Music video commentaries (11): The Weeknd

The Weeknd, video trilogy from Beauty Behind the Madness: The Hills, Can’t Feel My Face, Tell Your Friends — (Grant Singer, 2015)

These three videos, all from the same album, and all directed by Grant Singer, form a loose trilogy. They are unified by the presence of a demonic figure, played by Rick Wilder. Wilder was the lead singer of The Mau-Maus, a Los Angeles glam rock band in the 1979s-80s. Wilder initially worked with Singer, in the music video for Ariel Pink’s song Dayzed Inn Daydreams: this is a beautiful and moving video, that gives a portrait of Wilder as an aging, lonely rocker, working a day job in the supermarket and peforming before sparse audiences in the evening. Wilder is an incredibly charismatic figure; evidently, he plays a very different role in these videos for The Weeknd.

The Hills is a downbeat, minor key song; the vocal line hovers in a high register against dissonant and sludgy instrumentation. The lyrics give expression to The Weeknd’s nihilistic hedonism, focused largely on sex and drugs (as in this line from the chorus: “When I’m fucked up, that’s the real me”). And he’s telling his lust interest that he’s not one for commitment, but only for immediate pleasure (“I just fucked two bitches ‘fore I saw you”). The line repeated in the bridge, “the hills have eyes,” refers to a gruesome 1977 horror film of that title by Wes Craven, about a family of cannibals in the Nevada desert.

Part of what makes Abel Tesfaye (to give The Weeknd his actual name) such a powerful and fascinating artist is the way he delivers these harsh, negative sentiments in such a soulful singing voice, a voice filled with pain, loneliness, and yearning. There’s a mixture of tones and feelings here, a sort of cognitive dissonance, that refuses resolution – it grabs hold of me and will not let go.

The video for The Hills feels like a slow-motion nightmare. It begins, during the instrumental introduction, with four shots (corresponding to the song’s opening four dissonant chords) of a car having overturned on a quiet, and evidently expensive, Los Angeles residential street. In each shot, the camera revolves a small distance around the car; each shot blacks out when the corresponding chord is cut off. We are not given any indication of what caused the accident; it is just a given situation at the start of the video. As the singing begins, we see Abel pulling himself out of the driver’s seat of the car. A woman pulls herself out of the other front seat, and Abel moves around the car and opens the back door for a second woman to crawl out. Then, as we move from the opening verse to the first chorus, Abel simply walks away from the accident. One of the women goes up to him, screams at him and shoves him — but he just ignores her. All this has a strange, dissociated feel because of the way that it is shot. Abel has blood smeared over his face, but we cannot see it too well, because the lighting is indirect and murky (the accident seems to have happened just at dusk). (Grant Singer is an absolute master of lighting, as we saw earlier in the semester when we watched his video for Lorde’s Green Light). Abel also walks with a slow limp, presumably from the accident; he lipsyncs the lines of the song intehimthe Weeknd, while the women and the car seen behind him are blurry, out of focus. (I also wonder about how the women seem to be moving back and forth slowly – is the video using slow motion? or is it an effect of focal length?).

During the second verse of the song, the sense of dreamlike estrangement is increased. We see Abel in profile first from one side and then from the other; this would be a violation of continuity editing rules in a narrative movie, but as we have seen all semester, music videos operate according to a different logic. At one point there seem to be two people walking on the other side of the street, but they are so out of focus that we cannot tell anything about them. The camera rotates around Abel, and at one point the same woman shoves him angrily again (I find it hard to decide whether this means that she shoves him twice, or whether this is just a sort of reprise of what we saw a minute earlier, since our time sense seems scrambled by the overall slowness of the video). In any case, at the start of the second chorus, the car explodes in a ball of flame: this happens way in the blurry background, while Abel himself is close to, and faces, the camera, which moves backwards slowly just as he advances forward. Also, in between Abel and the car, we see the woman who shoved him moving back and forth pointlessly, a bit out of focus but sufficiently visible to suggest that she has lost her mind.

In the latter part of the chorus, there is a cut from in front of Abel to behind him; we see him leaving the street and approaching a large house. It is now darker than it was (a movement from dusk to full nighttime), and we can only see Abel’s profile against the house lights. When the song moves on to the bridge (with the ominous line “the hills have eyes” sung rather sweetly), we cut to a shot from inside the house, as Abel walks through the door. We see him from various angles walking through the house; first there is a room with a bluish tint, and then one where the incandescent lights are flickering. As the song moves on to a third and final reiteration of the chorus, Abel starts walking up the stairs. The light varies from shot to shot; it is mostly dim, but there are candles at one point, a reprise of the flickering lights at another, and a chandelier with imitation-flame bulbs at yet another. It’s mostly quite dim despite thes light sources, but there is a brighter yellowish glow in the background, seemingly coming from another room.

The very end of the song features a woman’s voice, gently singing a love song in Amharic (the language of Ethiopia, the country from which Abel’s parents emigrated to Canada shortly before he was born. He spoke Amharic at home as a child). You can read a discussion of this part of the song, and of The Weeknd’s Ethiopian heritage, here. Visually, we see Abel’s face illuminated in red as he enters a room on the top floor. The video cuts to a red-illuminated room, as the camera moves into it, coming ever closer to Rick Wilbur and two women sitting almost motionless on a couch. There’s a brief reaction shot of Abel’s bewildered face, and then another closer shot moving in on Wilbur and the women staring at the camera (and presumably at Abel). Wilbur holds an apple in his hand.

