Pop music has become a melting pot of so many different genres and themes both new and old. For example, when I was a kid, pop music came from bands like NSYNC, The All American Rejects, the Black Eyed Peas…etc. The songs were very catchy and, for the most part, focusing on the ability to get radio plays, leading to physical album purchases. Over the years the concept of what is popular has changed where artists like Travis Scott, Post Malone, and The Weeknd can step into the spotlight, make personal music, and have it be wildly popular. An excellent example of this is in The Weeknd’s new album After Hours.
The Weeknd’s fourth studio album, After Hours, is a masterpiece containing themes of loneliness, heartbreak, withdrawal, infidelity, and recklessness. Hiding that from underneath the nostalgic 80s/90s style synths and disco type beats, the Weeknd’s classic form and style is protruding through the lyrics, giving the album an aesthetic that shows people that, especially today, nobody is alone in their suffering. It can also be described by Robin James’ terms when she spoke about Rihanna, a “macho-inflected resilience…[that] praise a life dedicated to living life on the edge and gambling with transgression, like drug use and partying too hard”(James,10). In other words, The Weeknd is projecting contentment in his situation of drug-fueled mania. He is in Sin City, surrounded by the perfect fuel to his usual lyrical content. The album draws from various 80s and 90s styles of music in order to give the album a more nostalgic and, in turn, a hallucinogenic, drug-fueled feel to it. I almost feel like I’ve been transported to an episode of Stranger Things while listening to these songs. As per usual with The Weeknd, there are clear themes usually centered around self-medicated depression, and passive-aggressive attitudes, with styles and sounds that are usually very dark and, in a way, aphrodisiacal in his soft voice and rough lyrics. In some ways, his style parallels that of Michael Jackson in vocal range, song content, and the cinematic presentation of the album. He says that Michael Jackson’s music is one of his cornerstone inspirations, saying that Jackson’s vocal style and lyrics are what inspired him to be a singer. The falsetto is a very reused technique by both The Weeknd and Jackson. Both artists also are known to have cinematic albums that tend to be very popular.
It debuted atop the Billboard Top 200, and in the first week of the album dropping, The Weeknd became the first artist to lead the Billboard 200, Billboard Hot 100, Billboard Artist 100, Hot 100 Songwriters, and Hot 100 Producers charts simultaneously. The short film released prior to the album paints a very specific picture of what “After Hours” means to The Weeknd.
The film accompanying the album visually describes what Tesfaye’s primary vision is for the album and the sentiment he wants people to experience while listening. It opens up as the Weeknd’s performance on Jimmy Kimmel ends. He is wearing a sharp red suit while his face looks like it has taken a beating. Tesfaye walks off stage with an artificial-looking smile, getting bigger and bigger, painted on his face accompanied w the bloody and cut up face he performed with. As he walks through the studio door, he stops in deep red light for a half-second and keeps walking. The light seemed to change his demeanor from a person to a robot. As the movie goes on the smile turns ever so slowly to a frown and then to a full-on cry. At a point, there are many kaleidoscopic lights going on in the back and finally a blinking red screen. The artificiality of the smile and the exponential change in emotion is very telling. The color red is used a lot throughout this album. Tesfaye is wearing a red suit, covered in red blood in the movie, and on the album cover, the red tint to all the music videos, bathed in red lights…etc. The color red is a very powerful color. It is usually used to represent passion, love, and in some times danger, anger, and revenge. In this instance, however, I think that it is giving off an aphrodisiacal effect coupled with the senses of danger and excessive stimulation and that is a recurring theme in the album. For example, the most popular song of the album is literally called “Blinding Lights”. On Spotify, it has a whopping 1.061 billion streams. Yes, that’s billion with a b. So, why is it such a popular song? Well, besides the fact that it uses really cool 80’s style dance beats to get people dancing, this one song is the perfect summation of the entire album. The song can be analyzed from different angles, one of heartbreak and loss and one about overstimulation. The song, like the whole album, is very focused on the loss of Tesfaye’s ex-girlfriend Bella Hadid. This is obviously seen when analyzing lyrics like
“I been tryna call / I’ve been on my own for long enough / Maybe you can show me how to love, maybe / I’m going through withdrawals / You don’t even have to do too much / You can turn me on with just a touch, baby.”
The song is about his need for his ex and is talking about how the “lights” of Sin City are blinding.
“I said, ooh, I’m blinded by the lights/ No, I can’t sleep until I feel your touch/I said, ooh, I’m drowning in the night/ Oh, when I’m like this, you’re the one I trust”
This can be interpreted as The Weeknd saying that, due to his fame there are a lot of distractions, or lights, that are blinding him, and the only way for him to “see clearly” is when he has Bella with him to trust. Another way to interpret the song is how he just moved from LA to Las Vegas. It is an incredibly overstimulating place, not only visually, but in all facets of the word. It is a haven for drugs, sex, gambling, money…etc but it is also a place of escape from the self.
In total, the album is the epitome of classic Weeknd themes also centering around drug use and heartbreak. All of the songs are projecting an idea of fake happiness under a cloak of drug-fueled euphoria. We see this with lyrics like “I don’t wanna touch the sky no more/I just wanna feel the ground when I’m coming down,” from the last song “Until I Bleed Out,”. The general theme from the album and the timing of its release is very interesting to me. In a press release, before he released the album he was quoted saying “[l]et the music heal us during these dark times.” The timing of the album had an effect on my listening. It seemed like the songs were trying to show everyone that suffering happens to everyone. Even celebrities. We’re all in the same boat here and it reminds people that they aren’t the only ones who are suffering.
“Little Monsters and Melancholics .” Resilience Et Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism, by Robin James, Zero Books, 2015, pp. 49.