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After The Weeknd

2012 saw The Weeknd's hard-hearted R&B push into the mainstream. But what do the Canadian singer's depleted joys tell us about our online life?

Associate editor of and freelance writer Ruth Saxelby discusses the direction new music every month under the title Notes For Tomorrow.

On “Enemy”, the first new song from The Weeknd this year outside of the three bonus tracks on his recent mixtape compilation Trilogy, Abel Tesfaye sings: “Cause the least I deserve is no conversation / I been working all week / I’d rather be your enemy / Then any friend you think I would be.” It finds the anonymous, disturbingly non-autonomous women (or is it the same woman?) that Tesfaye stalks in his songs finally completing their subjugation to dumb accessory. It’s the inevitable culmination of a narrative arc that’s seen him slide from ecstasy to detachment via depravity as, conversely, he’s risen from the internet’s fringe to mainstream validation. 

But where does he go from here? In becoming music’s embodiment of Steve McQueen's Shame - the smirking sex addict desperate to expel his frozen feelings in bed yet painfully aware it’s but a momentary release from the emotional intimacy he cannot engage in - has he painted himself into a corner? As the desire gets cruder and the fantasies darker, the boredom kicks swifter when all you’re doing is chasing that first high.

Whether Tesfaye ascribes to the player lifestyle he paints as The Weeknd is hard to gauge – he refuses interviews – but one thing is certain: no-one’s played the internet harder. From the hot air of House of Balloons to the dialogue-less Echoes of Silence, the descent couldn’t have been better planned. Tesfaye knew he was dealing with an audience of frayed attention spans, that he'd have to keep upping the ante to keep getting us off, and, above all, understood we’d just want him cause he’s next. 

Now, as 2013 rushes towards us, Tesfaye will have to change the record to get our attention again. The logical step in his movie-style trajectory would be redemption: the bad boy turned good - or at least picking himself up and taking a long, hard look in the mirror. But is the fact we’re already guessing the ending the writing on the wall for The Weeknd? 

For in the year since Echoes of Silence dropped, the landscape has changed drastically. 2012 saw R&B, rap and club music being stretched in directions that make The Weeknd sound dangerously old school. Frank Ocean and How To Dress Well reclaimed the confessional territory, turning it into something life-affirming with ‘Channel Orange’ and ‘Total Loss’ respectively. Mykki Blanco and Le1f made history as hip hop’s first wave of out-and-proud-now-get-over-it rappers, while Azealia Banks continued to inject some much needed fun and self-possessed female sexuality back into the form. In the club, Jam City skipped lecherous provocation to ask “How We Relate To The Body”, refreshingly suggesting a positive, shared intimacy. 

Perhaps when we look back in years to come The Weeknd’s legacy will be the threads that he drew with our own conduct online. You see, for all his tired misogyny, The Weeknd’s songs were never really about drugs and date rape; they’re ultimately about the crew and craving approval so badly he’s willing to play up to the pretense. While The Weeknd continues to act out extreme macho fantasies for crew love, we assume the seductive sheen of intimacy for peer approval. Being “real” has become a competition - who is the realist, the rawest, the most RT-ed. 

Contemporary internet behaviour is characterised by one-way conversations, bleats for attention and validation, and a back-and-forth between braggadocio and regret. All of which sum up The Weeknd’s in-song exploits. Even his XO label/crew was named after the internet’s favourite insincere sign-off. In fact, the masks The Weeknd abuses on Trilogy (drugs, drink, sex) and the masks we all assume online are not that far removed. All encourage an exaggeration of one aspect of ourselves; a self-destructive self-parodying that wears thin over time. Just like The Weeknd, we know what we’re doing but we can’t stop.