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Is The Weeknd 2016’s Most Ambitious Video Star?

Sifting through the provocative clues from his videography

By Miles Raymer

The new video for The Weeknd’s “False Alarm” opens in the middle of a bank robbery and gets progressively more nuts as the robbery goes wrong in the bloodiest, most explosion-filled way possible. It’s nearly six straight minutes of the solid wall-to-wall insanity that has become the trademark of Ilya Naishuller, the Russian director who filmed it. “False Alarm” is just the latest and most action-packed step down a path that’s taken The Weeknd from the anonymity-cloaked cult status of his early days to becoming one of the most iconic video stars of the current era. He may not be able to rack up 20 million views overnight the way that Taylor Swift or Nicki Minaj can, but he’s really the only pop idol out there trying to make videos as ridiculously ambitious and psychologically convoluted as the ones Michael Jackson and Guns N’ Roses made back in the 1990s.

The Weeknd's journey to this point got off to a somewhat weak start. His first couple of videos, 2012’s back-to-back “Rolling Stone” and “Wicked Games,” were mostly variations on the theme of lip-syncing in close proximity to models, and they looked like they could have been made by any director for any performer. They’re important, though, because they establish a motif that runs throughout The Weeknd's video oeuvre, which is The Weeknd looking extremely bored around extremely attractive women.

The hedonist who can’t feel pleasure is one of Abel Tesfaye's favorite lyrical themes, but it appears even more frequently in his videos. Alone or, frequently, in pairs, women who come close to our culture’s conventional ideal of female beauty are no match for his superhuman ability to brood. In the clip for 2011's “Twenty Eight,” he sulks around what looks like a luxury strip club designed by David Lynch while wearing the expression of a teen stuck at the dullest family function ever. In 2014's “Often,” he looks both annoyed and bummed out by all the pouty-lipped women lurking around his hotel room trying to coax him into bed. The only time he ever shows emotion regarding a female co-star is when he murders an unfaithful lover in the video for 2013's “Pretty,” which he reacts to by dramatically biting his lower lip for about a second and a half.

There are only a couple of times in his videography where you ever see The Weeknd seem to enjoy himself. One is at the end of last month's “Starboy,” where he’s whipping up Mulholland Drive in a $1.5 million McLaren P1 supercar with a literal black panther riding shotgun — how could he not? Another is when he cracks an enigmatic smile in the video for last year's “Tell Your Friends,” shortly after he finishes burying his own plastic-wrapped corpse in a makeshift grave in a field.

Weirdly, portraying himself dying at his own hands — or at the hands of his double — is another of The Weeknd’s most-used motifs. “Tell Your Friends” strongly implies that one Weeknd is burying the other because he murdered him. “Starboy” kicks off with one Weeknd strangling another. “False Alarm” ends with a twist where (spoiler alert) you discover the person through whose eyes you witnessed that botched robbery is, in fact, The Weeknd, followed by a second twist where (even more of a spoiler alert) he shoots himself through the throat while looking in a mirror, in effect witnessing his own self-annihilation.

There’s a lot to unpack there, even before you consider the Satanic-looking, ponytailed older dude who pops up here and there throughout The Weeknd’s videography to offer him a symbolically freighted apple (“The Hills”), light him on fire in front of a room full of unamused nightclub-goers (“I Can’t Feel My Face”), or die at his hands (“Tell Your Friends”). The devil’s frequent appearances and the repeated self-murder — along with a sprinkling of very lightly veiled religious imagery — suggest that there’s some kind of story line running through his videos.

What does it all mean? Clearly, The Weeknd wants us all wondering. Scattering clues around one's music and lyrics in order to cryptically imply that they’re all linked into one overarching work is a tried-and-true tradition that some of the biggest pop acts ever have used to stoke their fans’ obsession. In the ’60s, pop consumers pored over the Beatles’ White Album for in-jokes and lyrical connections between songs. In the ’90s, they analyzed the enigmatic symbolism that tied together Guns N’ Roses’ blockbuster Use Your Illusion video trilogy and scanned Michael Jackson videos for coded messages about his private life.

These days, pop obsessives share their unifying theories of The Weeknd Cinematic Universe on Reddit. The most popular theory so far says that the videos, taken as a whole, tell the story of a musician who makes a deal with the devil to gain talent and fame, a myth that goes back even further in history than Robert Johnson’s crossroad contract. The real theme of The Weeknd's videos, on the other hand, might be one that’s even older: The payoff doesn’t really matter when the tease is this good.