Beauty Behind the Blinding Lights: Super Bowl LV’s Surging Stars

“Blinding Lights” is a song written for the big stage. Its title refers to the lights of packed concerts, of paparazzi flashes, of the cityscape at night. Lyrically, the artist behind the track, The Weeknd, is seeking a reprieve from fame and fortune. Yet, he’s about to hit his biggest stage to date: the Super Bowl.

On Sunday, he’ll provide a brief reprieve for Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, favorites in the game who intend to come out and terrorize the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their own stadium (just as they did back in November).

As the Super Bowl LV halftime act, The Weeknd, real name Abel Tesfaye, is a sleeper of a choice — despite a decade-plus in the business and hordes of achievements to his name. That’s because he now finds himself among the ranks of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Bruno Mars, aall larger-than-life musicians who graced the stage in games past). The now-superstar’s surge has been steady if not unlikely.

Tesfaye grew up in the vast, enveloping city of Toronto, to parents who immigrated to Ontario from Ethiopia. His entire career has been one of breakthroughs: a second-generation Canadian who blew up on YouTube in the turn of the 2010s, despite uploading anonymously and going under different monikers during his early rise. But his seamless blend of hip-hop, R&B, and pop, so thoughtful and intricate he’s often labeled “alternative R&B” for his eccentricity, has given him a distinct voice from the start.

Unlike Tesfaye, Patrick Mahomes has been staring at the blinding lights since he was a young kid. With a father who pitched in the major leagues for the Twins and the Mets, Mahomes became accustomed to stadium clubhouses and late-inning affairs — his dad was a relief pitcher from 1992-2003. Perhaps it’s why watching him, he never looks uncomfortable or overwhelmed in the moment.

This is Mahomes’ moment.

On Sunday, Patrick Mahomes aims to extend his postseason record to 7-1, avenging his sole loss against Tom Brady and the Patriots in 2019. (Photo Credit: Denny Medley, USA Today Sports)

Mahomes grew up in Tyler, Texas (only four percent the population of Toronto), where he was a three-sport legend in high school and a college football and baseball star at Texas Tech. For a while, the question wasn’t where Mahomes was going to play in the NFL, but what sport he would play professionally at all. Such a proficient athlete, he was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in 2014 before the Chiefs drafted him as their franchise quarterback in 2017.

Together, Tesfaye and Mahomes both reflect the varying journeys of black men in North America, with upbringing, profession, and country among the characteristics that separate them. Yet, they’ll occupy the same venue on Sunday night, both at the top of their game, both continuing to prove to the world that they are the future — and the future is now.

Mahomes is even more familiar to this stage than The Weeknd, as he made his first trip to the Super Bowl last year. He brought the Chiefs their first in 50 years last year, rallying from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to deliver Kansas City the trophy it’s been dreaming of for five decades.

Though you’d Mahomes would hit a ceiling eventually, he continually redefines the possibilities as an NFL quarterback. At 24 years old, he wasn’t the youngest quarterback to start a Super Bowl (Dan Marino and Ben Roethlisberger were younger, and Big Ben won his game). But if we needed another feat to add to his legacy, he’s now the youngest quarterback to start his second Super Bowl. Even Tom Brady wasn’t that young, despite accomplishing that feat in his third starting season as well.

Patrick Mahomes is ahead of the curve in many football categories, and Super Bowl starts is becoming his most recent record-breaking feat. (Photo Credit: Kansas City Chiefs)

The thing that’s so unbelievable about Mahomes is not simply the trophies, it’s how he got them. Whereas Brady relied on stout defenses and tie-breaking drives early in his career to propel him to Super Bowls, Mahomes is making statisticians’ jaws drop with his own efforts. He’s the best quarterback in the league against the blitz, he’s never put up below-average numbers in a game, and his numbers only get better the more prepared defenses are to stop him.

That’s before you get to the shocking comebacks: Mahomes is an astounding 8-1 when his team has been trailing by double-digits in the past two seasons, with three of those wins coming in the playoffs last season.

Brady is the master of clutch play in close games, with one amazing comeback of his own (in Super Bowl LI). But Mahomes has made the comeback his superhuman standard, a gorgeous art form of slicing and dicing up the field to a practically unstoppable degree. In this regard, he’s in a league of his own.

That’s not unless Brady has something to say about it. At age 43, he goes up against Mahomes, the generation of old versus the generation of new. We’ve never seen a Super Bowl with this big an age gap: 17 years. If Patrick can pull off a win against the G.O.A.T., he can make a case for his own legendary status, a young quarterback already getting talks of being the best ever — in an inconceivable matchup between a six-time champ and a defending champ looking to kickstart a dynasty of his own.

“Blinding Lights” brings a retro soundtrack to the matchup, with shimmering synths and a drum beat that harkens back to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” (Jackson also played the Super Bowl halftime show, back in 1993). The throwback vibe is characteristic of The Weeknd’s two most recent albums, piggybacking on recent synthwave and synthpop movements that ooze with nostalgia for the ‘80s. (Tesfaye was born in 1990, so he just missed the cut).

