"The Weeknd is one of the biggest pop stars in the world, and the fact that he’s achieved this off of loads of songs about cocaine and sex is truly mind-blowing," says Larry Fitzmaurice. "Still, the Super Bowl is a huge stage usually reserved for artists with a massive collection of ubiquitous hits: Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Paul McCartney, Beyonce. (Abel) Tesfaye is—and this is not an insult but a statement of fact—not really there yet. Even though his latest album, After Hours, represents the most successful era of his career to date, when it comes to booking the talent for the biggest televised musical performance of the year, he’s a bit of a gamble. Did it pay off? Yes and no. The Weeknd’s halftime show set was certainly dazzling and visually overwhelming, with chaotic choreography in glowing hallways and a massive, night-lit metropolitan set design that took up a sizable portion of the Raymond James Stadium. The show’s opening visual shot—Tesfaye sliding out of a fast-looking car crashing through a Vegas facade—was so bright in its trippiness that it seemingly engulfed the star of the show itself. Indeed, for most of the career-spanning set Tesfaye was drowned out, physically and sonically (thanks to some obvious mixing issues), by nearly everything around him. He didn’t even come close to commanding the stage the way previous performers had, and even the set’s most intimate moment—a dizzying run through a glowing hallway set to 'I Can’t Feel My Face'—was immediately disrupted by a flurry of face-bandaged dancers. Tesfaye’s main-stage disappearing act was both a feature and a bug. If anything, the outsized stage setups blunted the impact (or lack thereof) of Tesfaye’s own limitations as a stage performer."
It was undeniably one of the strangest, darkest, and headiest uses of entertainment’s biggest stage there’s been: "But," says Kevin Fallon, "also a canny staging of a kinetic, if unsettling, performance style during a time when the logistics of a traditional spectacle would be irresponsible and an audience, both in the stands and at home, could use a little stupefying. Even if the talented showman’s vocals were often drowned out or too distorted to discern, the stagecraft certainly captured our attention. Some might still be reeling from flashes of Hannibal Lecter, the red-dressed Tethereds from Us, or the New Directions kids doing spooky drag for that “Thriller/Heads Will Roll” mash-up from Glee—all of which were apparently evoked during The Weeknd’s act, depending who on Twitter you follow."
The Weeknd's show was too devoid of spectacle and too geared toward his fans: "If that had been a concert, or an SNL appearance, or an awards show performance, or virtually any other venue where you could imagine the Weeknd performing a medley, this would have been good-to-great," says Matthew Dessem. "Unfortunately, this was the Super Bowl, the biggest, most tasteless spectacle in the American cultural calendar, and the only venue where nonstop pyrotechnics, an army of dancers, and several Las Vegases worth of light bulbs could add up to something that felt muted and restrained. Where were the giant lions and the phallic guitars and the dancing sharks? Where were the surprise guest appearances from Big Boi, the Grambling State University Marching Band, and the Miami Sound Machine? Where were the madness and joy, Mr. Weeknd? Everything about this performance was calibrated toward people who enjoy the music of the Weeknd and were interested in seeing him perform it live. That’s no small group of people, and good for them, but it’s not really what the Super Bowl halftime show is supposed to be about. The median halftime show at a football game is a marching band, a genre of performance in which the spectacle is so much more important than the music that the music is entirely unlistenable. The Weeknd subverted this, performing his music competently while failing to do anything all that cringeworthy or ridiculous, which is exactly the wrong approach. His Super Bowl halftime show was not a performance he will have any reason to regret—and frankly, it should have been."
The Weeknd opted to offer 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," says Jon Caramonica. "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."
Minor mic volume issues aside, the singer demonstrated impressive vocals and stamina: "Adding to the odd, sometimes funny discordance was the necessary censorship required by the family event for a music catalog that skews heavily toward drugs, sex, and swear words, on top of The Weeknd’s violent imagery for After Hours (he appeared at shows like the VMAs bandaged and committed further to his bit with a music video that appeared to depict extensive plastic surgery)," says Adrian Horton. "It was a bit risible, at least for the contrast, to hear a medley of songs about cocaine where the coke isn’t actually mentioned, or to have the line 'I just f*cked two bitches ‘fore I saw you' conveniently omitted from The Hills. Or, as The Weeknd put it in a pre-Super Bowl press conference: 'It’s a very cohesive story I’m telling throughout this year, so the story will continue, but we definitely will keep it PG-(rated) for the families. I’ll do my best.' So it was a pleasingly middle ground performance – not outright explicit, at least to viewers unfamiliar with his discography..."
The Weeknd spent $7 million of his own money on the Super Bowl halftime: “Abel spent almost $7 million of his own money beyond the already-generous budgets to make this halftime show be what he envisioned,” a rep for the star told the New York Post. Super Bowl performers work essentially for free, but they end up benefitting from a boost in their music sales.