Narcissism Behind the Beauty The Weeknd’s imaginary self and the falsity of sex in pop

There’s the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction and now the work of art in the age of digital reproduction, but what about sex in the age of digital reproduction?

Well, if Abel Tesfaye’s sophomore album as The Weeknd is any guide to how the Era of the Selfie has transformed romance and sexuality, we can safely say that it hasn’t been for the better. Beauty Behind the Madness is a diorama of histrionic seductions, empty one-night stands, and amorous boasts, and even if it illuminates the beauty behind the madness, it also exposes the narcissism behind the beauty. Its hedonistic pop and “iR&B” witness a Tesfaye who, even when he’s declaring his affections for some paramour or his determination to please her, is really only ever talking about himself and his own alleged virtues as a lover. As a result, its fulsome serenades are as shallow as the self they reflect, with the two ultimately merging into a hall of mirrors that infinitely regresses away from the substance they promise to deliver.

Not that Beauty Behind the Madness is especially promising when it comes to that first listen. Decked out in syrupy electronics, treacly beats, and EMOTIVE synths, its brand of “indie” [sic] R&B is capped off in its tastelessness by a vocal presence that mixes the Peter Pan innocence of Michael Jackson with the Red Foxx vulgarity of Prince. On paper, this is a potentially interesting and provocative combination of influences, seeing as how putting dirty words into a childlike mouth could be read as some kind of comment on today’s premature sexualization of youth. However, songs like opener “Real Life” show no hint of a concern for how capitalism has worked wonders in creating a pre-teen market for sex. Instead, its compressed guitars and stadium-sized drum-claps aggrandize a Tesfaye who makes excuses for his own decadence and unwillingness to reform it, who declaims, “Tell ‘em this boy wasn’t meant for lovin’/ Tell ‘em this heart doesn’t stay to one,” as if his amoral debauchery were a matter of unavoidable metaphysical necessity.

And it only gets worse from there. During the smooth, retrofied soul of “Tell Your Friends,” he boasts, “I do shit how I want, don’t need no blessing” over the song’s lingering piano chords, only to spend the rapidity of the staccato chorus asking you to “Go tell your friends about it,” possibly so that the subsequent recognition would provide him with your blessing for doing “shit” how he wants.

In case you’re wondering, this “shit” is unpacked a few lines later, equated with “Singing ‘bout popping pills, fucking bitches, living life so trill.” This account is crass enough as it is, but it’s lathered over lecherous piano and 1980s soloing with such lewd self-satisfaction that only the most inveterate of egomaniacs could stop their eyebrows from peaking toward the ceiling. Moreover, it’s this unsavory veneer of smugness that infiltrates Tesfaye’s musings on relationships when they’re first introduced more overtly on the big-bass’d trap of “Often.” Here, he recounts a tryst with one of the many “bitches” who are “infatuated by the fame status,” peppering his already delightful anecdotes with falsetto proclamations of how he “can make that pussy rain often.”

Forgetting its obnoxiousness, it’s this latter brag that’s key to his entire conception of all human interaction as well as sex, both of which he’s interested in only for as long as it provides him with a suitably idealized reflection of his own gigantic ego.

This is exactly why it’s justified to regard Beauty Behind the Madness as an almost paradigmatic reflection of sex in the age of digital reproduction. When manifested in social media, one-sided blogs and iPhones, this age facilitates and amplifies all of the worst tendencies toward selfishness inherent in human beings. It removes all of the external checks and balances that once prevented them from completing self-centered feedback loops, that is, closed circles in which they’re surrounded only by infinitely multiplying validations of their own imperfect selves and through which the ground is prepared not for the sexualization of youth as hinted above, but for the infantilization of adult sex.

It’s nothing less than this kind of feedback loop that Tesfaye curates for himself on the album, emoting himself through sentimental-cum-sleazy tracks like the churning, undulating “Acquainted,” a song whose subject matter is ventured only because it always ends up referring the audience back to him and his prowess. Over its pulsing lurches, he reveals that he’s “used to bitches comin’ right ‘way,” but that there was this one woman who initially caused him a spot of bother, who was “no good.” However, rather than using such a predicament to reassess his destructive ways and contemplate why “they warned me ‘bout your type girl,” his interest in this episodes resides only in the reminder it furnishes him of his eventual conquest, with the slowly-thrusting chorus having him sing triumphantly, “I get you touchin’ on your body.” Not only that, but the subdued, ostensibly reflective coda betrays the non-existent depth of Tesfaye’s meditations when he sighs, “I got ‘em thinkin’ that they want me” and “I got ‘em wanting to embrace their sins.”

[If] Abel Tesfaye’s sophomore album as The Weeknd is any guide to how the Era of the Selfie has transformed romance and sexuality, we can safely say that it hasn’t been for the better.

