**Content/Trigger Warning: Discussions and/or Visuals of drug use, necrophilia, self-harm, suicide, blood**
First and foremost, I have an interesting relationship with the Weeknd as an artist. He’s always been on the periphery of my radar but somehow melded into the tapestry of other ‘new’ artists. (I call a lot of musical performers this because a lot of them do not have the longevity or legacy of previous entertainers). The Weeknd, however, has been able to transform his appearance and sound into different eras and that always left me intrigued about the next step in his artistic expression.
With that said, I have to also confess that the Weeknd for a while was that one artist with the cool locs, right? I honestly loved that hairstyle and thought it certainly made him stand out amongst a sea of sameness. Regarding music, presentation, and overall vision for 2020…I have to give The Weeknd his accolades because the album After Hours as a concept coupled with its execution as a series of introspective visual showcases was simply masterful.
2020 going into 2021 was The Weeknd’s moment! Each bruised, bloody, bandaged, and botoxed appearance he made in public kept the Internet buzzing and clamoring for more. If you haven’t seen the cinematic journey that is the After Hours music video-verse then I shall gladly take you on a trip through something beautiful (and horrifying).
Your first question is probably, what’s up with that red suit? Well, The Weeknd beyond music creation, is also a huge cinema and pop culture nerd who was inspired by the iconic red suit jacket worn by Robert De Niro in Casino (1995). The character he played, entitled Sam “Ace” Rothstein was based on the infamous kingpin of Las Vegas named Frank Rosenthal. It should be noted that this Vegas showman persona highly influenced the swagger and suave attitude of the character that The Weeknd embodies.
With expensive cars, command of the casinos, highlife in the nightlife, drug consumption, and ‘devil may care’ attitude The ‘red’ Weeknd (as I’ll address the persona) has careened into the territory of fact vs fiction…blurring the lines between reality and Wonderland. It should be noted that some of his own life experiences greatly influenced the songs, concepts, and visuals within the album. This musical saga showed that The Weeknd had a lot of personal and interpersonal demons to work out. Questions such as: Who am I? Why am I? Where am I going (artistically)? Who can I trust to share this journey with? Why do I feel so alone? How do I navigate toxic masculinity (in this industry and outside of it)? What do I have to live for if I’m constantly battling unhappiness and depression?
There are more existential questions that he poses throughout the album and I would highly recommend you watch each video (with the caveat being some having graphic content) to unpack what each song intertwined with the visuals means. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the first chapter.
One thing is abundantly clear from the beginning…the red-suited character that we’ll be following for the entirety of this foray into madness is an unreliable narrator. Muted sounds of the album’s musical themes play as the focus begins from the eye of a C3 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. The music gradually crescendos into a slow inversion of the camera wherein everything becomes upside down. The city, the highway, and most importantly The ‘red’ Weeknd. A motion blur effect makes everything visible zip by like stars. As the introduction comes to a close, there is a great sense of foreboding about the long night ahead.
The next segment shows this red-suited figure intoxicated with any number of substances. This immersion in the Vegas nightlife is masterfully done especially from the perspective of an individual that is experiencing everything in varying degrees of surreality. This seemingly glittery ‘high’-life isn’t to be glamorized either as the character themself even says I’m a “low life for life cause I’m heartless”. Their world has become empty…they feel nothing, they have no real friends, and they don’t have anyone to share this glamor with. It’s all a con and they’re self-destructing. To feel anything — if you could call forcing your neurons to fire via foreign substances ‘a feeling’ — they utilize drugs as their refuge inside of their desolate mansion. On offer today, is something new, toad venom. With a lick, their pupils elongate and they began to hallucinate. Medical research even states how dangerous consuming the substance can be if not in a controlled setting.
“It’s such a potent experience that, in most cases, doing it a party isn’t safe. It’s not a recreational drug. If people get dosed too high, they can ‘white out’ and dissociate from their mind and body.” — Alan K. Davis, Clinical Psychologist and Assistant Professor at the Psychedelic Research Unit at Johns Hopkins University
And wouldn’t you know it, paranoia and delusions begin to assault their senses and the video ends with them becoming nauseous and vomiting.
