WELCOME TO THE OTHER SIDE
BABY STEP OUTSIDE YOUR MIND
- Life of the Party, The Weeknd
This is first of a series of articles I'm planning on writing about pop music and modernism.
Art is not the first concern of pop music. That said, what is artistic in pop music is the articulation of a certain way of being. This may sound heady, but I mean that no matter its puerility, pop music expresses a certain set of experiences and a perspective on those experiences. It may simply express bald melodrama (teenage angst) or bland escapism (nonstop parties); the perspective taken may be reductive and irresponsible, but still, a life and a mood are conveyed. Much of the music on Billboard expresses something familiar to our own lives (with either this or that accented) or something familiar to our collective fantasy life (money, sex, success). For Abel Tesfaye, The Weeknd, pop music is not an expression of the familiar, but an opportunity for exploration of a set of our cultural limits.
I wrote about Drake and Young Money last year on this blog. I said that Drake (and 40) brought a wistfulness and haunting sense of loss to the now-banal "rapper lifestyle". In their music, there is a sense of trying to stay grounded while at the same time enjoying one's success. It is this tension that makes Drake more interesting and complex than say, his comrade Wayne (though both Wayne and Nicki Minaj have attempted forays into this mood, I find their attempts token and fairly adolescent). Though both the Weeknd and Drake occupy a part of the same OVOXO clique and occupy parts of a constellation of similar artists (also including the oddball Kendrick Lamar and the young romantic Frank Ocean) The Weeknd takes his music beyond the relatable themes of regret and loneliness. While his neighboring artists have developed chilly mutant strains of their R&B and left-field hip-hop genetics, Tesfaye has attempted to breed a predator.
A consideration of the music itself. In many of his songs, Tesfaye is directly addressing a young woman. Often confused, uncomfortable, displaced, depressed, or vulnerable, these girls are wandering the party circuit where Tesfaye makes his home. He seduces them into drugs, sex, or other hinted depravities. This formula can create the disturbing sensation that one is listening to an act of predation, as in the truly disconcerting "Initiation". With its murky lyrical references to coercive group sex and hard drugs, and a musical backdrop including a distorted, alien bass thump, echoed guitar, and Tesfaye's inhuman voice, it makes a distinctly sinister impression:
The braggadacio of someone like Trey Songz is here unconstrained by the need to be MTV marketable. Where artists like Flo Rida or the Black Eyed Peas attempt an Epicurean mood (it's the weekend!), the lifestyle that Tesfaye introduces us to is wholly unsustainable. He makes no pretensions to the faith or social duress that define the other side of gangster masculinity. Tesfaye's music is excessive and makes no apologies.
This makes Tesfaye's music fairly one dimensional. At times he allows suggestions of woe or regret to creep into his lyrics, but they ring hollow. Any attempt to portray him as a "dynamic" personality is missing the interesting aspect of his music. As gestured at above, The Weeknd is a profoundly Modern reflection on our cultural fantasies. Listening to one of his mixtapes is a long look into our musical id.
Despite its flatness, the project has a special nuance; it is compelling because it doesn't rely on shock for its transgression (compare and contrast with the adolescent fuck-you attitude of early Eminem). Tesfaye takes pop narratives and soundscapes that we are by now familiar with (club life, R&B seduction, casual intoxication) a long way towards their logical conclusion without stepping into caricature.
The twist of The Weeknd is that in Tesfaye's world the "avant-garde" spirit is pop. He may not approach the explorations of someone like de Sade, but a version of the libertine spirit is present in his music, asking the same chain of questions that it has for centuries. With the excesses of art today, have we exhausted its potential? What does it mean to "transgress" in today's pop culture? In a world without God, is morality an aesthetic phenomenon? These questions are important to the Modern cultural conversation, and The Weeknd articulates them in a contemporary popular context where they are becoming increasingly insistent.