It is easier to describe what happens in the video, and what feelings it evokes, than to say anything about what the video means. Online commentators have tended to regard Wilbur as a devil figure; here the reddish room evokes Hell, and the apple suggests the Tempation and Fall in the book of Genesis. I wouldn’t say that such an interpretation is necessarily wrong, but it is reductive in that it fails to evoke the full uncanniness and sense of dream-like alienation that characterizes the video as a whole. I find it more interesting to see the video as a general portrayal of weird alienation: with eerily precise images (like the final ones of Rick Wilbur) and yet an overall sense of floating uncertainty.

Can’t Feel My Face is very different musically from The Hills; it’s an upbeat dance-oriented pop song, co-written by Max Martin (the Sweedish songwriter and producer who has worked with everyone from Britney Spears to Taylor Swift to Adele to Pink to Ariana Grande to Lady Gaga). The song has generally been interpreted as a love song to cocaine. That is to say, The Weeknd addresses the drug in the language that, in pop music, would conventionally be directed to a lover. But what he seems to love about the drug is, not so much that it gives him an ecstatic high, but that it makes him feel numb – this is meant both literally (cocaine has anaesthetic effects, so it might well blunt the skin sensations that one has in one’s face) and metaphorically (in the sense that he would become insensitive, not just to physical pain, but to the emotional pain that life often inflicts upon us).

The video for Can’t Feel My Face is a performance video, with a twist. It shows The Weeknd on a stage, performing the song at a club. The video starts with a closeup; The Weeknd moves into frame, his face mostly filling the screen, with a microphone before him. He sings the first verse and pre-chorus in this single, long-held shot. The lighting is interesting; first the background is blue, then, as Abel begins to sing, a spotlight illuminates his face, and then there is a shift from blue to read (we saw a similar color shift in The Hills). The curtain behind him has blue and red glitters, but it is out of focus.

All this changes when the song reaches the high-energy chorus (“I can’t feel my face when I’m with you…”). The video immediately cuts to a full-body shot of Abel performing on stage. We see him from a variety of angles, as he starts dancing, pulling the microphone along with him. His dancing is (by design) reminiscent of Michael Jackson, with energetic, but effortless-looking, side shuffles. Often these shots are well-lit, with everything in focus. But the shots of Abel’s performance are cut in with reaction shots from the audience. The audience members, in general, look less than enthusiastic – they aren’t really connecting with the energy of Abel’s performance. This is accentuated by the way that most of these reaction shots have the shallow focus, and bluish-reddish tints, of the early part of the video. One exception is a woman in the audience (the model Chanel Iman, who mostly smiles encouragingly at Abel, though at one point she rests her head in her hands in evident disappointment). In one of these reaction shots, Rick Wilder walks in and stis at a table. He looks intently at Abel, but most of the other reaction shots show disappointed patrons. One person in the audience throws their drink at Abel during the second chorus, and later he ducks to avoid being hit by some other indeterminate object.

Things change yet again when Abel reaches the song’s bridge: the music slows down, and he only sings “oooh, oooh, woo…” for a moment; this leads into a another reprise of the pre-chorus (“she told me don’t worry…”), but slower than before. Abel is no longer dancing across the stage, and we return to a closeup of him singing, with blurry and nuanced lighting (the sides of his face are lit up more than the face itself facing us, and a bright bar of yellow runs horizontally across the screen). In this moment of the music’s semi-pause, the closeup of Abel is intercut with shots of Rick Wilbur, who looks intently towards the singer as he lights a cigarette. Then he flicks the lighter again, and tosses it at the stage. We see the lighter arcing through the air, first in slow motion, and then accelerating (against an out-of-focus background with the same fuzzy blues and reds that we have seen before) as Abel draws out the last word of the pre-chorus: “alo-o-o-o-ne.” All of a sudden, as the music goes back to full speed for the final chorus, and the camera cuts to a longer shot of the singer’s full body on the stage, Abel bursts into flame. Now he is dancing more energetically than ever, shuffling back and forth all across the stage, and even doing a dive and slide across the floor. The camera alternates full-body shots and closeups, all emphasizing the flame; and we also get reaction shots of the audience, all of whom are now on their feet, enraptured, and energetically dancing along. The musical repetitions get more insistent, and we see Abel singing (lip-syncing) the backup to the chorus as well as the main vocal line. Finally, we get to a drop: everything in the music suddenly ceases except for the active bass line. As this plays, Abel jumps off the stage and moves forward, past the dancers in the audience, the camera moving backwards to keep up with him. All the while, he is still completely aflame. Finally he pushes out of the front door of the club. He comes to a halt facing into the camera, just as the music ends with a final “hey!”. Before everything goes black, we have a second or two in which it looks like the film itself is burning.

It’s evident that the video works as well as it does, at least in part because of how the cinematography and editing are carefully set up to interact with the musical structure of the song. Beyond that, the video wows us with the energy of The Weeknd’s performance (both singing and dancing). The flames can be seen as a metaphor for the way a performer “lights up” the audience, or for the way that his career takes off. Some online commentators have interpreted Rick Wilbur as representing the music industry, which gives the performer a big career boost, but at a severe price. If he was tempting The Weeknd, as a devil, in the first video, then here he seals the deal, and it is too late for the artist to withdraw. I don’t think this allegorical reading of the video is wrong, necessarily, but it is important to acknowledge as well the visceral impact of the video – both of the dancing/performance, and of the flames, which do have a strong emotional impact even though we know that they are really just a special effect. What does it mean to consume oneself, whether with a relationship, with drugs, or with performances to which one gives one’s all? (literally and not just metaphorically)?