And it’s this repeated emphasis on the all-important I, this reduction of all things to the glory of the self, that extends into every recess of Beauty Behind the Madness. Even with the seemingly humbled acoustic guitar of “Shameless,” Tesfaye broaches the topic of relationships only because it affords him yet another opportunity to bask in his own greatness. Over feathered strummings and whispered strings, he asks yet another long-lost mistress, “Who’s gonna fuck you like me?” Obviously, in his world, no other actual, living, breathing human being exists who might respond to his questions and possibly contradict what they imply, so instead of an intelligent response, the listener is treated to yet more instances of self-congratulation, including “you’re begging me to come over” and “I’ll always be there for you.”

And if this masturbatory gloating weren’t already to the gleeful satisfaction of today’s ego-bubble Onan, the self-loving wankery is musically reinforced by a fret-tapping solo that would make Eddie Van Halen proud.

Eventually, all of this autoeroticism contributes to the unshakeable impression that Tesfaye inhabits a completely illusory realm. In focusing almost exclusively on his victories, pleasures, and vices, songs like the plush “Earned It” strip his world of everything that would make it recognizable to saner human beings, of everything that imbues it and its inhabitants with complexity, richness, beauty, ugliness, depth, breadth, and height. In their place he stands amidst a shallow pool of his own self-absorption, a pool that’s so “deeply” shallow that, even when he’s praising his one-dimensional girl for being “always worth it” and for having “earned it,” it’s incredibly difficult to shake the feeling that what she’s earned is simply his vow to “care for [her],” that all his tributes are merely backhanded compliments intended for himself.

Consequently, an all-but imaginary universe is engendered where he and his peerless self can do no wrong, a daydream further magnified in its delusional qualities by Tesfaye’s recurring tendency to ape Michael Jackson in such numbers as “In The Night.” Within this homage’s supremely mimetic confines, even the emphases and mannerisms of the high-pitched voice he layers over the beating electro would make him indistinguishable from the King of Pop in a blind taste-test, so much so that this “him” ceases to exist in any substantial or distinctive sense. Indeed, the self it designates becomes little more than a hodge-podged fantasy, a composite of whatever features and characteristics Tesfaye would like to mobilize in order to claim recognition for himself.

Given this entirely constructed and contrived self that refers to barely nothing beyond wish-fulfillment, it also becomes perfectly clear as to why Tesfaye began Beauty Behind the Madness reaffirming his deep aversion to committed relationships. Returning to the pro-tooled guitars and thumping percussion of opener “Real Life,” we once again hear such lyrics as “‘Cause every woman that loved me, oh yeah/ I seemed to push them away,” while during the verses of the jazz’d-up “Losers,” Tesfaye and guest Labrinth remind us of the idiocy of faithfulness when they gently sing, “Because stupid’s next to ‘I love you.’” Yet subsequent pieces and their deranged self-adoration retroactively teach us that Tesfaye is repulsed by the idea of immersing himself in another human being, simply because it would burst the bubble of his dreamworld, not because of an insatiable libido or an inability to be sexually gratified by a single woman.

Put differently, actual contact and communication with a flesh-and-blood partner would run the risk of falsifying his comforting pretensions and exposing them as the charades they fundamentally are, so rather than confront this risk, he withdraws into cocoons like the slow-burning “As You Are.” Buried in its misted synths and twinkled arpeggios, he excites himself with the prospect of being able to “sex all night,” but when the specter of his own flaws and the need to reform them are raised, he simply pleads with yet another romanticized female, “Baby, won’t you take me as I am,” invoking against reason a ludicrous future in which he’ll always be able to continue down the path of self-indulgence and complacency.

In his defense, Tesfaye isn’t the only person on the planet who yearns to remain blind to everything beyond the borders of his or her own mythical identity (take, for example, Lana Del Rey, who appropriately pops in for a shared admission of hollowness during the grandiose electronics of “Prisoner”). It’s because of this that Beauty Behind the Madness avoids being a completely vacuous exercise in marginally revamped 1980s soul and R&B, its overarching (if inadvertent) significance possessing as it does a generality lacked by other plagiaristic riffs on these tried-and-true genres.

More narrowly, it also does feature some bona fide great pop, such as the floor-filling “Can’t Feel My Face,” whose skeletal disco manages to enslave the listener to its 4/4 rhythm despite (or because of) its obvious debts to Michael Jackson. Even the video for this album highlight has courted controversy as an alleged rip-off, an accusation that is mightily apt seeing as how Tesfaye has a knack for hiding his original self in whatever forgeries and fabrications might have some currency in this superficial and tacky age of digital reproduction.

And it’s precisely this knack that makes Beauty Behind the Madness such a fitting encapsulation of our increasingly vain, individualistic, and fictitious world (even if its variable mix of styles are a bit hit-and-miss and have been done before to greater effect). It represents how we’re increasingly drowning in our own bogus selves and how, even when we think we’re poking our heads above the phony water to gaze upon something as vivid as other people and the relationships we have with them, all we’re doing is finding a new mirror in which to fawn over the only person we’ll ever truly love. And for The Weeknd, at least, this person is the stuff of make believe.

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