The next (and perhaps most famous song from the album) begins in medias res where The ‘red’ Weeknd is trying to walk around dazed and confused. Moreover, their face is shown to be dripping with blood as a smile or a grimace is plastered over their face. This image akin to The Man Who Laughs (1928) shows an unreadable expression that is torn between pain and happiness. Feeling flighty, carefree, and reckless they (presumably) steal a car and tear across the city in a gorgeous Mercedes. Seeing that the city doesn’t have the same appeal, they’re feeling the extremes of a flagging exuberance and an increased melancholy. Dancing in the highway and busy thoroughfares doesn’t seem like a person who’s quite tethered to reality or existing really and the throughline of suicidal ideation is certainly a possibility.
Somehow finding themself inside of a nightclub/lounge environment they are enthralled by a woman singing on stage. His feet leave the floor and he floats into her orbit in front of the microphone. This unbridled joy is dashed as soon as the bouncers drag him off the stage and away from the woman that he was doing who knows what with. *…Remember, he’s an unreliable narrator…* After they pummel him for his trouble, they throw him out onto the street and we end where the video began with a bloodied visage. Stumbling across the city, with the freeway in the background, it looks like the character may jump, slip off the edge, or do something equally dangerous. The off-kilter dutch angles certainly allude to it.
The show must go on as The ‘red’ Weeknd receives thunderous applause after a supposedly good performance. Again, this isn’t entirely clear, because we’ve seen the distorted lens that the character is sometimes inhabiting. With a handshake for a job well done, he leaves the stage smiling with a doctored face. The cuts and bruises still remain from the previous or same night — the only addition being a piece of tape across the bridge of the nose. If you also haven’t noticed already, the parallels to Joker (2019) are almost leaping off the screen. The Weeknd actually referenced the iconography of the Joker character in one of his past Halloween costumes.
The disjointed memories, wish to be someone and somewhere else, and an iconic red suit seal the visual deal. The smile that was so easily plastered for the cameras gradually slips into sorrow and pain as the character roams the hauntingly quiet streets. There’s nothing to be emotionally invested in after the lights have gone down. Later, he hastily puts on a pair of gloves, that not only look cool but are significant because they leave no traces of the person behind. Entering the subway, the underground seems like a perfect place to flee from their problems. The beautifully dissonant sounds of the next video’s saxophone melody follow them along the way. Having a seemingly psychotic break, they howl into the corridors of the subway. This pitiable careening into a waking nightmare is upended as he’s physically upended and dragged down the platform, against the tiles and all. Out of mind and bodily control, he’s headed to a destination most frightening as the music softens and the head of a gorgeous Black ‘blonde’ bombshell enters from the perspective of a voyeur of the escalator.
She’s with someone enjoying the city. Unbeknownst to them, they are in extreme danger as they enter an elevator with The ‘red’ Weekend standing ominously behind them. The sounds of slashes and screams pour out after the doors close and the screen gradually flashes to increasing shades of red.
**Warning! For light-sensitive, epileptic viewers, there are flickering lights at the end of the music video.
In Your Eyes.
The dissociative state of the main character has led to another frightening identity — one of a serial predator. As the classic horror staple of a pupil POV shot zooms out, we see danger from the perspective of the Black woman who is now running for her life after witnessing the horrific murder of her friend.
As the beautiful synth sounds meld with the saxophone hook, it drives the frenetic pace of the action. She’s searching frantically for help from the red presence stalking her. With real-life bleeding into the video’s storyline, she must face this metaphorical monster alone. Of note, the red tint and color palette to the video is very reminiscent of Italian horror films, like Suspiria (1977)and other Giallo films. His knife-wielding, cold robotic following, and popping in and out of the frame is also very reminiscent of Michael Myers and other horror slashers. After running through an industrial club setting, she enters the lower basement of the establishment that gives off an unsettling vibe akin to a Nightmare on Elm Street’s boiler room. She smashes the emergency fire glass and grabs an axe. As he gets closer, with a lucky swing she decapitates him. Now victorious she wields his head as a trophy, akin to Perseus and Medusa. The gender-flipped horror imagery doesn’t end there, as she takes his head to the rooftop along with her axe and dances with whirling dervish-like spins, similar to Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Until I Bleed Out.