Tell Your Friends, produced by Kanye West, is a song in which The Weeknd unapologetically speaks of his self-destructive lifestyle: “I’m that n**** with the hair/ Singin’ ’bout poppin’ pills, fuckin’ bitches…” The video is more straightforward visually than the previous ones in the trilogy, but it is just as symbolically charged. The video is set around dusk, and then at night, in an empty landscape. It starts, during the song’s instrumental introduction, with the camera tracking through the wasteland to a burning tree. The camera finally changes direction, swerving to the side to avoid the tree; just as the singing begins, the camera picks up a man from behind. He is briskly walking while carrying a shovel. We don’t see his head, but only his profile from behind, up to about chest level. He is wearing all black (The Weeknd’s signature sartorial style at this point in his career). His body is sikhouetted against the sunset. We finally get the first cut at about 0:33. The subsequent shots still don’t show us the man’s face or head, but we see him shoveling dirt from a small mound and tossing it into a hole. Over several shots, our perspective is changed, until the camera is located inside the hole. A man is buried there, his body encased in plastic; presumably he has been suffocated. Finally we see that Abel himself is the corpse. He lip syncs the song from within the plastic bag, even as the dirt is being shoveled over him. Just as the song finally reaches its chorus, the screen fades to black for a moment, then we see the man thrusting the shovel into the dirt, a sign that he has finally filled in the grave. The camera finally pans up to show us Abel’s whole body, including his head and face; this finally confirms (though we probably guessed it already) that The Weeknd is both executioner and victim. He has murdered and buried himself. Abel dances and lip syncs through the chorus and into the second verse of the song. These shots are intercut with shots of Rick Wilber coming to meet him. First we see just Wilbur’s feet; then his whole body as he walks from right to left on the screen (which by the conventions of continuity editing suggest that he is walking toward Abel in the contrasting shots); then we have face-on shots of Wilbur walking towards the camera. Towards the end of the second verse, Abel pulls out a gun, aims, and fires. The song is interrupted as the sound of the gunshot reverberates for something like ten seconds. As we hear this, we have a sequence of quick blackouts alternating with slow-motion, out-of-focus shots showing Wilbur’s body twisting from the bullet’s impact and falling down. (These blurry shots are the first ones in which we see both Abel and Wilbur in the frame at once). Finally, the music resumes with the second chorus. It has gotten much darker; sunset is over and night is coming. As Abel stands over Wilbur’s body, the camera tracks backward, away from them into the distance. Abel shoots the body a second time; again the song is interrupted and the screen goes black as the gunshot reverberates for something like eight seconds (both times, the reverberations obviously last for much longer than they would in actuality).

At this point, the song Tell Your Friends is interrupted. We never get back to hear the remainder of the song. Instead, Real Life — another song from The Beauty Behind the Madness — plays for the remainder of the video. It is now fully nighttime. The song opens with a sequence of power chords, separated by pauses. For each chord, we get a shot of The Weeknd walking slowly in the dark, with quick blackouts accompanying the pauses. He is going to his car, which stands in the middle of the field in the darkness, lights on. As the singing begins, Abel approaches the car; he does not lip sync. After the first two lines of the song, as we get a cut to inside the car, with the camera in the passenger seat, the song plays more softly and and with less bass and reverb: it is as if we were hearing it over the car radio. Abel gets into the car and drives off; we can barely see anything in the dark outside the window. When the song reaches the chorus, the video cuts to a shot through the windshield of the road the car is driving down, illuminated only by the headlights. After about sixteen seconds of this shot, the screen goes to black, and the music is cut off in the middle of the chorus.

The video as a whole is bleak, and it obviously lends itself to symbolic interpretation. The Weeknd first kills off an earlier version of himself, and then kills the demonic figure who tempted him and who fired up (both literally and figuratively) his career. This is not, however, followed by any sort of dramatic rebirth, but only by The Weeknd driving off into the night — or perhaps into the void. But as with the previous videos, what really makes it resonate emotionally is the careful cinematography and editing, and the way this meshes with the music. The video gives us two songs, both of which are interrupted and incomplete; it is organized around two confrontations, the Weeknd facing off against himself and against the Rick Wilbur figure. The video both begins and ends with long takes of the camera, in which we do not directly see the singer. In between, the editing is more rapid, but the flow of both music and images in interrupted by the gunshots and their aftermath. The only time The Weeknd seems at ease — the only time we see him lip syncing the song and dancing — is at the middle of the video, in between the two confrontations.

The Weeknd, In the Night (BRTHR, 2016) and Party Monster (BRTHR, 2017)

Both of the songs here could be described, not as love songs exactly, but as lust songs. In both, The Weeknd sings about women with whom he is obsessed. In the Night is another song co-written by Max Martin, and going for more of a pop vibe than The Weeknd’s other work. It seems to be about a woman who was traumatized earlier in life by sexual abuse; she is sexually adventurous, but not emotionally available (which is also how The Weeknd tends to describe himself): “When you wake up, she’s always gone…” Party Monster involves a collaboration with Lana Del Rey, who co-wrote the song and sings in the background during the break. The song seems to be about a stripper; The Weeknd wants her, and perhaps gets her, even though he doesn’t know her name, and she is involved with someone else: “woke up by a girl, I don’t even know her name.”

