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Overview Of A Vampire: A Closer Look At The Weeknd's Lyrics
John Calvert , October 12th, 2015 07:30

John Calvert is a "guilt-ridden ultra-fan" of "misogynist" Canadian R&B star The Weeknd and here, instead of brushing the themes of his music under the carpet or attempting to explain them away as 'theatre', he takes a forensic look at his lyrical content

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All photographs taken from TheWeeknd.com

It would be a vast understatement to say that The Weeknd, the alias of one Abel Tesfaye and R&B's newest international mega-star, has something of the night about him. Not since Cobain, you could argue, has such a troubled and dark young man enjoyed such a privileged position in mainstream music.

Tesfaye is currently exploding after his second studio album, Beauty Behind The Madness, went stratospheric last month. On the album, making a move for the big pop dollar, the Torontonian has sanitised his art for the purposes of popular appeal. For the most part, the record's production is bouncier, more accessible, less intense and somewhat brighter than on previous output, while the lyrical content is less explicit, less predatory and entirely less frightening. Tesfaye's pre-fame material, however, including the frankly ghoulish House Of Balloons mixtape and subsequent follow-ups, were a tad too unpalatable for mainstream audiences.

Doom-laden, depraved, nihilistic and inordinately graphic, Trilogy presented a new kind of R&B - gothic R&B if you will - and a new kind of R&B star, with a mind like a prom night massacre. But what is most disturbing about the music of The Weeknd isn't Tesfaye's litany of (often drug-fuelled) misdeeds towards others, but rather the pain he inflicts upon himself. Because Abel Tesfaye is the definition of self-loathing, with all the bottomless, pained depths of Ian Curtis or indeed Kurt Cobain. Most crucially, not one of the assumed standard perks of the R&B lifestyle for the most successful of its male stars - the women, the money, the fast cars - ever bring the star pleasure.

Though the darkest aspect of his whole endeavour is Tesfaye's attitude towards women. In his world, they are at best the worthless recipients of bodily fluids or Tesfaye's latest self-indulgent grumble, at worst, less than human, literally: prey, animals for the slaughter. Of course, this is presented as 'only' being the actions of an unhappy man.

It seems clear to me that Abel Tesfaye, whether he realises it or not, is a misogynist. The Weeknd apologists, however, claim his music is merely theatre - performance. Tesfaye, they claim, is only 'playing the character' of a misogynist. In a recent interview the star was asked whether he felt he had gone too far. Tesfaye argued that you wouldn't criticise a horror director for their depiction of violence towards women in their films. For the Toronto singer, all the world is a stage.

But you could go further and say that Tesfaye, by obsessively detailing the emptiness of the lifestyle, is in fact subverting the contemporary R&B male archetype, exposing the grim truth that other stars of the genre will never acknowledge - what with it being their job to sell the dream. Isn't it possible that Tesfaye is, in fact, merely telling it like it is: it's the truth that the stars of R&B are prolific seducers and it's almost certainly the truth that their world can often be a very dark place to live in, as opposed to the glittering, romanticised one most R&B stars present. So why hide the hypocrisy?

We'll leave it up to you to decide, with a tour around Tesfaye's most unsettling lyrics. For me, a guilt-ridden ultra-fan of The Weeknd, I like how the journalist, Touré, put it in Complex.com: "Art made from the point of view of villains and monsters is compelling. Loving it does not equal condoning horrific behaviour.

"And we can turn this to a Nightmare On Elm Street."

'House Of Balloons / Glass Table Girls'

There are a million R&B songs written about 'the party'. The Weeknd, however, does things differently.

Track three of his debut mixtape, the phantasmagorical 'House Of Balloons / Glass Table Girls', is our introduction to the hellacious end-of-the-world party that is the high life of an R&B prince. To the likes of 50 Cent, the club was an ivory tower where the mighty indulge in pimp-ish self-glorification and conspicuous consumption; to The Weeknd the club is a terrible fantasia, a monster's ball where the glitterati doomed come to live out their nihilistic last rites, a subterranean bacchanal which at any given moment threatens to become "a nightmare on Elm Street".

The track's spiralling trajectory depicts a superstar in the process of losing control, burning out. Drug-fevered, anhedonic, vanishing. The sampled screaming of the party children is too violent, so terrifying. The lustrous production and sense of neon glamour sickening. When Tesfaye sings cheerily "This is a happy house, we're happy here/ In a happy house, oh this is fun/ Fun, fun, fun/ Fun, fun, fun, fun/ Fun, fun, fun, fun", a straight lift from Siouxsie & The Banshees' 'Happy House', Ed, it's absolutely with a plastered-on smile. The pleasure fatigue is palpable.

"I know everything
I know everything
I know everything
I know everything"

'The Knowing'

That's the thing about those big egos - the slightest knock and the whole house of card comes tumbling down - a collapse of catastrophic proportions in the case of 'The Knowing', the finale of debut House Of Balloons and one of the many incidences in The Weeknd's music where the star's own diseased soul is his comeuppance. For all his mistreatment of women, the real loser is always Abel Tesfaye.