The next video segment is shown perhaps in or out of order showing how the main character wants to escape from this life but the partying crowd continues to drag him back into the fray. Kaleidoscopes of color swirl around as the character rotates in and out of focus and the frame. Trying to come to some type of coherency, the world is spinning-tilting-whirling. Collapsing multiple times, the constant refrain of “I keep telling myself I don’t need it anymore” drones on as the central character seems unable (or unwilling) to escape.
Now, the next segment is in a completely different format and style than the previous videos, where each part of the tale was told in a live-action format. Now, that the character is having flashbacks to the past it shifts to animation, more specifically anime. The ‘red’ Weeknd is now somehow outside of the city looking in and trying to make their way back. Falling into a chasm that leads to the past, the younger Weeknd cycles through memories of childhood, past relationships (including past hairstyles).
Trying to rid himself of the persona before it consumes him, he’s shown throwing money into a barrel of fire and shapeshifting into the night creature he’s gradually becoming in a swarm of bats. Shoes now tattered and torn from walking back/toward the city, the dread surfaces. His younger self is walking directly toward a smiling red-suited Weeknd at the Heartless stage.
Daylight finally makes its appearance as the outer rolling estates of the uber-wealthy are revealed. His severed head from the In Your Eyes sequence has now crossed paths with some of the modern-day entities of the plastic surgery lifestyle. Unsure how his head arrived there, they snap it up quickly and drive back to their palatial mansion. They concoct various scenarios with his likeness and use it for all sorts of macabre and perverse pleasures, including suturing his head onto the body of a hapless UPS worker.
They only want his countenance for the sexual gratification they can achieve from it but care nothing for the interiority of who he was or represented. Frightening, how some of the feelings about himself came back to haunt him in the afterlife. The entire sequence is like the film American Mary (2013) cranked up to 11. As the gates to their estate close, no one outside is any the wiser. Life will go on without him…
Save Your Tears.
The final segment again has a surreal quality to the environment with greens and blues being most prominent amidst the darkness of a musical stage. The red flat suited nightmare is now gone and has been replaced or reinvented with a sparkling glittery new stage persona, with a face that is filled with more Botox and surgical procedures than one would think safe or imaginable. The previously uncoordinated character is now moving and presenting in a retro style that appeals to the mask-wearing audience. The crowd is there to be consumers and out of the entire horde, there is a woman without a mask, who again may be real or a figment of his imagination. He invites her on stage to dance and then takes a gun from behind his back and asks her to pull the trigger against his forehead. She runs screaming from the stage leaving him up there to finish the set on his own. Lifting the weapon to his temple and firing there’s nothing but confetti and the audience roars with applause.
*..Again, very Joker-esque imagery here..*
Whether or not the events were real or a figment of his imagination, he’s shown beaming out into the audience as the title card — unlike the other segments — drops at the very end. He did it; he finally went out with a bang…literally or metaphorically.
Whew! Well, that was a lot of work. I hope you enjoyed this retrospective about this rare gem of media that dropped during the (ongoing) pandemic. A word, go into the entire music catalogue with an open mind and an open heart because there’s a lot of psychological stuff The Weeknd is trying to unwrap, especially in the after hours.
Easter Egg Hunt.
As a special treat, here are some more visual references that The Weeknd employed during this 80s synth horror extravaganza.
*~…cockiness and cigarettes…~*
*~…betwixt joy and pain…~*
*~…bandages as mask…~*
*~…Perseus and Medusa or Medusa and Perseus?…~*
*~…hack and slash…~*
*~…danger and the color red…~*
*~…last Joker reference I promise…~*