What does The Weeknd have in common with Greta Garbo? Not much, you might think. One’s an R&B singer who tweets about his “disco biscuit diet”, the other was a Swedish film actress born in 1905, but they share one characteristic: a canny understanding of the power of mystique.
The sphinx-like Abel Tesfaye has had a fascinating year. In 2011, it was tricky to find a picture of him online; this week ‘Trilogy’, a physical collection of his three online mixtapes, is predicted to hit No. 2 on the Billboard chart and sell 100,000 copies, beating Lana Del Rey’s ‘Paradise’ and the latest Twilight soundtrack. The really surprising part? He’s never spoken to the press and still refuses interview requests (I tried again this week).
It’s a recent trend for artists to hide behind a screen for a while. Wu Lyf left a trail of esoteric messages on their website in 2010 before coming out as a group of lads from Manchester. Iamamiwhoami, the Swedish viral video artist, operated incognito. The Child Of Lov gave his first interview to NME Radar a couple of weeks ago. It makes sense when David Bowie, Bob Dylan and other elders wearily bat away journalists and refuse to talk but often with very new artists anonymity can be used to conceal an awful lot of… nothing.
The Weeknd is different. He’s refreshed R&B with his woozy, drank-fuelled, dawn tales of sex, shame, pain and ‘trone, sampling unexpected artists such as Cocteau Twins, Beach House and Siouxsie And The Banshees. Typical tropes of the genre remain – the ‘blowing money’ and the ‘panties coming down’ – but he’s created a unique sound that’s addictive.
But how much of his success is due to the masquerade? When ‘House of Balloons’ appeared in March 2011, shadowy images of Tesfaye could be found if you looked hard enough, but in most of them he concealed his face. He set out his stall in the biography of his old Twitter account (unused since April this year) which reads “self made r&b artist”. His communication was limited to cryptic lyrics, references to codeine, money and song titles. A brilliant line such as “got the walls kickin’ like they six months pregnant” would be retweeted 20 times and he had 1,442 followers. A few hours ago he tweeted a picture of a cup of liquid from his new account which has been retweeted by 1,591 of his 789,000 followers.
‘Thursday’ was released in August and ‘Echoes Of Silence’ in December of the same year. During this time, intrigue in the identity of The Weeknd snowballed, fired up by his own personal hype man, Drake. Then came months of touring starting with Coachella in April, a kerfuffle over production credits, and finally a deal with a major label and the release of ‘Trilogy’.
These days, he retweets support by P Diddy, Jonah Hill and Florence Welch instead of promoting himself through traditional media outlets. A new video for ‘Rolling Stone’ shows his face, there are more photographs and his communication has become much less mysterious – but he’s still refusing to talk, bar two words to Billboard when they asked about the samples he was struggling to sign off. “Killing me,” he said.
On October 4, there were rumblings that The Weekend had finally spoken! In a somewhat uncomfortable letter to fans on his website he explained his decision to sign with a major, describing himself as a man of few words caught between the mainstream and the underground. “I want you to know and understand that this does not mean what you think it means and I made sure of that in my deal,” he wrote. He thanked fans for their patience and loyalty, signing off “I will not disappoint”.
A cynic would argue that the last 18 months have been carefully calculated and Tesfaye’s reticence to open his mouth isn’t a fear of the spotlight but a clever marketing ploy. Randy Lennox, president and CEO of Univeseral Music Canda, told a Canadian news outlet that the decision to repackage his mixtapes was “driven more him by than us”. But it’s refreshing that we won’t see The Weeknd on Jersey Shore or selling himself to shitty tabloid rags. I love that there’s a Kate Moss of the music world, rejecting celebrity mores and staying thrillingly silent.
It’s difficult to think of another artist who’s achieved this amount of success while stubbornly shunning the limelight. I suppose the closest example would be dubstep virtuoso Burial, although he blew his cover after a few years. In the art world, Banksy’s still making a good fist of it. And let’s not forget The Weeknd gave away all three albums for free. As he tweeted the other day: “wow, you know you have real fans when they purchase music they’ve already had for years”. The kernel that keeps me interested? I want to know why he keeps quiet. Is he just he shy? Anyone who’s seen the YouTube video of him reacting to 1 guy 1 glass can tell he’s no mute – an insider on his team describes him as ‘friendly’. Is he avoiding putting a face to lyrics such as “I can beat that pussy up girl I can bruise you” (‘Party’) and outing himself as a whiny, drug-taking emo ? Maybe. One thing’s certain: if he’s setting a precedent for artists to reach an audience directly, without the need for media, the world won’t stay the same for music journalists for long.