The Weeknd did it: a full, dazzling Super Bowl halftime show in the middle of a pandemic. Last year, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira were able to collaborate and bring in a children’s choir. In perhaps the most unforgettable show of the last decade, Coldplay happily allowed themselves to be outshone by Bruno Mars and Beyoncé.
The Weeknd wasn’t allowed a single special guest. It was just him, a sparkly red blazer, and a chilling group of masked, bandaged backup dancers. Despite The Weeknd’s persona as a late-night partying, unapologetically sexy lothario (“I just fucked two bitches 'fore I saw you. And you gon' have to do it at my tempo,” as he sings in star-making “The Hills”) his Super Bowl performance seemed like a down-the-middle crowd pleaser. There was lots of Michael Jackson-esque footwork, many high notes, and a jarring, but not particularly sexual, vignette in a light box, à la his After Hours aesthetic.
But, The Weeknd still slid in some of his classic grungy-sensual vibes right under our noses. It all comes down to a surprise (and much-hoped-for) nod to The Weeknd's breakout mixtape House of Balloons in the final few minutes of his show.
The Weeknd — born Abel Tesfaye — came to global fame with 2015’s Beauty Behind the Madness, a horny as hell album… that was also produced for maximum mainstream pop reach and acceptance. Max Martin — the man behind everything from Britney Spears’ "...Baby One More Time" to "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" by Taylor Swift — helped produce lead single “Can’t Feel My Face.” Inoffensive crooner Ed Sheeran features on one of the last three songs of the album.
House of Balloons has none of those shiny bells and whistles. The album is named for the one-bedroom home The Weeknd lived in as a teen at 65 Spencer Avenue in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. The Weeknd moved into the home because he dropped out of school and left his family home. Parent-free and bunking with his friends, The Weeknd started hosting now-infamous parties.
“It was amazing. No parents, we can do what we want, stay up as late as we want — like, literally for days,” he told Rolling Stone in 2015. “We’d throw these shitty parties and have girls over, and we’d try to make it celebratory, so we’d have balloons.”
The Weeknd reminded all of his longtime fans of this fact with a short interlude to “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls” during his Super Bowl show. It arrived directly after his “Earned It” rendition — itself one of The Weeknd’s sexier songs, as the original 50 Shades of Gray soundtrack single — and before he raced into showstopper “Blinding Lights.” As The Weeknd moved to the field, his army of backup performers chanted, “We're happy here (We're happy here). In a happy house. Oh this is fun, fun, fun, fun. Fun, fun, fun, fun Fun, fun, fun, fun.” The Weeknd peacocked and echoed the lyrics while making his way down the field.
What isn’t obvious is the context of the transitional song. “House of Balloons / Glass Table Girls,” is a two-part number. The Super Bowl interlude comes from the first half of the track — which obviously gives House of Balloons its name, making the throwback reference all the more obvious — and is actually about the Weeknd seducing a woman in his bedroom. The woman technically wants to go about her regular life, but the sex and drugs in The Weeknd’s house of balloons is too appealing to leave. “So get naughty if you want. So don't blame it on me that you didn't call your home,” he says.
The Super Bowl performance’s repetition of “We're happy here. In a happy house” seems like a sunny little cheer. But it is actually a defence for The Weeknd’s lover’s inability to leave his den of iniquity. It’s just so fun there.
With about one minute of a supposedly very squeaky clean performance, Abel Tesfaye tricked us all into a trip inside his House of Balloons.