28 Thoughts on the Weeknd, Misogyny, and Constructing Persona as an Escape

28 Thoughts on the Weeknd, Misogyny, and Constructing Persona as an Escape

  1. Another questionable music writing ritual that the pandemic has killed off, for now at least: Listening sessions. For those who don't work in the music industry or music writing (one hand washes the other, obviously), listening sessions are—were—exactly what they sound like, but they could take multiple shapes.
  2. If you worked full-time at a music publication, a publicist—sometimes accompanied by the artist themselves—could come to your office, possibly with alcohol and snacks, and play you whatever they were looking to put on your radar. (This type of listening session will likely die off completely now, unless there's a musician out there willing to risk getting COVID from a social media manager just so they can hear their album a few months in advance.)
  3. Most of the time, the music wouldn't come to you. You'd end up at an open bar somewhere as Panda Bear's Tomboy played faintly over speakers and was mostly drowned out by persistent chatter. Maybe the playback itself would be treated with a measure of time-stopping respect, like the listening party for Perfume Genius' Set My Heart on Fire Immediately at James Murphy's wine bar that I went to right before the pandemic began. Perhaps the listening session would have strict rules that some would, for one reason or another, have a very hard time following. Either way, save for the drinking (as always), they were mostly time-killing exercises as a way to keep up appearances with others in the industry.
  4. One of the worst listening sessions I ever attended was for The Weeknd's Kiss Land. Which isn't to say that it wasn't an interesting time! I went with several Pitchfork colleagues to a karaoke bar in Midtown, where we sat in a karaoke room as digitally degraded images of soft-core pornography flashed on the screen and the album blared at deafening levels. Cocktails were served, so was fried shrimp. I remember saying to my coworkers afterwards that the shrimp was, at least, good, which they did not agree with.
  5. The main reason why this particular listening session was so bad was because we had to listen to Kiss Land. The Weeknd's 2013 "debut," following three seminal mixtapes that were collected in the blockbuster Trilogy the year before, still stands as one of the most disappointing "debuts" in recent memory—an overlong drag of an album that felt like an "Emperor's New Clothes" moment in a figurative and literal sense, suggesting that beyond the supposedly nouveau iridescence of the material collected on Trilogy, there existed a lack of ideas and a sense of unimaginativeness when it came to Abel Tesfaye's sonic palette.
  6. It's because of Kiss Land that I'm shocked we're still talking about—flat-out loving, really—the Weeknd's music in 2022, but perhaps I shouldn't be. After its altogether deflating release and middling critical reception, there was a brief sense that he'd flopped in a significant way. This, of course, was false, and that became apparent once he sold out Radio City for multiple dates less than a year later. The Weeknd was already too big to fail.
  7. Still, the longevity has been surprising. Pleasantly so, even! Dawn FM is the fifth proper full-length from the Weeknd—eighth if you count the mixtapes, ninth project overall if you count my dear melancholy, from 2018—and it's inarguably his best to date (unless you consider House of Balloons to be of quality beyond "massively influential," which I do not). Pretty much everything he's gestured at sonically from 2016's Starboy on is fully realized here, with a sense of cohesiveness and solid pacing even as it runs a little long (as Weeknd projects sometimes do, or feel). Dawn FM feels like a creative peak from someone who could very easily and lazily replicate what got him to this point ad nauseam, even as Tesfaye continues to lean on vocal patterns and melodically melismatic runs he's already overused throughout his career.
  8. In terms of general critical reception, Dawn FM recalls Halsey's If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power from last year. In Halsey's case, her latest is a fine album from an interesting artist whose previous work is arguably better, a decent work elevated to laudatory status in a very rockist way through the contributions of "respectable" collaborators like Trent Reznor and Lindsey Buckingham and the presence of Big Statements easier to apprehend than what the gloriously messy Manic had to offer.
  9. After pitching in here and there on After Hours from 2020, Oneohtrix Point Never's Daniel Lopatin — one of the undisputed stars of 2010s experimental and electronic music, an artist always fascinated with the collision of the high and the low — takes a much larger role throughout Dawn FM, notching co-write and production credits on nearly every track alongside famed pop genius Max Martin.
  10. A brief digression regarding Max Martin and the Weeknd: It's clear at this point that Martin has done some of his best work in the last decade with Tesfaye. Some of his most adventurous work, even: The indelible "Runnin'" from Starboy is all chopped-up vocal microhouse that strikingly resembles Luomo's nocturnal classic Vocalcity, while After Hours standout "Hardest to Love" is pure Homogenic, an association I thought I'd never make with Weeknd material beyond the distinct and not totally out-of-reach possibility that there would eventually be a Weeknd song that samples Björk.
