By Dom Sinacola | 25 May 2012
It’s been two weeks since Portland’s stop on the Weeknd’s first-ever, sold-out tour. Two whole weeks and people still ask me the same question: What was the Weeknd show like? I’m never asked, “How was it?” or “I bet it was a blast!” (that’s not a question), but it’s an apt distinction to make, I think. The Weeknd show was like a lot of things, though I’m still not sure how it was.
It may also be of some service here to describe what I mean when I refer to “people.” By “people” I mean practically everyone: Weeknd fans, my mom, obsessives, those that chop & screw song after song to post on Soundcloud, that jealously tell you to have a good time because he or she couldn’t get tickets, because tickets sold out in something like an hour, or even those who’ve only heard about Tesfaye, who know more about what he isn’t than what he is. What is one to do to accurately describe how it was when one can only approximate what it was like? “It was like watching the Platonic ideal of post-Drake R&B suddenly fill out into a pudgy young’n with a sleeveless denim jacket and voice he should take better care of, and meanwhile it was like dealing with the disappointment of not witnessing the sleeveless-denim-jacket-shaped Platonic ideal reveal depths capable of inhaling the whole theater, for better or worse, because before he was a wondrous projection of our best hopes for the pop music machine, but turns out he’s just a faceless vacuum of the worst bits of our collective, indulgent psyche”? That’s as close as I can get to a satisfying simile. “People” typically stop paying attention, because everyone knows sleeveless denim jackets are back.
So I joked a lot about what the show smelled like. At various points during the night I rattled off, to no one in particular: lacquer, fossilized Starbursts, hotel soap, Bluetooth earwax, crying sex, Axe body spray, butt, Minnie Mouse, rancid genitals, genital follicles, Michael Fassbender. I was trying to get really drunk, which eventually became a way to feel better than the 18 -year-olds who swarmed and odorized the whole of the hall. I got drunk because I felt old, and the drunker I got the older I felt. Though only a decade at the most separated me and most of the suicidal high heels, leopard-print skirts, and x-tra-hold hair paste relegated to the house floor (theirs were the souls distinguished by what I could glimpse from the balcony), my age seemed directly related to my lack of odor. Because what it really smelled like in there was simple: cologne. So much cologne. I felt it clinging to my nosehairs, tasted it with the very back of my tongue. Abusive, that inky lavender astringent was only there to rearend what was actually the night’s flavor. Shame. What a dire pall hung wet over us.
A few days before, The Portland Mercury wrote up something of a preview wherein the author described “Initiation” as chronicling a kidnapping and gang rape. Which…is not what it’s about, not only because it’s obviously about Tesfaye’s XO crew love and testing a girl’s tolerance for the lifestyle him and his crew take for granted (“Shakespeare lines” is still hilarious to me), but also because if the song was actually about kidnapping and gang rape, then Tesfaye is not intelligent or creative enough to seriously discuss such subjects. Granted, the song involves public sex and near fatal dosage, a “test” for anyone not down with gang-bangs or syrup abuse, but nowhere does Tesfaye condone sexual abuse or force anyone to do anything for which they haven’t willingly signed up by simply insisting on being at the XO pad in the first place. Instead, Tesfaye is much less tactful; he provides the situation, delineates the terms, and watches through semi-colon eyes the melodrama unfold. Gets head somewhere along the line.
Whether the Weeknd is a cleverly orchestrated act or not holds little sway over Tesfaye’s endgame: selling shame. Lothario or lame, the guy just peddles shame. That’s the thing he does. Over and over. No introspection, just easy guilt; no capitulation, just muddled retrospect: grim songs about grim lives with the grimness manifest as a de-griminalizing sheen. No wonder the Mercury writer had little to say about the fact that the Weeknd released a song which supposedly engages the audience on little more than that shock of a rape narrative, that the writer (a woman) made no attempt to vilify, castigate, or even acknowledge how a song like that would responsibly play before an all-ages crowd, because no one is taking Tasfaye to task for what he’s doing. Especially when what he’s doing is just glorifying shame, however one defines that.
