The Weeknd's Super Bowl halftime show: Will he wear those face bandages? What songs will he sing?

Gary Dinges

It'll be a Super Bowl halftime show like no other.

When The Weeknd takes the stage Sunday at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium, he'll be performing for a crowd that'll be about a third the size it would typically be due to coronavirus precautions

The TV audience, on the other hand, could be bigger than ever as many people are expected to stay home, avoiding the typical large gatherings. Last year, when Shakira and Jennifer Lopez performed, 102 million viewers tuned in. 

The big game, featuring the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, kicks off at 6:30 p.m. ET on CBS. 

In an interview with Billboard, the R&B superstar (real name Abel Tesfaye) promised fans a "cinematic experience." He's opened up his wallet to do so, contributing $7 million in addition to what organizers typically pay. The show will be entirely live, something that hasn't always been the case in recent years.

This'll be his first major national performance since being snubbed by the Grammys and playing the Super Bowl is a bright spot for the singer, says Amir “Cash” Esmailian, who co-manages The Weeknd. The Weeknd, whose work had been submitted in six categories, tweeted "The Grammys remain corrupt" after nominations were announced.

There was speculation the snub was due to the fact The Weeknd was going to perform at both the Super Bowl and the Grammys ceremony, but the Recording Academy disputed that.

"We always had the Super Bowl on our bucket list, and we’ve always had timelines for all of our goals,” Esmailian told Billboard. “It came a few years earlier than we expected. We’ve been really focusing on dialing in on the fans at home.”

So what can we expect? Here's what we know so far. 

Will he continue his bandaged 'After Hours' look?

Will the bandages The Weeknd sported at the American Music Awards and during other appearances last year make a return appearance?

The so-called "After Hours" look, named after his latest album, started with a bloodied face, modeled after the album's cover. It then progressed to bandages covering his entire face, like someone might appear after having dramatic plastic surgery. And sure enough, by the time the video for "Save Your Tears" rolled out, The Weeknd was sporting prosthetics that created chipmunk cheeks and swollen lips.  

Based on a recently released Pepsi Super Bowl ad featuring The Weeknd, it appears the blood, bandages and prosthetics won't be making an appearance this weekend. The 30-second spot features the singer looking perfectly normal as he walks into a stadium, where he's greeted by the cheers of fans.

"What we create changes us," the announcer says. "Every performance, a new chapter. Every stage, a new beginning."

The Weeknd had been mum about what was behind the "After Hours" look, leading to all sorts of theories, including that it was statement against police brutality. He finally revealed in a recent Variety story that the bandages were a reflection of "the absurd culture of Hollywood celebrity and people manipulating themselves for superficial reasons to please and be validated."

At a pre-Super Bowl press conference Thursday, he said he plans to "incorporate" the storyline but plans to keep things "PG for the families," USA TODAY Sports reports.

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What songs will The Weeknd perform?

Billboard's Katie Bain, who interviewed The Weeknd for a recent cover story, called the singer "very charming and very nice." In person, she says, he's not as hard-edged as you might think.

"He made me feel very comfortable," she said. "He's not cocky, he's not arrogant."

He is, however, mysterious. Perpetually press-shy, The Weeknd wouldn't say much about what he's got planned for Sunday, but Bain says she expects the focus to be on his newer works such as "Heartless" and "Blinding Lights" during the show, which will last the typical 12 to 13 minutes. 

"Blinding Lights," in particular, seems like a shoo-in. The song spent more than a year on the Billboard Hot 100.

But Pandora crunched the numbers and found that it's older works from The Weeknd that are most popular with its users, leading Mike Spinella, Pandora's senior director of original content, to speculate there will be at least a few songs from early in his career. The Weeknd's top songs on Pandora, based on "thumb-up" ratings from users include "Earned It" (9.2 million thumbs up), "Star Boy" (3.8 million thumbs up) and "Die For You" (2.8 million thumbs up).

On The Weeknd XO Fans, a Facebook group, there's no shortage of opinions on what the singer should or shouldn't perform. Fe Knowles, an administrator of the group, hopes for a mix of new and old tunes so we can "see his growth from chapter to chapter, different eras, past and present."

Whatever he picks, fans say they're convinced they'll walk away satisfied.

"I know for a fact Abel will top any live performance there was previously, just because he’s going all out and contributing his own money into his performance," Michelle Ortega, a group member, told USA TODAY. "Obviously, Abel will play his top hits he’s had in the previous years. It's going to be a show we will all remember years down the road." 

"He's the best of this generation," member Jessica Hosang says. "His music reaches the soul, which is no easy feat. He's constantly evolving, ever-changing. In a world where originality was thought to have been lost, he drives it. I hope the millions of people watching get to feel his music, as we feel it."

The Weeknd has said he will not feature big-name guest stars, telling the NFL Network, "There wasn't any room to fit it in the narrative and the story I was telling in the performance. So there's no special guests, no."

On Friday, The Weeknd released "The Highlights", a special album featuring 18 songs including some of his biggest hits. 

Will The Weeknd make a political statement? 

The Super Bowl halftime stage is one of the most far-reaching an artist could hope for, and not just to share their music. Activist artists have been known to sometimes make political statements during their performances, such as when Lady Gaga was praised or criticized, depending on your point of view, for what some felt was a not-so-subtle dig at President Donald Trump in 2017.

The Weeknd has been a vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, so a nod to racial and societal justice wouldn't be out of the question. In the past year, in addition to countless social media posts, he's also donated thousands to causes related to BLM. He's even said upcoming music will likely be inspired in part by BLM, the 2020 election and COVID-19.  

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At the MTV Video Music Awards, a very somber The Weeknd paid tribute to the victims in two high-profile police brutality cases, saying: “It’s really hard for me to celebrate right now and enjoy this moment so I’m just going to say justice for Jacob Blake and just for Breonna Taylor.”

Blake, a Black man, was shot by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Taylor, a Black woman, was killed by white police officers in Louisville, Kentucky.   

Follow Gary Dinges on Twitter @gdinges