  11. OK, anyway. So Lopatin is a beloved critical figure at this point, and the more pop-adverse in the critical sphere (as if there's even room for such a critic at this point) are more likely to check out and praise Dawn FM than they would be if it were, say, just a Max Martin joint straight through.
  12. And it seems inarguable that Lopatin's contributions have brought the Weeknd's music to a new level of quality. After Hours, after all, did feel like a similar (if not as wholly effective) breakthrough after the lowercase miserabilia of my dear melancholy, which found Tesfaye on a similar hunt for the "cool" with collaborators like French rude boy Gesaffelstein and Chilean electronic vanguard Nicolas Jaar (one of Lopatin's few contemporaries when it comes to mixing mainstream success with truly out-there, visionary approaches to sound).
  13. But whereas Reznor added new flavors to Halsey's approach, the mind-meld between Tesfaye and Lopatin seems more mutually beneficial. I love Lopatin's work as OPN, from the spiraling negative-zone kosmische of the material collected on Rifts to the pointillist bursts of R Plus Seven and Garden of Delete's proto-100 Gecs thrash pop—but his last two albums, 2018's Age Of and Magic Oneohtrix Point Never from 2020, felt transitional in quality. It's clear that he's been reaching for more a pop-structured approach in the OPN guise, and occasionally he's grabbed on to something sublime and terrifying in the way he can only do, but there hasn't yet been a definitive classic on par with anything in the run from Rifts to Garden of Delete.
  14. In Tesfaye, Lopatin has found his perfect creative foil. You could say Dawn FM is the best OPN album since G.o.D, but that would be ignoring the transmutation that's taken place here, in which Lopatin's celestial-radio approach on Magic OPN has been combined with the neon-streaked hedonism of After Hours, both artists' bumps and grooves fitting together perfectly like two Legos. (Uncut Gems is the unspoken connecting thread that runs through all these projects, of course—Josh Safdie even briefly appears in blink-and-you'll-miss-it fashion on "Every Angel is Terrifying"—only bolstering the film's reputation as something that continues to reverberate through American popular culture at large.)
  15. The dial-fiddling vibe of Dawn FM obviously owes a lot to Magic OPN, but there are echoes of other works throughout as well.  I don't quite get the Thriller comparisons being thrown about, which applied more to 2015's Beauty Behind the Madness—but I do hear a bit of Daft Punk's impactful and perpetually overrated Random Access Memories in the album's sonic-travelogue approach. "A Tale by Quincy," in particular, seems very "Giorgio by Moroder"—but Quincy Jones' own monologue is also disarmingly intimate compared to Moroder's more generalist autobiographic scope, recalling the spoken-word interludes that dotted Frank Ocean's monumentally influential Blonde.
  16. More than anything else, though, Dawn FM sounds like bloghouse to me, beyond the Swedish House Mafia and Calvin Harris co-productions. Yes, bloghouse—that rude, crude, hedonistic, endlessly undefinable micro-movement from the late-2000s associated with big French beats, horny French men, remixes of remixes, and partygoers dipping into powders and pills with other partygoers too old to be partying with people this young. Every few years, someone asks, "Is bloghouse about to make a comeback?" Seven years ago, that someone was me, and in the face of Dawn FM as well as a scene-encompassing book that's been making the rounds, I suppose I'm asking it again.
  17. Dawn FM isn't the first time Tesfaye has flirted with the brash, booming confines of bloghouse. Back in 2019, he teamed up with Gesaffelstein on "Lost in the Fire," a fine slice of percolating electro that, with over 283 million Spotify streams to date, represents the French producer's biggest song yet. (I reviewed the album it was on, Hyperion, for Pitchfork back when I still wrote for them. I did not like it.)
  18. "Lost in the Fire" is notable—or, rather, notorious—beyond its popularity. "You said you might be into girls/ You said you're going through a phase," Tesfaye sings to an anonymous paramour. "Well maybe you can bring a friend/ She gon' ride on top your face/ While I fuck you straight." The sentiment—specifically, that someone should or even can be "fucked straight" in the midst of their embracing a wider spectrum of personal sexuality—is homophobic and thoroughly disgusting, the latter quality running like toxic sludge through much of the Weeknd's early work.