A similar scenario to Drake's seminal 'Marvin's Room', the self-pitying player has been cuckolded by one of his many lovers, prompting an existential crisis of epic proportions. Grandiose synths rise as Tesfaye howls into the abyss, the knowledge of his betrayal driving him slowly insane in the 4am half-light. "I know everything, I know everything, I know everything, I know everything."

Because he's such a swell guy, with the line, "You probably thought that you'd make me cry/ But baby it's okay/ It's okay" (located somewhere between huffing, eternal loneliness and false magnanimity, and perhaps even a little threatening) in the end he forgives her. Sweetheart.

"I’ll give you what you called for
Just let me get in my zone
And I won't see a damn thing...
I can't feel a damn thing"

'The Zone'

The Weeknd's girl is rushing him to have sex. Tesfaye on the other hand wants to finish his codeine, slowly he says, lest he overdose. So far, so Abel. Sex and death, death and sex. "I don't wanna die tonight baby, so let me sip this slowly."

By the second verse, however, it appears as though Tesfaye in fact needs these drugs before he can do the deed, to quieten the demons in him perhaps, or take his mind into oblivion, or maybe to provide amnesty against the possibly of an actual real live human connection.

You could say that with the line, "I’ll be making love to her through you/ So let me keep my eyes closed", Tesfaye is talking about fantasising about another woman during the act. But it can just as easily be read as the star removing himself from the situation, blocking her out.

You could even draw the conclusion that, curiously, sex, though Tesfaye's very most favourite subject matter, is in fact emotionally painful for the star, or at the very least unfulfilling.

There's also something tragically pathetic, not to mention depressing, about the idea of the baller with the sexual hang-ups. Legend has it, it was impotence that made Clyde Barrow so ready with his big, phallic Colt 45 - perhaps this modern day outlaw also over-compensates? Whatever the truth, it lends an extra layer of intrigue to an already fascinating psychodrama.

'Outside'

"Forget what you know
Make yourself at home
Cuz baby when I'm finished with ya
You won't wanna go outside."

'Outside'

A massive horror film junky, The Weeknd's music is riddled with references to vampire culture, which makes a lot of sense given that indeed, what else is Tesfaye but a vampire - a predatory creature of the night(club), fed on flesh?

In fact, you could probably trace the artist's entire sonic aesthetic back to 1987's Near Dark, a sensuously lensed, dreamlike bite flick where vampirism is a metaphor for drug addiction, and which is very much of the '80s, Tesfaye's favourite decade. With his penchant for the colour black and cut-off denim, he even dresses like one the film's barroom extras.

'Outside' is the diminutive sex-pest at his most vampirish. From 2013's Kiss Land, it's an R&B first: a seduction song with a subtext of drug-induced agoraphobia. The Weeknd is holed up in his penthouse, his lair, cooing the Gucci undergarments off his latest victim, daylight now a terrifying memory to his vampire mind. He tells her, "When I'm finished with ya, you won't wanna go outside."

Semi-reminiscent of L.A. Guns' 'Cry Little Sister' from 1987's other vamp pic (The Lost Boys), the song's red-blooded 80s synths and Tesfaye's gothic/hymnal vocals soar as the two lovers complete their carnal union. She has been 'turned'. She is like him now, a vampire, the mortal life beyond the bedroom curtains now a deathly threat.

'The After Party'/'Inititation'

"Got a brand new girl
Call her Rudolph
She'll probably O.D. before I show her to momma."

'The After Party'

A chilling insight into the dangerously drug-fuelled netherworld Tesfaye inhabits, where death by misadventure is commonplace and life expectancy is reduced to nothing when you're the plaything of a millionaires cult; a throwaway observation made all the more disturbing by the glibness of Tesfaye's delivery.

“I’ve got a test for you
You said you want my heart?
Well baby you can have it all
There’s just something I need from you
To meet my boys
I've got a lot of boys."
Initiation

The ghoulish 'Initiation' from the Echoes Of Silence mixtape, a surging terror-ride of a track that drips with menace and burns with erotic intensity, is inarguably The Weeknd's most egregious moment.

With his voice cycling woozily between pitches, from ogre-like to helium-voiced goblin and back again to ogre (said to convey Tesfaye's changing mind states at the party as he alternates between cocaine and sickly downer, sizzurp), Tesfaye turns to his latest conquest and makes her a dire proposal, which is this: to make it to the final room, the inner sanctum, she must first sleep with the rest of the XO crew. Because they come as a package. That will be her 'initiation' into the high life. "I've got a lot boys", he purrs, "...and you're going to meet them all." To love me you must first love us all. Absolutely the stuff of nightmares.