In any case, both videos are directed by BRTHR (Alex Lee and Kyle Wightman) in their inimitable high-octane psychedelic style. (We watched Party Monster, together with BRTHR’s videos for Selena Gomez and for Travis Scott, early in the semester). BRTHR’s editing style is dementedly fast. In both videos, we get a barrage of non-linear, metaphorical and associative images, plus flashbacks and flashforwards, as well as related ones that dissolve into one another. But this is not just a matter of rapid editing. The images themselves are heaviy computer-processed: they continually warp and morph and flash, or are overlaid upon one another, or have their colors altered, or are speeded up and slowed down. It becomes impossible to do something like count the number of shots and track continuity; rather, BRTHR seem to be inventing a new cinematic language, one whose post-processed flexibility cannot even be divided between cinematography (the capture of moving images) on the one hand, and editing (the arrangement of those images) on the other. Instead, we have a proliferation of flows and breaks, associations and dissociations, speedings up and slowings down, points of violent impact and involvement together with points of repose and detachment. The images have their own rhythms, and the effect of the video has a lot to do with how these visual rhythms interact with the sonic/musical ones: sometimes the relation is fairly straightforward, as cuts and dissolves match the beats, but other times it is much more complicated. (I have seen a number of recent videos by other directors, for other artists, that seek to do something like this; but most of them seem crude and unimaginative compared to BRTHR’s fluid density and flow).

In the Night has a lot of gangster-movie imagery, and suggests the bare bones of a narrative. The woman (played by the model Bella Hadid, who was in a relationship with Abel Tesfaye at the time) seems to be either a waitress or a stripper. She is held at gunpoint by a gangster who propositions her; but subsequently we see her and other women killing the gangsters, both with knives and by suffocation. Later, the lead gangster holds Abel at gunpoint and is about to kill him, but the woman shoots him first. Then Abel and Bella ride off in a motorcycle. Much of this plot is conveyed during interludes when the music drops out and is replaced by grating sound effects, ambient noises, and gunshots. There are three such sequences. The first one is right at the start of the video, a sort of pre-credit sequence in which we see gangster imagery, including a slow motion animation (much like “bullet time” in The Matrix) of a bullet fired from a gun, smashing through a plate of glass, and continuing through the air (this seems to be a flashforward of Hadid’s shooting the gangster towards the end). There is a second pause of the music in the middle of the video, when the gangster is kidnapping Bella. The third one comes as a sudden interruption when the gangster puts his gun to the back of Abel’s head. In between these sequences, as the music plays we see The Weeknd walking through nighttime city streets as he lipsyncs the song – first with neon lighting, and then also with an accompanying thunderstorm — we hear the thunder just as he moves to the first chorus. When the music ends, we see a number of additional shots over dissonant sound effects and final credits. These include one that I found so astonishing that I both freeze-framed it, and watched it over and over again (it lasts for about six seconds; there are two shots, one really close and one further away, and the second shot eventually dissolves): Bella seems to be drowned, underwater, yet on fire at the same time; she also seems to be floating upwards, even as rose petals (which float downwards, more as if they were falling in air than in water) fill the screen in between the camera and her.

The video for Party Monster gives us the song uninterrupted (after an opening sequence before the music begins), but if anything, its imagery is even more delirious. Abel drives through the desert in some shots, while in others he seems to be in some sex club. The video is awash with garishly oversaturated neon colors. The outlines of faces and bodies, as well as physical objects, become wavy and fluid. Light radiates out from Abel’s face and body. There are repeated apparations of flames and of Christian crosses. Eyes glisten with intensified light like in a horror movie; both Abel and a number of women find their faces melting like in another sort of horror movie. Many images are distorted with visual noise as if in old, analog video monitors. During the bridge, when The Weeknd (and Lana Del Rey in the background) sing the word “paranoid” over and over, a panther emerges three-dimensionally out of a TV screen and attacks The Weeknd – this image alludes to one of the freakier moments in David Cronenberg’s 1982 film Videodrome. The very next-to-last shot of the video stands out because it is the only shot in the entire video where the image is entirely clear, without distortions; it is a long shot of a car driving over a cliff and into the void – this image alludes to the ending of Ridley Scott’s 1991 film Thelma and Louise. The final shot, following this, is a closeup of The Weeknd, wearing sunglasses and looking at the camera (or perhaps, because of continuity editing rules that still retain their force even though they are not systematically used in this video, or indeed in most music videos,he is looking at what we just saw in the previous shot. The white of the desert sky is behind him, without distortion, but his face is still illuminated with a reddish-purplish glow.

The Weeknd, Call Out My Name (Grant Singer, 2018)

Call Out My Name, from The Weeknd’s My Dear Melancholy EP, is a slow and sad song, in 3/4 (or 6/8) time. It’s a break-up ballad, addressed to a former lover; only this time Abel is the one who was dumped, and feels let down and disappointed. (Online speculation is that the song refers to The Weeknd’s former relationship with Selena Gomez; see, for instance, here).

The video is directed by Grant Singer. There is a great ‘making-of video, where Singer discusses both The Weeknd’s performance and his use of special effects, here. The video starts straightforwardly, with The Weeknd alone on a deserted urban street, just as it’s getting dark. We see the streetlights turn on; everything is suffused in a dim darkish blue. Abel sings soulfully, first leaning against a lamppost and then walking down the center of the street. But when he gets to the chorus — “so call out my name” — suddenly a lot of bats get vomited out of his mouth. The CGI bats continue to swarm as Abel starts to dance, shuffling and kneeling as he continues to sing. A smooth cut with a match on action brings us to Abel still dancing, only now it is full nighttime, and the bats have vanished. There are a number of cuts and shots, and sometimes the image picks up lens flare from the streetlights (indicating, just as the bats did, the synthetic nature of the image).