  19. When House of Balloons—a massively influential document rife with druggy decadence and outright misogyny—came out in 2011, music writing in general still possessed an overall reluctance to call misogyny and sexually violent language against women for what it was. (Here's the part of every newsletter where I point out that, prior to 2012 or so, space in the music criticism landscape for anyone who didn't identify as male was spare and rarely offered with substance.)
  20. Even as I've increasingly enjoyed the Weeknd's music more with every successively release post-Kiss Land, I have never been able to shake one string of lyrics from House of Balloons' Beach House-sampling "The Party/The After Party" from my memory: "All these girls try to tell me she got no love/ But all these girls never ever got her blowjob/ Ringtone on silent/ And if she stops, then I might get violent."
  21. If someone like Tesfaye put out a song like that today—suggesting that, if a woman stopped performing oral sex on you for whatever reason, physical violence against her would be a response worth reaching for—they would be destroyed for it, at least by the music press, on some level. In 2011, there was little else but praise and a cadre of cool-chasers simply pretending they did not see (or, hear) it.
  22. Here's a line that leapt out to me immediately on Dawn FM's "Gasoline": "I wrap my hands around your neck/ You love it when I always squeeze." Hmm. Hmm! The best-case scenario you can envision here is that Tesfaye is embracing some sort of—God help me—sex-positive perspective regarding consensual choking during sex. But calling The Weeknd "sex-positive" is like saying climate change simply hydrates low-lying areas—in other words, a preposterous excuse to make for someone who has made a career out of visceral and often unsettling depictions of sexual encounters between men and women.
  23. As a project, The Weeknd was initially anonymous. No one knew who was behind it, there were some bad guesses floating around, and the anonymity arrived at a point in which everyone was embracing anonymousness as a gambit for marketing their music. The anonymity craze was post-Untrue but pre-Burial selfie, and it was led mostly by low-level producers and artists looking to craft some mystique in the interest of ensnaring listeners. In the end, it was just another gimmick easy enough to hop on to in the emerging age of social media promotion and bedroom recording—similar to chillwave, witch house, futzing around with pitch-shifted vocals and bass-y beats James Blake-style, and any other micro-trends chewed up and spit out by aspirant blog heroes back when blogs still existed.
  24. Of course, Tesfaye eventually revealed his face and his name, and during a period of superstardom-chasing ascendancy in the mid-late 2010s—let's pinpoint this as from Beauty Behind the Madness to my dear melancholy,—he seemed incapable of revealing any other truer self than someone who really, really wanted to be the biggest star in the world.
  25. Then came After Hours, where he dove deep into the realm of persona in a very glam-y way, taking on a character bruised and beaten by his own sordid lifestyle. The videos depicted literal car crashes and dizzying drunken reveries, attempting to blur the lines between where Tesfaye ended and the Weeknd began; he showed up to award shows in piles of prosthetics, bandaged to the hilt with a freshly broken nose and black eyes. On the cover of Dawn FM—which is now rumored to be the second album in a planned trilogy—he's bearded, aged, and stricken with a look of regret, suggesting perhaps that the hedonism has caught up to him with nothing gained in its wake.
  26. Similar to embracing the sounds of bloghouse—a subgenre culturally associated with Bush-era excess, a scene that possessed plenty of toxicity and misogyny dressed up in the guise of "hipsterdom"—playing with persona gives Tesfaye a kind of way out, or maybe a way forward. Clearly, the Trilogy era and everything it culturally represented was very resonant with an entire generation of listeners, none of which are looking for the Weeknd to transform into the Wokend overnight. But as the uproar that took place over the Chainsmokers in the late 2010s proves, embracing a decidedly misogynistic perspective in popular music doesn't get brushed under the rug the way it once did.
  27. But under the guise of persona, the Weeknd isn't really meaning this stuff (if he ever did, which is really beside the point regardless). It's a character he's playing, steeped in impressive visuals and Euphoria lighting and a sense of hypermasculine cheekiness. (This is not dissimilar to the kind of bait-and-switch that Australian singer-songwriter Alex Cameron has attempted to pull—a distanced "honest perspective" on masculinity via performance art that, at best, feels like a new way of dressing up patriarchal ways of being that have been present since the literal dawn of time.)

For Tesfaye, playing with persona provides the perfect cover for the fact that, despite the ways in which the sound of his music has changed for the better, the uglier parts are still mostly staying just the same. There's no accounting for the recent past, or even the present, if it's all "just an act"—but in the end, it still feels like Tesfaye is trying to scrub Sharpie marks off of a wall. You can't make them go away that easily, and at some point you're going to have to face the question of how they got there to begin with.

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Jamie Larson