by Alex Beene
(Alex also writes children’s literature. His latest is called Dreams We Share.)
2020 clearly wasn’t the year The Weeknd was expecting – it was better.
One year ago, as Americans prepared their families and their plates for the Thanksgiving holiday, Canadian singer The Weeknd (aka Abel Tesfaye) debuted a new single, “Heartless.” Two days later, he followed it with a second release, “Blinding Lights.” The former shot up the charts to claim the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 before quickly fizzing out of notoriety. The latter would take on a life of its own.
Throughout the winter, “Blinding Lights” continued to gain steam, earning rave reviews and more airplay before rising into the top 10 on the Billboard charts. The Weeknd announced his new album, After Hours, would debut on March 20, and a tour to promote it would follow in the summer. The promotion for it was heavy, with multiple media appearances that culminated with an appearance on Saturday Night Live on March 8.
The word “culminated” would ordinarily not seem appropriate here; the expected term might be “began.” However, just days after the well-received SNL guest spot, the pandemic was exerting its stranglehold on the world. Businesses, schools, and services shut down. People were urged to stay at home. Hundreds of millions stayed glued to their phones and televisions taking in the minute-to-minute developments.
The Weeknd and his team no doubt feared the worst. In a matter of days, all his scheduled promotional appearances were cancelled and his tour was pushed back a full year. Things were not looking good. What would become of the new album with no tour support and the world in chaos?
But something incredible happened. As the world descended into darkness, “Blinding Lights” was blazing. After Hours was the biggest debut of the year to that point, with over 400,000 album-equivalent sales and a record 1.02 million Apple Music pre-adds. “Blinding Lights” was an even bigger success, topping the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time on March 30. At the time of this writing, it has been in the top five for a record 32 weeks and in the top 10 for 38 weeks.
In a business increasingly dominated by momentary pop songs that rise and fall in the span of weeks, “Blinding Lights” and its year-long reign is an enigma. As good a record as it is, what could explain its unlikely dominance, especially at such a chaotic time in global history?
The Canadian superstar did a better job than anyone else at explaining its appeal. “I’ve always had an admiration for the era before I was born. You can hear as far back as my first mixtape that the ’80s — Siouxsie & the Banshees, Cocteau Twins — play a huge role in my sound,” The Weeknd told Billboard. “Sometimes it helps me create a new sound and sometimes it’s just obvious. I’m just glad the world’s into it now.”
In a time when many of us feel trapped and powerless, “Blinding Lights” offers a welcome reflection on a time in which a public health crisis, a deep economic recession and a fraught presidential election weren’t national obsessions. It’s a big, bold, incredibly catchy tribute to the world we once knew, and the world to which we hope to return soon.
Slate journalist Chris Molanphy said it well. “The Weeknd found the ideal midpoint between glossy and eerie, between danceable and dark.” It’s a song that lures us into a world of wonder. It’s the perfect escapism for the time we’re living in – and it’s gone viral in the good way.
The Weeknd didn’t get the year he expected, but the surreal landscape of 2020 provided the back drop for an even greater success. “Blinding Lights” continues to ride high on the charts, After Hours looks poised for an awards season full of hardware, and just recently the NFL and Pepsi announced the singer will headline the 2021 Super Bowl halftime show. And it feels justified for an artist that threw open the doors to the dance club of our imagination, even as earth-bound dance clubs remain shuttered.