The song, somewhat unusually, cuts from the chorus abruptly, while the melody and lyrics seem to be still unfinished (“I’ll be on my –“), to the second verse. Anticipating this switch, but a few seconds in advance of it, the video suddenly cuts to an entirely new location: an empty movie theater, dark except for the lit-up white screen. The Weeknd walks up some steps to the stage in front of the screen. When the second verse actually starts, we see him dancing in front of the screen — except that the camera starts turning vertiginously in a circle. Impossibly, every quarter rotation gives us another blank screen with Abel in front of it. Finally the camera stops rotating, and the screen behind Abel now has a black-and-white wilderness scene upon it. In a series of rapid cuts, the scene turns into color, Abel switches from dancing in front of the screen to actually being present in the landscape upon it, and we cut between Abel dancing in this landscape, and other shots of the landscape with wild animals posed in unusually positions as if frozen in mid-action (in the ‘making-of’ video, Singer references museum dioramas, and also talks about the special effect work that made it seem like one of the motionless animals blinked – a wonderfully creepy effect). We also get rapid flashback-like shots of Abel dancing both in the dark street, and in front of the blank white screen. There are also, even more weirdly, long distance tableau shots of Abel standing in the landscape, about in the middle of the screen, while towards the right side there is a nude woman, her skin very white, with a bird’s beak and birds’ talons instead of hands and feet (this is the horror film actress V Nixie). As the song moves towards the chorus again, the video cuts back and forth between images of Abel dancing on the nighttime street, Abel in front of the blank screen (with rotation), and tableaus of the wilderness area, with more frozen animals, fires, and the bird-woman. Something seems to gleam from her head, or from behind it.

The chorus once again seems to break just before it would have ended. There is no third verse, but an outro that consists mostly in instrumental reprise of the melody, with The Weeknd just singing “on my way” repeatedly in the background. Along with this, we get an entirely new visual sequence. Suddenly we seem to be in a futuristic, science-fictional spaceship. It is mostly white, with symmetrical rows of bumps all across the walls. In the center, at a far distance, there is an orange-rimmed circle. The camera spirals inwards towards the circle; due to the symmetry and rotation, and the general science fiction feel, I really cannot tell whether we are supposed to be moving horizontally, upwards, or downwards. We get close to the circle, and then enter inside it. There seems to be a rotating nebula inside the circle: it could be a spaceship nuclear furnace, though it also looks a bit like we are passing through an enormous eye. In any case, once we get through it, we break through clouds and see the scene beyond, which is an enormous apartment building, many stories high, with windows and balconies. We continue to zoom towards the building. Many of the balconies are festooned with clothes hung out to dry. (In the ‘making-of’ video, Singer talks about how he used both these clothes, and seeming reflections in the windows, in order to make the building – actually a miniature model — seem realistic). We zoom closer and closer to a balcony on which the bird-woman is standing, staring back at us. But before we reach her, there is a cut to the theater, the screen once again blank, and The Weeknd no longer dancing, but standing in profile in front of it. The camera zooms out, reversing its movement vis-a-vis the bird-woman, and quickly — as the song abruptly ends — cuts to black and the final credits.

No, I don’t have any symbolic interpretation of what all these strange images ‘mean’. Singer says in the making-of video that he prefers to keep meanings open and ambiguous; and his ideas for surreal moments seem intuitive rather than programmatically driven. The song/video is certainly both emotionally powerful in its expression of loss and longing, and disquieting in its odd displacements.

The Weeknd, After Hours video sequence: Heartless, Blinding Lights, After Hours (short film), In Your Eyes, Until I Bleed Out — (Anton Tammi, 2019-2020)

These five videos, all in support of The Weeknd’s 2020 album After Hours, form a sequence. Though each of them was released individually, at a separate time, together they make up a 22-minute continuous video that tells a story, more or less. How this narrative is different from a more conventional cinematic narrative, because it makes use of the special affordances of the music video format, is part of what I will discuss. But it should be noted that, because they are conceived together, the videos do not always match the lyrics of the particular songs. Four of the five videos present individual songs from the album; but the one in the middle, After Hours, does not actually feature the song of that title (a song that also gave its name to the album as a whole); instead, it is described as a “short film”, and uses snippets from the album together with other sounds. The videos are all direected by the Finnish director Anton Tammi, who conceived the entire sequence along with The Weeknd. You can read an interview with Tammi about the making of the videos — though done before the 5th segment was released — here.

Heartless is yet another song about The Weeknd’s difficulties with relationships — he is “heartless,” and after trying to be faithful to a particular woman, he always goes back to his old ways. The song combines a ballad melody with heavy beats. The video shows Abel in Las Vegas, together with Metro Boomin (the co-author and producer of the track). Abel is wearing a loud red suit jacket (as he does throughout all the videos in the sequence). The video emphasizes the garish lights of Las Vegas as the world’s entertainment Mecca. Abel is continually drinking, smoking, gambling, making out, and just smiling in bemused and stoned astonishment at the bright lights and overall ridiculous ornateness of the Las Vegas hotels. Often these shots are in slow motion; they also frequently use odd angles, or rotate upside down, so that we can see the ceiling lights and their reflection in Abel’s glasses. Sometimes the lights are in clear focus, other times they just provide a blurry background for Abel’s stupefaction.