Remember, however, that Tesfaye is a master of the double meaning. Another theory, according to Genius.com is that "my boys" in fact refers to Tesfaye's extensive collection of drugs, and what Tesfaye actually means is that he intends to get her "leaning" on that "all black voodoo" (a particularly strong strain of synthetic weed) or buzzing on that "XO" (ecstasy mixed with oxy-contin) as a test to whether or not she can handle the lifestyle.

Either way, The Weeknd is the just kind of boy your mother warned you about, as Tesfaye himself warns in 'The Birds(Part 1)': "Don't make me make you fall in love with a n*gga like me."

In vampire lore, this kind of initiation ritual is known as "Ascension", and concludes with the Alpha male 'feeding' on the chosen candidate, whereafter the fledgling is taken to a private chamber for 'transformation'. Or if you're Abel Tesfaye, a New York penthouse with tasteful lighting and a chaise longue.

"Baby please / would you end your night with me?"

'Echoes Of Silence'

The desolate 'Echoes Of Silence' is the final track on the House Of Balloons trilogy. This is the end of the story.

A dark night of the soul for Abel Tesfaye, the world-straddling demi-god of ‘Loft Music’ is no longer, reduced to nothing more than a faint, disembodied voice by the endless soul-eroding pursuit of pleasure; just a lonely man in a darkened bedroom pleading the stranger in his bed not to forsake him.

But she is leaving, because men like Abel Tesfaye can't love anyone but themselves, and he's letting her into the secret: "You thought there was more to us/ but you knew how this would end/ It's gonna end how you expected girl/ You're such a masochist..."

Yet still he can't help but beg her to stay, to not leave him alone with himself. "Please don't you leave my 'little life'... don't you leave my 'little lie'." With Tesfaye stripped of all the layers of bullshit and male bravado, the 'lie' that is the celebrity life is finally laid bare.

As the old saying goes: 'That which nourishes me, destroys me.'

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aberinkula
Oct 13, 2015 11:07am

Absolutely the creepiest music on the planet right now. Music culled from Babel's towers. It does strike me that there are parallels between the state of American late-capitalism and this music. We're in the pits of hedonism and depravity. This music makes me physically feel ill.

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jules
Oct 13, 2015 4:32pm

the weeknd absolutely plays into todays narcissistic, self-obsessed youth culture. and thats what i find most uncomfortable about the whole thing, is how readily accepted the subject matter is.... and it's not even subtle or artful. there's something sociopathic about it. that speaks volumes about the times today. whether its a pose or not (it probably is) doesn't really matter.
curtis and cobain are about the furthest thing away from the misogynistic hatred and emoting found here. their ideals and view point were so different. they didnt project or inflict their "pain" onto others for a start. so i'm not sure i can agree with those comparisons.

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Glyph
Oct 14, 2015 1:52pm

Nicely-written piece.

I tried to like The Weeknd - as a Banshees fan, the "Happy House" lift was intriguing, and the descriptions I'd heard made me think that the Weeknd was doing something similar for modern R&B that Burial (whom I love) had done for rave - take something hedonistic and euphoric, and draw from it something deeply-sad.

Unfortunately, (and this is on me, not the Weeknd) I just don't care for enough of the musical tropes of modern R&B that even hearing them mocked or subverted still turns me off.

An artist that reminds me, a little, of what you are writing about here is Afghan Whigs (who perhaps not coincidentally, reached back to older R&B tropes in their music). Greg Dulli's narrators were often also hedonists and misogynists, and what always shone through so clearly (especially on Gentlemen, a genius album that I nonetheless flinch to listen to, due to the grim, bleakly-honest depiction of the uglier side of "male" thought on display throughout) was that this bad behavior was due to intense self-loathing - they strike out to hurt others, because they clearly hate themselves.

Take "66" off of 1965, an absolute barn-burner of a track, where Dulli's Lothario narrator slides up to his prey with an alternately supplicating and sleazy come-on, but it's not clear whether he's after the sexual prize that's in his target's pants, or the narcotic prize that he presumes is in her purse. Either way, he's going to wreck her, if that's what it takes to wreck himself.

"Come on, come on, come on, little rabbit / Show me where you got it, 'cos I know you got a habit"

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Glyph
Oct 14, 2015 8:45pm

In reply to Glyph:

Also, to the question raised in the article as to how much these lyrics represent the "true" Abel Tesfaye - people always seem more prone to assigning to a singer/songwriters the viewpoints of the characters they create or inhabit, than we do for novelists, filmmakers or actors.

Not sure why that is; but it's important to remember that Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno just to watch him die; and that Bill Cosby and Jimmy Saville presented to the world "characters" that were very different from what they truly were.

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Michael Cole
Oct 14, 2016 1:14pm

The Weeknd an underrated singer nowadays. Beautiful voice, unforgettable... The Hills http://lyricsmusic.name/the-weeknd-lyrics/beauty-behind-the-madness/the-hills.html one of many, many great songs from The Weeknd.

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