Pretty Pain: The Weeknd’s “Starboy”

by Lily Lyons

At the beginning of his video for his single “Starboy,” the Weeknd is murdered by a version of himself. He is forced to suffocate under a plastic bag, the camera lingering impersonally on his tied, twitching hands. After killing himself, he moves through the dark in cold close-ups: we are allowed to see his black gloves and his sports car but we rarely get to look into his eyes. It’s hard to tell whether the murder is meant to be senseless, or whether it represents The Weeknd’s attempt to leave his past self behind him. Either way, it is clear that he feels restless, uncomfortable in the spotlight. He may be singing about sidechicks and fast cars, but “Starboy,” is largely a music video—and a record—about loathing and loving fame at once. The Weeknd seems to want to glory in debauchery and glamour without sacrificing his mysteriousness or letting the listener in on his emotions.

“Party Monster,” the second track on the album, deals powerfully with this contradiction. The lyrics paint a decadent, drug-addled haze of one-night stands. But anxiety creeps in like a bad trip, with the Weeknd declaring that he has to “check the safe, the dresser for my chains,” for fear that the nameless women he’s sleeping with will rob him. The track unwinds into uncertainty as Lana Del Rey coos the word “paranoid,” as if she is The Weeknd’s subconscious. His talk of having a lush life begins to feel more haunted and less confident.

Though “Starboy,” features a number of star-studded guest collaborators, Del Rey’s contributions feel the most incandescent. She is the ultimate sad girl where the Weeknd is the ultimate sad boy, entering his opulent world of self-destruction with a soft assertiveness. Both artists deal in violent, NSFW images: in “Stargirl Interlude,” Del Rey sighs about sex that has her nails scratching the countertop in her kitchen. Her melodies sound like strange throwback pop, hiding lyrics that are visceral and unsettling.

Like Del Rey, the Weekend flirts with pop but doesn’t quite commit to it. In the skittering, candy-sweet “Rockin’” that he cowrote with Max Martins’ crew, it seems he has accepted his status as a top 40 artist. But his influences are too freewheeling to stay within the boundaries of what’s hot on the charts. “A Lonely Night,” feels like a modernized cross between the Bee Gees and Michael Jackson. And there’s a bit of punk rock viciousness in the hook of “False Alarm.” The Weeknd also hasn’t lost his taste for the rambling, loosely structured slow jams that characterized his early releases: “All I Know,” unfolds in a contemplative fashion, with Future jumping in to rap a verse just when it seems like the song is fading away. These detours into anti-pop seem like another symptom of The Weeknd’s love-hate relationship with stardom.

There’s only one song on the record, “Die For You,” that feels legitimately vulnerable. Instead of giving the listener blurry images that suggest discontent, the Weeknd speaks directly about his insecurity: “it’s hard for me to communicate the thoughts that I hold.” His fear of love and the worry about losing privacy to fame are finally laid bare. But when the four minutes and thirty seconds of the song are up he retreats back into his mysterious persona. He seems to know that part of his power as an artist is found in remaining unknown. He’ll give us a taste of who Abel Tesfaye is every once in a while, but he’ll kill himself before we get too close.