A bit more than halfway through the video, we see closeups of Abel holding a toad in his hand, staring at it, and then slowly and lusciously licking it. This is a reference to the way that certain toads secrete psychoactive (LSD-like) substances on their skin. (As far as I know, this is only the case for certain species in the Amazon; you won’t actually get high from licking the skin of the sorts of toads you find in the USA). From this point on, the video becomes even more unhinged, presumably reflecting the mental state of Abel tripping. Abstract CGI hallucination patterns alternate with shots of Abel looking confused. He even hallicinates toad-like warts blossoming on his hands. For the last minute of the video, we see Abel running down a Las Vegas street, trying to outdistance a non-existent enemy, and then finally puking. (The puking can be a side-effect of many psychedelics, but here it also expresses the way Abel has paranoically reached the end of his tether). The last shot, after the music ends, shows him smiling, in extreme closeup, as his face morphs with wavy distortions; however horrible the experience, Abel still revels in it.

This video is evidently channeling Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — both the 1971 book by Hunter S. Thompson, and Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film adaptation. Both book and film link the over-the-top garishness of Las Vegas with psychedelic drug distortions, implying that the latter is more a recapitulation and intensification of the former than some sort of counter-cultural rebellion against it. Las Vegas and LSD alike are grotesque expressions of the American Dream. The movie uses special effects to reproduce the bizarre hallucinations recounted in Thompson’s prose, and the video follows along with this line of expression. The Weeknd may be Canadian, but his heartless pursuit of excess, and the simultaneous self-loathing and self-congratulation with which he presents it to us, are American to the core.

Blinding Lights is a much more uptempo and dance-oriented track than Heartless, with lyrics expressing sexual yearning (“I can’t sleep until I feel your touch”). The video more or less picks up where the one for Heartless ended, although with a somewhat scrambled timeline. It opens with a 17-second extreme closeup of Abel’s bloodied face; he is smiling broadly despite being obviously messed up. We hear a swelling dissonant roar that eventually turns into the sound of helicopters overhead. Then, blackout and silence. A title card reading THE WEEKND. Then we are back to where Heartless ended, with Abel on a Las Vegas street. (His face is unbloodied, so we can presume the video’s opening shot was a flashforward). Street noise gives way to the opening music of the song. Abel staggers down the street, lunges at a pigeon, then stops and puts on black gloves. As the song’s beat kicks in, he walks to a parked Mercedes Benz convertible, gets in, and starts driving. The song title, BLINDING LIGHTS appears over the image. (Prior to video release, the song was actually used in a Mercedes Benz TV commercial. Even for big stars like The Weeknd, music videos rely on product placement and cross-licensing for part of their funding. The commercial is slick and snappy, and was evidently shot at the same time, but of course it omits the disturbing stuff from the video). In the first half of the video, there are lots of shots of Abel driving, fast and dangerously, around Las Vegas. There are closeups of the speedometer, of Abel screaming as he accelerates, of Abel lighting a cigarette, of the buildings and lights being passed by in a blur. These shots are gradually interspersed with others, with the time sequence somewhat scrambled: Abel in an empty hotel banquet room, Abel dancing ecstatically in the street with his face bloodied, and so on. Gradually, as we reach the chorus, there are more of the dancing shots and less of the driving shots.

Another image that starts intruding at this point is one of an Asian woman (played by the Japanese actress/model Miki Hamano), in a sparkling evening gown, singing (or about to sing) into a microphone. During the second verse of the song, we see a shot and reverse shot of them looking at one another; and then, in a series of wider shots, the woman points at Abel; and then, as she raises her arm, he magically rises several inches off the ground, and towards her. There are several more shots of them together, including a two-shot of their faces as they stare at one another in close proximity; but they don’t kiss, rather Abel’s cigarette, still in his mouth, creates a gap between them. The second chorus kicks in, and immediately the video cuts back to shots of Abel driving. For a moment or two, the song slows down and gets distorted as we get psychedelic shots of the road and city through the windshield, and of Abel sticking out his tongue (recalling the toad episode in the previous video). There’s a bit of car-engine noise, and then the song returns to its usual pitch and tempo.

The music is at its most upbeat and energetic, with the chorus, the bridge, and then another chorus, as we get an accelerated montage: shots get shorter, the camera becomes unstable, as we switch between shots of Abel’s increasingly erratic driving, shots of footsteps walking along a hotel corridor, and then a sequence of two big guys (gangsters? hotel security men?) beating up Abel. Everything in the hotel has a reddish tinge. There’s a closeup of Abel’s bloody face; during an instrumental reprise of the chorus, we see shots of Abel running out of the hotel and into the street, intercut with a few extremely rapid shots (driving, etc.) from earlier in the video. Abel dances down the street, followed by a shaky and unsteady camera. Reds alternate with greens.

Finally the camera holds still,as vocals return for the last time (another reprise of the chorus, but this could be called the outro). Abel is in the middle of the road, in a tunnel, dancing ecstatically, a smile on his bloodied face – at this point, the visual reference would seem to be Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker. The last line is, once again, “I can’t sleep until I feel your touch.” For the last word — “touch” — we see a quick insert of the Asian woman singing it into a microphone. Then, as the music fades out, the video ends with two relatively long-held shots of The Weeknd, face bloodied, but smiling triumphantly and dancing, standing on an overpass in the night, while out-of-focus traffic passes on the road beneath him.