The song is larger than life, the kind of pop anthem that could define an entire era (yes, it’s that good). Luscious instrumentals and an undeniable hook have helped it make a lasting imprint since its release in 2019. It holds the record for the most weeks spent in the top five and the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. With a Super Bowl appearance coming up, it’s not going away anytime soon.

The Weeknd has contributed $7 million of his own for this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, ensuring it will be something special. (Photo Credit: Nabil Elderkin)

But what also makes it the appropriate musical theme to the Mahomes-Brady bowl is what it stands for: the blinding lights of stardom becoming almost too much to handle. That’s because this Super Bowl, on paper, is almost too much to handle.

This Super Bowl is a lot different than previous Super Bowls. For the first time, the teams will play to lots of empty seats: due to the coronavirus pandemic, only 22,000 fans are allowed in on Sunday, which isn’t even half of the Raymond James Stadium’s 65,000-plus capacity. But those watching at home, their TV screens providing their own blinding lights, could make this the most-watched game in NFL history. That is, if they’re as attracted to the all-time-ness of this matchup as I am (it helps that the Chiefs are my hometown team).

You add that to the accolades of the two quarterbacks playing in the game, the potential dynasty being built in Kansas City, and the potential for a 43-year-old to beat said dynasty, and no wonder we “can’t sleep.” Perhaps, like The Weeknd, we also need a familiar touch to wake us up from this unfamiliar and unprecedented moment.

Like Mahomes, this is the biggest moment yet for Tesfaye. But it’s not sudden, and is rather the result of a conglomerate of radio hits and his ever-growing popstar status.

In 2015, “Can’t Feel My Face” became what many of us thought would be the musician’s lasting impression in the industry. It hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100, staying in the top 10 for 19 weeks, and was a cultural presence from the Madden soundtrack to the musical sphere of Stevie Wonder.

How could an artist of his caliber put out anything bigger or better than this? Yet, The Weeknd is proving he hasn’t reached his peak, and not even the Super Bowl can box him in.

In fact, The Weeknd has not one, not two, but five chart-topping singles — including at least one off his past three records. “Blinding Lights” came two days after “Heartless,” his first single off his newest record After Hours. We can expect to hear both songs during the halftime show, on top of “Can’t Feel My Face.” All three tracks are the kind that stay in your head for days, and they’re perfectly crafted for this moment.

He may be most known for “Can’t Feel My Face” and “Blinding Lights,” but The Weeknd has five hit singles in the previous six years. (Jack Plunkett, Invision/AP)

But while The Weekend is known for his hits, he’s more than that. After Hours was not only critically acclaimed, it was also the artist’s most favorably reviewed album to date. It’s a 14-track deep dive into electropop, serving up plenty of new wave and R&B overtones and film score vibes. It’s diverse, eclectic, and invigorating: The stylistics range from the sugary pop bliss of “Blinding Lights” to the dark hip-hop movements of “Heartless.”

After Hours is The Weeknd’s fourth-straight number one album, simultaneously catapulting him to the Super Bowl halftime show while proving that the full-length LP isn’t dead. Perhaps it opens the door to artists with similar career arcs, from Lorde to Kendrick Lamar to Twenty One Pilots, who combine critical and commercial prosperity in an era when the two aren’t always interlocked.

When we look at the career arc of Patrick Mahomes, too, we see him following in the greatness of his predecessors — Brady especially. The similarities are ominous so far, but there’s still so much of the story to be written. If Mahomes wins on Sunday night, he’ll need four more Super Bowl victories to match his opposite number. With how dominant the Chiefs offense is under Andy Reid right now, who knows how long the window will stay open? But as long as Reid, Mahomes, and weapons like Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are around, they’re going to be hard to beat.

Mahomes is over five years younger than Tesfaye, who turns 31 in a few weeks. The latter hit number one with “Can’t Feel My Face” at 25, the same age Mahomes is now as he seeks his second Super Bowl. It’s hard to imagine where Mahomes will be five years from now. But with a 10-year, $503 million contract under his belt, we know Kansas City will be his long-term home and give him the greatest chance to argue his own G.O.A.T. status.

As the blinding lights of the Super Bowl overwhelm with the excitement of Sunday’s kickoff, we know they won’t overwhelm Mahomes and The Weeknd. They’re the budding giants of their generation, in their respective fields of sports and music, and they’re in the biggest moment of their careers yet.

Where will these two icons go next? We’ll have to wait for the next moment for them to seize. But for now, let’s watch them perform their magic, as we know this moment is exactly where they belong.

To pump you up for the big game, check out my Super Bowl LV playlist, featuring songs by The Weeknd that you can expect to hear during the halftime show:

Featured Photo Credit: Patrick Mahomes (Pari Dukovic, GQ), The Weeknd (Nabil Elderkin)

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