I won’t, but I also don’t think I need to. It’s clear in the Weeknd’s music, this music I still love, these melodies and lyrics from which I can distance myself if I need to, over which I can get dirty if I want to. I have no idea if Abel Tesfaye does what he sings about (though I’d bet he does, because it’s easy to live that way), but my skepticism seems like a luxury when I think back, two weeks ago, to the audience at the Weeknd show in Portland. I’m starting to believe the audience looks at this guy’s modus operandi as gospel, as both an indication of success and a way to flirt with that success. As a way for an 18-year-old to justify not taking responsibility for oneself and avoid the express loneliness that comes with greeting adulthood.
Right. The facts. I was fucking ecstatic to see this show. Despite how it was all-ages, with no opener, and general admission cost upwards of $30 bucks. This at the Roseland Theater, which almost uniformly hosts all of Portland’s hip-hop shows, and so notoriously has really shitty sound. The two ideas seem related: bad city for hip-hop; bad sound. That night was no different: from opener “High For This” (natch) to bare, boring encore “Wicked Games (neutered acoustic version),” the sound went from barely bearable to sufficiently bearable, which wasn’t aided by the Beatlemania of hundreds of absolutely squealing girls drowning out Tesfaye’s already thin voice every time he moved to the edge of the stage. Like I said, no opener, and the band went on an hour late, and then we discovered that, sure, Tesfaye had a three-piece behind him, which was clever but rarely interesting, as all the juiciest of noises came from some poor dude offstage triggering effects that constituted the majority of each cut, save an epicly wanky guitar solo during I don’t remember what song because I was too busy just fucking cringing at this lanky-haired guitarist moving to center stage and into the spotlight, whipping back his blond locks, and jerking out something not alien to the bridge of, say, a track performed by Foreigner.
How was it? It was half of a pretty good show. Tesfaye covered his oeuvre well, paced his set excellently, drafting deft medleys of deep cuts while keeping the audience frothing over favorites. Especially terrific were the “Montreal”/”I Know Everything” and “D.D.”/”The Birds Pt. II” two-fers, which thankfully came early in the set before Tesfaye’s voice started to give way and he too often pointed the microphone at the audience to have them sing the best parts of his best songs. Thus: a roomful of white people screamed “room full of niggas” during “Crew Love” (ironically required to sing along to “this ain’t no fuckin’ sing-along”), while I stared intently into my friend Phil’s eyes and sang the chorus in the way Meatwad would sing Rush lyrics, getting uncomfortably up in Phil’s personal space, approximating Tesfaye’s mewl. Which was probably the most fun I had that night, crooning into Phil’s eyes. I did that often.
How was it really? “Glass Table Girls” transformed into a KoRn song. “The Zone” was empty without Drake. It was, in a word, “weird.” And how else should it have been? The Weeknd has little to no touring experience, has earned little to no context for fans to latch onto (besides the Drake cameos, Entourage royalties, and Canadian self-identification), yet we cranked out 50 bucks that night, including necessary drinks, for an hour of decent live music buttressed by oversaturated acoustics, unpracticed stage presence, and a bad Michael Jackson impression. Tesfaye’s tour is a load blown barely a year into his career; putting on all-ages shows may guarantee a sold-out 1,500+ venue, but in no uncertain terms did that ever ring true as a marketing move made with his fans’ best interests in mind. It felt, as does most everything Tesfaye does now, thinly veiled and unearned. Charge me for your next record, the Weeknd, and I’ll gladly pay if it bears the fruits of anything new or even unpredictable.
How? I’m not sure what to say. How does anything like this happen? Kids want to dry-hump in public and do drugs and feel validated in these new, dangerous urges. Tesfaye sells them this validation, makes the deal sweeter by once-in-a-while acknowledging consequence for the sake of acknowledging it, and then, as if emerging fully robed at God’s Left Hand, provides a place for his pure egotism to enthrall those already committed to worshipping whatever it is he’s singing about.
And whatever it is he’s singing about smells like cologne. And since I don’t wear cologne but listen to and pay for the Weeknd, I felt weird. It was like sensing some sort of soul-crushing hunger before it reaches one’s abdomen. It was like being with one’s ultimate fantasy only to discover one’s downstairs is dehydrated. It was like Michael Fassbender in a sleeveless denim jacket. It was like everything I both hoped and dreaded it would be like. It is no surprise I went home alone.