The video is noteworthy for the way it shows us a number of narrative events, whose order we can discern (Abel driving; the Asian singer in the casino; Abel being beaten up in the casino; Abel running out of the casino and dancing in the street), and yet presents the sequence nonlinearly, with lots of shots that, in a traditional film, would have to be called flashbacks and (more unusually) flashforwards, and with editing patterns that are established rhythmically rather than in accordance with narrative logic. There is also no linking causal chain to explain the events: we are not told, for instance, why Abel gets beaten up. The video is a masterpiece of what I have elsewhere called post-continuity; with the proviso that music videos offer a far wider scope for such scrambled editing than narrative movies do — even when, as in this case, the video (and more broadly, the whole sequence of five videos) is in fact conveying a sort of narrative.

The After Hours short film continues the storyline without being keyed to a particular song. The Weeknd is still wearing that loud red suit; his face is still bloodied, and he wears a bandage over his nose. (Side note: a bandage over the nose can be incredibly disturbing in the movies, because the sight -or site – of the face is our main point of connection with the actors in a movie, and with the characters they portray. The bandage is a disfigurement which interferes with this process of emotional connection. The best example I know for this is Chinatown, in which Jack Nicholson wears an ugly bandage over his face for nearly half the movie). The video starts with an atonal roar, and darkness. But the roar resolves into applause, and the camera zooms out, revealing that we have been looking into the dark pupil of Abel’s eye. The Weeknd has just completed his performance on a nighttime talk show (Jimmy Kimmel – an actual live performance of Blinding Lights, for which The Weeknd appeared with red jacket, nose bandage, and spots of blood on his face).

In a single long-duration shot (nearly 50 seconds), we follow Abel backstage and through a number of corridors, until (with finally another cut) he steps through a door and out into nighttime Los Angeles. The applause has long since faded into a menacing atonal roar. We get closeups of Abel’s bloody face as he touches his bandage, then distant shots of him walking down the street as the title (AFTER HOURS) finally appears. The soundtrack mixes the noisy roar with melodic fragments from the album. Abel keeps looking behind himself anxiously as he descends an escalator into the subway. We get a long-held closeup of his face, then shots of him (both at normal speed, and then close and in slow motion) of him walking through the subway station. The soundtrack remains dissonant and vaguely ominous. A train is pulling into the station. Abel looks nervous and worried; at one point he yawns. At another point, he puts on his glasses and stares upwards, as he did during the psychedelic portion of Heartless. We get quick cuts, strobing lights, an abstract morphing pattern again like that from Heartless, and suddenly Abel is on the floor, being pulled all the way down the platform by an invisible force. This is a sort of scene familiar from any number of horror movies. The music gets more dramatic, the editing more frantic, with quick cuts between shots of Abel’s body being pulled while he tries to fight off the invisible force and then finally stumbling to his feet, closeups of his mouth opened in a scream, closeup of slats on the wall passing by quickly, with the camera sometimes rotating for added disorientation. Suddenly the music quiets down a bit and becomes ambient instead of overdramatic. We see a young man and woman coming up an escalator from the subway, arguing. An elevator door opens; Abel is standing motionless in the elevator. The couple, oblivious, get in. The elevator door closes. The camera stays still, as a red light begins to strobe ever more violently, until it is just an abstract pattern, while heavy dissonance on the soundtrack increasingly blends with the sounds of a struggle and of screaming. Then the screen cuts to black, and we hear low bass sounds…

The fourth video, In Your Eyes, picks up exactly where After Hours left off. The song itself is co-authored by Max Martin (and therefore relatively upbeat and dance-friendly, with its disco-ish beat, even though the lyrics are somewhat melancholy). We see the elevator doors open, and the arguing young couple enter; Abel is just standing there, as before. Then we get a shot from a different angle -from the mirror in the corner of the elevator, we see the couple from behind, and Abel between them holding a huge knife. Then more shots from outside the elevator; as the doors close, we see the knife in Abel’s left hand, and he begins to raise it up. Dissonant noise, and then a cut from the elevator door to a nighttime Los Angeles street. The young woman (Zaina Miuccia) enters the frame, blood on her face and clothes, and runs down the street. From here on, the visuals reference 1980s slasher films. We see shots of Miucca desperately running away, often stopping to look anxiously back, intercut with shots of The Weeknd — who, in contrast, is either standing still, or walking implacably after her. There are also closeups of the enormous knife. There’s a lot of play with the lighting. At one point, Miuccia is running down a street filled with steam. At another point, a bluish tinge while Miucca is trying to make a call on a pay phone, is contrasted with reds and strobing lights associated with The Weeknd. At the start of the chorus (“In your eyes/ I see there’s something burning inside you”) we get quick shots of both Miuccia’s and Abel’s eyes. We also get a short sequence (at approximately 1:19-1:25) of Miucca dancing in a club: this latter sequence is definitely out of time order (since it is only later in the video that she gets to the club; and in this shot, in any case, she doesn’t have blood on her clothes). This is a good example of how music videos, unlike regular narrative film, can violate causality and temporal sequence, even if they are also telling a story.

