rolled out in pieces onto the football field, sound and lighting equipment is swiftly set up by hundreds of stagehands working shoulder to shoulder, and fans stream onto the turf to watch the extravaganza. This year, there is a cap on how many people can participate in the production, dense crowds of cheering fans are out of the question. And only about 1,050 people are expected to work to put on the show, a fraction of the work force in most years.The pandemic has halted live performances in much of the country, and many televised spectacles have resorted to pretaped segments to ensure the safety of performers and audiences. The halftime show’s production team, however, was intent on mounting a live performance in the stadium that they hoped would wow television audiences. To fulfill that dream, they would need contingency plans, thousands of KN95 masks and a willingness to break from decades of halftime-show tradition.“It’s going to be a different looking show, but it’s still going to be a live show,” said Jana Fleishman, an executive vice president at Roc Nation, the entertainment company founded by Jay-Z that was tapped by the N.F.L. in 2019 to create performances for marquee games like the Super Bowl. “It’s a whole new way of doing everything.”One of the first logistical puzzles was figuring out how to pick staff members up from the airport and transport them to and from the hotel, said Dave Meyers, the show’s executive in charge of production and the chief operating officer at Diversified Production Services, an event production company based in New Jersey that is working on the halftime show.“Usually you pack everyone into a van, throw the bags into the back, everyone is sitting on each other’s laps,” Meyers said. “That can’t happen.”Instead, they rented more than 300 cars to transport everyone safely.Many of the company’s workers have been in Tampa for weeks, operating out of what they call a “compound” outside of Raymond James Stadium, the home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The compound includes 50-foot-long office trailers, which used to fit about 20 employees each but now are limited to six. There are socially distant dining tents where people eat prepackaged food, and a signal for which tables have been sanitized: the ones with chairs tilted against them.Outside the perimeter of the event, there is a tent where halftime-show workers have been getting Covid-19 tests. Staff members have been getting tested every 48 hours, but now that game day is close, key employees, including those who are in proximity to the performers, are getting tested every day, Meyers said. Each day, workers fill out a health screening on their smartphones, and if they’re cleared, they get a color-coded wristband, with a new color each day so no one can wear yesterday’s undetected.Each time workers enter the stadium or a new area of the grounds, they scan a credential that hangs from around their necks so that in the event that someone tests positive for Covid-19 or needs to go into quarantine, the N.F.L. will know who else was in their vicinity. And there are contingency plans if workers have to quarantine: crucial employees, including Meyers, have understudies who stand ready to take their places.All of those measures are taken so that the Weeknd can step out onstage Sunday for a 12-minute act that aims to rival years past, when the country was not in the midst of a global health crisis.“Our biggest challenge is to make this show look like it’s not affected by Covid,” Meyers said.The challenge was apparent on Thursday at a news conference about the halftime show. When the Weeknd strode to the microphone, he took in the room and noted, “It’s kind of empty.” His words were perhaps a preview of how the stadium might look to people watching from home. (About 25,000 fans will be present — a little more than a third of its capacity — and they will be joined by thousands of cardboard cutouts.)But the Weeknd (Abel Tesfaye), a 30-year-old Canadian pop star who has hits including “Can’t Feel My Face” and “Starboy,” is known for his theatrical flair. His work often has a brooding feel, an avant-garde edge, and even some blood and gore (he promised he would keep the halftime show “PG”).This will be the second Super Bowl halftime show produced in part by Jay-Z and Roc Nation, who were recruited by the N.F.L. at a time when performers were refusing to work with the league, in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice.The N.F.L. and Roc Nation are keeping quiet about the details of the program to build anticipation, so it is unclear whether it will have the usual big-budget effects of halftime shows past, which have featured Jennifer Lopez dancing on a giant revolving pole, Katy Perry riding an animatronic lion and Diana Ross memorably exiting by helicopter.What is clear is that there is unlikely to be anything like the intimate moment Lady Gaga had with a few of her fans during her 2017 performance, when she clasped their hands and embraced one of them before going back onstage for “Bad Romance.” The Weeknd is taking the stage in a much more distanced world.Ken Belson contributed reporting.

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