I remember, five years ago, sitting silently in the back of a rental car driving through a hot, tiny town on the south-west coast of Turkey. I couldn't tell you anything about the view, what it smelt like, or even where we were going. But I remember the prickling sensation of the sun burning my arm through the window. I remember staring at everything in passing, taking in nothing, and allowing the total unfamiliarity of my surroundings to separate me from what, at the time, felt like a bleak reality. It was 2011, The Weeknd's House of Balloons had come out a few months earlier, and I was listening to it while daydreaming—blissfully, vividly—about cheating on my boyfriend of two years.
When you think about The Weeknd, the first thing you think about is sex. Even if you have extremely technical feelings about his contributions to the progression of modern R&B, you are also thinking about sex. The Weeknd has cultivated a specifically dark strain of R&B that exhales sleaze like a strong perfume. His songs are seedy motel rooms dimly lit through a red cloth thrown over a single lampshade, a cigarette burning out in a glass ashtray and underwear strewn across the floor. They are stories of pleasure and pain, desire and regret. They are cloudy nights, cold mornings and walks of so-called shame. His is the music of knowing better, and doing it anyway.
The first lyric you hear on House of Balloons—"You don't know / What's in store / But you know what you're here for"—would come to summarize the remainder of my 2011, and my early 20s in general. I had a pattern (and probably still do) of emotional fasting and binging: allowing myself to feel trapped by someone, then cutting loose and making it my mission to show up for chaos. I ploughed through partners the way people tear through fast food after a bender at 3 AM. I sought out excessive drinking, drug-taking, and anybody who would enable or let me get on with all of the above without judgement. I gravitated towards The Weeknd because he was one of the few artists creating art from the same psychological space that drove the extremely dumb choices I was making—not just in the underground R&B world he occupied at the time, but across music, period. That lyric also introduced Abel Tesfaye to the world as the pop lothario we have come to know today. An artist who has cultivated his legacy by honing in on the negativity that can power attraction; the dark magic that turns a potentially dangerous situation into a good story. But how his stories are interpreted depends on who's reading them.
Conversation about The Weeknd usually revolves around the debate over whether his music is sexy or sexist, and it's pretty apparent why. His entire oeuvre is comprised of drug-fueled hook ups ("The only girls that we fuck with seem to have twenty different pills in 'em"), reveling in being a self-confessed douche with no intention of changing ("Just don't blame it on me that you wanna come and party with a nigga like me") and trying to get women "out the friend zone" (not a real place). In the story and video for "Pretty," Abel hunts down a former lover to murder her and the man she left him for. Considering he spends so much time talking about his own toxicity, it's telling that the character we're told should have known better is, more often than not, the woman.
Women appear in The Weeknd's songs less like actual people and more like cautionary tales. If not overtly framed as the victim, all the women in his world lack control. Any time someone steps into his bedroom it is with the implication that she's been lured there rather than going of her own volition. It makes total sense that he'd be on the soundtrack to 50 Shades of Grey—a sexual fantasy about a 21-year-old college graduate and her sadistic relationship with an older man that's framed as an expression of hidden desire but is actually about a young girl being objectified by an abusive sociopath. If someone like the person Abel Tesfaye may or may not be playing in his music approached me in real life, I would, if I have learned anything, throw tonic in his eyes and swiftly exit the club. He is precisely the kind of character fictional parents tell their fictional daughters to stay away from.
Whether Abel actually is that character is entirely speculative, but his appeal is built on the suggestion that he could be. He's someone who tells you all his faults up front as if to absolve himself of responsibility; someone who romanticizes self-destruction in both himself and others. The way his relationships with women are presented is perhaps best summarised by his creative relationship with Lana Del Rey: "She is the girl in my music, and I am the guy in her music," he told Pitchfork last year. She is his "Lonely Star"—a girl Abel only sees on Thursday's but gets everything of his for that one day a week; he is the absent figure Lana Del Rey is constantly pining for.
The sexy or sexist debate boils down to the fact that The Weeknd can be, and realistically is, both. But the thing that bothers me is the assumption that women don't or shouldn't like his music because it portrays women so miserably. There's never any discussion acknowledging that women might like The Weeknd's music because they can relate to him. In a Gawker essay titled "Do Not Fuck The Weeknd," Rich Juzwiak lays out a long argument advising "lost" women to stay away from him (in reality, in fantasy, on iTunes—it's not clear which) for two reasons: his voice isn't even that good, and he's just using them (no shit). Putting aside the irony of a man telling women who not to fuck for their own good, it's dumb to assume women automatically identify with women, and men with men. Blowjob references aside, the core sentiments of The Weeknd's music are ones that apply to anyone. "Echoes of Silence" is a told-you-so narrative of someone falling for him knowing he was only in it for one night, "Adaptation" is a kiss off to any meaning and identity he lost somewhere in the last however-many-partners, and "The Hills" is part celebration of sex without emotional baggage, part admission that he finds intimacy truly terrifying.
The Weeknd creates a nightmare world for people to play out their fantasies as the biggest piece of shit they can be—which, while not particularly commendable, certainly isn't confined to a particular gender. Part of the reason so many people—young women, especially—were drawn to Halsey, before she was even marketed as the generational voice she is now, is because she spoke candidly about being drawn to sex, drugs, and all the wrong people, while also taking responsibility for those things. Rather than erasing the obviously destructive or "morally bad" parts of relationships and only focusing on the binary realms of love and heartbreak, The Weeknd and Halsey (who actually toured together recently) both lurk somewhere in the middle. That much of their shared appeal is obvious: we like hearing about people making a mess of their lives, because it makes us feel better about our own. The other side of that appeal is danger. Their emotional spectrum is broad, but neatly summarized by the elevator scene in Drive, wherein Ryan Gosling expertly plants a snog on Michelle Williams before beating the living shit out of someone.
It goes without saying that seeing yourself in The Weeknd probably isn't good news for you as a person, but it's rare to find a songwriter who captures the turpitude and allure of fucking up so perfectly. Sure, it's glamorized and unhealthy—no stories of self-sabotage and drug addiction end happily, after all—but they are glimpses of occasional realities that a lot of people struggle with but are rarely talked about openly. If you consider them two halves of a fictional relationship, neither Lana Del Rey or The Weeknd's troubled roles are gender specific. Their highs and lows of longing and abject apathy are universal. If you break down the twin pillars of sex and drugs that hold their albums up, the common denominator is actually loneliness. The Weeknd is the archetypal saboteur who tries to fill a void with excess—late night, drugs, women—only to end up feeling more and more empty. If we're going to be crude about it, he's basically Bojack Horseman with a great voice.
Of course the only benefit, if there can be one, to being shitty is that at some point you learn to stop being shitty. You may hurt a bunch people including yourself in the process, but at least you have some life experiences that should allow you to grow as a human being. The Weeknd has been releasing music for a smooth five years now and seems to be coasting by pretty lucratively on his reputation as a sexual vampire, but I think it's a mistake to disregard him entirely on that basis. For me, his music is a place I go when I feel like the need to escape my current reality in favour of a darker one, or, when i need to justify—just for a moment—a decision that maybe wasn't the best. Nobody is all good. At least The Weeknd makes you feel less alone in your worst moments.
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(All photos are stills taken from The Weeknd videos)