We return to more chase sequences, and more shots involving reddish, strobing lights. At about 2:08, Miuccia finally runs into the club that we previously saw earlier. There are green lines of laser light running across the room, but the dance floor overall is tinted with red light; this segment of the video plays powerfully with red/green contrasts. Miuccia, on the dance floor, looks back at Abel standing in ominous stillness; we get a series of shots and reverse shots of them looking at one another, the camera pulling closer into their faces each time. (It is noteworthy that these shots use the structure of eyeline matches in continuity editing, even though it is unclear whether the respective characters are actually being shot in the same physical space). When we get just to the verge of the second chorus (“in your eyes”) we have a succession of extremely quick shots; I cannot identify all of them, but they include a closeup of the knife, a closeup of one of Miuccia’s eyes, a closeup of Miuccia’s hands filled with blood, an abstract shot of what seems to be blood, and a closeup of the lower half of Miuccia’s face with her starting to scream. This is almost like an Eisensteinian montage (but I cannot imagine Eisenstein with the disco beat of this song).

As the song continues, we have additional shot-reverse shot setups with Miuccia among the dancers looking around, matched with Abel standing absolutely still, staring ahead of himself, with a background that is oddly decontextualized (it is unclear if he is also in the club, of if the editing here is simply rhythmic rather than naturalistic). In any case, after this we see shots of Miuccia looking around, then running through the club floor and into a corridor, and grabbing a do-not-break-except-in-case-of-fire glass cabinet in order to grab an axe. Just as the song is approaching the bridge, it slows down, gets deeper in tone, and then stops (like what might happen with an analog tape recorder). There are 45 seconds of Miuccia and The Weeknd stalking each other, with reddish-tinged light, while ominous dissonant noises and a vague musical tinkling play on the soundtrack. Finally the music resumes; we are back to the bridge. Miuccia keeps looking around herself while holding the axe. She sees Abel and screams; a quick cut, and the camera zooms into Abel’s face as he stands there; another quick cut, she is still screaming, and she decapitates him with the axe just as the music picks up for the final segment of the song, the post-chorus. The lighting is still all red. In another quick shot, blood spurts onto the wall. Miuccia picks up the head and stares at it, and we get another shot/reverse shot sequence of them (Miuccia and Abel’s head) looking at one another in extreme closeup.

All of this is still clearly referencing 1980s slasher films. A long stalking sequence is typical in such films; as is the plot resolution, when (everyone else having failed and been killed), the one remaining young woman (often called the “final girl”) finally succeeds in killing the male slasher. As film theorists from Carol Clover (who invented the phrase “final girl”) onward have shown, slasher films operate by playing with gender identification; the slasher’s murders actualize the structure of the dominating male gaze, while the slasher’s victims, both male and female, are “feminized” as passive objects of this gaze (and of the knife as its extension). But in the final moments of these films, our sympathies shift to the final girl, who becomes active instead of passive as she takes matters into her own hands and successfully fights back. The video knowingly references this dynamic, not only by parodically (though lovingly) recapitulating the gestures of such older films, but also in the way it shifts our attention from The Weeknd (who has been the center of attention throughout the whole sequence, as is typical for music videos) to Miuccia’s character.

This is perhaps why, even though we have gotten almost to the end of the song, the video continues for another minute and a half, through the post-chorus and an extended instrumental outro. However, this extended final sequence also brings us onto new and different emotional ground: we feel things that we would not feel from an actual slasher film, nor from hearing the song without seeing the video. We see multiple shots of Miuccia dancing with The Weeknd’s head. At first she still looks in shock; but as these shots go on, she becomes increasingly jubilant. Sometimes we see her dancing with the head alone, in the corridor where she killed him; sometimes we see her in the club, amidst all the other dancers – it is so late that it has now become daytime, and light is streaming through the windows; and then outside, dancing with the head and waving it around against a background of palm trees and the orange sunrise. There are some shots interspersed, just for variety, where she is dancing just by herself, or where she is waving around the axe instead of the head. But we keep on returning to shots where she holds the head tenderly as she dances, and stares into its dead eyes; or where she nuzzles it and almost kisses it; or where she holds it up like a trophy (as in traditional depictions, in Renaissance and Baroque art, of Judith holding the head of Holofernes). It is hard for me to describe the emotions I feel watching (and re-watching) this video, and especially this final stretch of it. If we were to take the plotline literally, we would have to say that Miuccia’s character has gone insane. But there is something wonderfully exhilarating about the sequence: it is moving and uplifting not in spite of, but precisely because of, the cognitive dissonance involved. This also involves the way I hear the song: there is all that push and pull between how the music implores you to dance, even though the lyrics express pain and vulnerability. There is no way that I would have imagined a slasher scenario just from hearing the song; but it seems to fit, it works, because of how we are drawn from feelings of disconnection (a relationship gone bad) to — something else.

Until I Bleed Out is the final video in the sequence (at least for now — it is also the final song on the album). It works as a kind of coda (since The Weeknd’s character was killed in the preceding video, we can see this one as sort of an afterlife; or, given the title, as a prolongation of the actual moment of death). The music is slow and sad, with only a weak beat — this is not dance music, but rather something like falling-into-a-stupor music. The video’s location is a party in some sort of swanky mansion. There’s a rotating platform, and the air is filled with confetti and balloons. Abel looks completely out of it; he stumbles around in a daze, and falls down several times. There are many shots of things rotating around in a blur. Some of the other partygoers seem to be pushing Abel around, for no discernible reason. Towards the end of the video, shots in the mansion are intercut with shots in which Abel seems to be stumbling around in a desolate outdoor area, at night, electrically lit in the distance. He falls down again, and the camera circles around him from above. There are more shots of the party, and of blurry rotations; then the video ends with a medium closeup of Abel, the background seeming to rotate behind him, and a cut to a brief shot of what looks like film disintegrating. The journey is over.