By Katie Kelly
“I think that girl is crying,” my friend whispered to me as he nodded towards two high school-aged girls at the end of our row. It was 9:20 p.m. The show hadn’t even started, but at that moment, The Weeknd‘s newly trademarked cat logo appeared on a backdrop on stage. The crowd erupted in anticipation, some clearly more overwhelmed than others. It’s a reaction that, as someone who grew up in the ’90s, I had experienced firsthand at various boy band concerts. But when I took my seat last night, I didn’t expect to see an ‘NSYNC level of fandom for Abel Tesfaye.
In the past few years, The Weeknd’s popularity has exploded as he masterfully capitalizes on a previously unexplored grey area between hip-hop, electronic music, and R&B. With a co-sign and prominent guest spots from fellow Toronto musician Drake, The Weeknd’s current success feels inevitable, but it’s still incredible to see it come to life. This growth has also been perfectly accentuated by the progression of his NYC concert venues. His first show in our city was at Bowery Ballroom. Next was the slightly larger Terminal 5. And now he is headlining at Radio City Music Hall, an arena so historic that when you walk the halls you can almost feel it—this place has hosted legends.
Seeing him command a stage like that comes with some irony. While The Weeknd curated a specific niche in music that was previously lacking, no tool was more important in building buzz than mystery. Everything about The Weeknd was shrouded in an element of “the unknown,” from his dark and ominous music to his actual identity. The Weeknd wasn’t served to us on a glowing silver platter; instead to get to know the singer we had to dig, making the discovery of his music that much more of a personal experience. It was that effort that made getting into The Weeknd a little difficult, but it also made it more rewarding.
Perhaps it’s this element that makes the connection between him and his fans so strong. As Confusion noted when he got the chance to see Tesfaye at Terminal 5 last year: “Yet here I was, and when Abel said to make some noise, New York City made noise. When he said, ‘New York City, you make me feel at home,’ the crowd made even more noise. By the time he got to ‘The Morning,’ my favorite song of his, the crowd was wrapped around his finger. If dude sneezed into the mic, the entire audience would bless him.” One year and a new album later, this idea rings even truer. But there’s something much bigger at play here.
The fantasies that were once restricted to a dark bedroom, as represented by the graphic images used as Tesfaye’s set design, are now the material for an entire audience to sing along to, his legion of unashamed XO’s.
Whereas some music (like Usher’s and R. Kelly’s) tends to be overtly sexual, The Weeknd instead carefully toes this line between romance and quiet eroticism. As a result, the stories weaved throughout his lyrics become relatable to us as listeners on a whole other level. His music allows us to indulge in our fetishes and vices as it whispers, “It’s okay, we all do this. Go on.” And so we do, each time a little more uninhibited. The fantasies that were once restricted to a dark bedroom, as represented by the graphic images used as Tesfaye’s set design, are now the material for an entire audience to sing along to, his legion of unashamed XOs.
When you take all of this into account, the visceral reaction that the audience had to his mere presence on stage becomes a little more comprehensible. His aesthetic oozes a more subdued confidence that doesn’t flaunt itself like D’Angelo’s notorious pelvic indents. It’s a sex appeal that certainly isn’t traditional, nor is it most likely something that The Weeknd aimed to achieve. But it’s clear that now that he has it, he knows exactly what to do with it.
“I kind of feel like I need to catch my breath and just absorb that for a minute,” our friend said when we exited the theatre. “But at the same time, I kind of feel like I need to get tickets to another show.” And judging by the looks of the girls still holding on to each other for support, and dudes excitedly recounting their favorite moments from the show, it’d be difficult to find someone from last night who wouldn’t want to escape down The Weeknd’s fantasy-laced rabbit hole again.