The Weeknd stands out from his fellow male pop stars in his self–presentation. No other cisgender heterosexual male pop star in the current mainstream puts as much effort into their aesthetic as Abel Tesfaye does. With the notable exceptions of Harry Styles and Bad Bunny, Tesfaye stands in blaring contrast to his colleagues—especially during the campaign for his most recent album and era, After Hours. The multifaceted personality he brings to the looks of this era are exemplary, too, of the double standard in the music industry between men and women when it comes to self–presentation.
Arguably one of the few mainstream male pop stars to have discreet eras within each of his albums, Tesfaye's reinventions have been historically subtle. He anonymously debuted in 2011 through a hazy spew of mixtapes, which were self–released under his own label XO and later compiled by Republic records in 2012 as Trilogy. Back then, no one knew who The Weeknd was, or what he looked like. Then, he appeared on the cover of his first studio album, 2013's Kiss Land, bearing a messy mop of coiled braids. He followed that record up with 2015's Beauty Behind the Madness, the same mane of black hair cut–and–pasted against a void, like a child's cardboard paper. For 2016's Starboy, he cut his signature hairstyle, sparking mild interest, and flaunted a sharp cross around his neck, a symbol for that era.
And now, for 2020's After Hours, his hair has grown back into a simple afro, and Tesfaye has radically altered his look. Donning a wide pair of deep black shades and a handlebar mustache, Tesfaye added a red and black suit to his wardrobe, not to mention the most striking feature—a bloody nose and beat up face. Also present in the album's imagery are a band–aid over his nose and black eyes, with bandages wrapped around his head like a mummy. Over the course of the past decade, The Weeknd has cultivated a distinct audio and visual aesthetic that has only grown more exaggerated with time: bleak, violent, sensual, and hauntingly empty.
The drastic looks of the After Hours era are darkly comedic. For the "Save Your Tears" music video, The Weeknd took the bandages off, revealing a face distorted by (faux) plastic surgery: high protruding cheek bones, enlarged lips, and a nose carved to inhuman perfection. Perhaps he is mocking other celebrities who toil for some kind of godly perfection with plastic surgery. Or maybe he's making real the depraved inner life of his character at the center of After Hours: a man with all the luxuries in the world but no one to enjoy it with, save his fantasies and drugs.
The narrative around After Hours is convoluted and associative. In the videos for "In Your Eyes" and "Too Late," women dance and play around with The Weeknd's severed head, even plopping it on a severed man's body. Note in the latter music video, the two women also have head bandages, alluding to performances where Tesfaye wore them himself. In "In Your Eyes," a woman is stalked by Tesfaye—with shots reminiscent of the Halloween horror series. But there's a twist. She beheads him towards the middle of the video and takes his head as her prize to the dance floor—a modern day Salome.
The two sisters in "Too Late" also have fun with his head. Taking it to their mansion, where they invite and behead a male stripper, they stitch Tesfaye's cranium to the poor guy's torso. There are also scandalous scenes in the girls' pool, where they kiss Tesfaye—or what they have of him. In a strange way, it's an extended metaphor for women "messing with" his head—played out literally on screen to show the absurdity of a desperate situation, like in the video for "Heartless" where he licks a frog to represent drug–fueled mania.
Compared to other men of his stature, like Ed Sheeran or Shawn Mendes, whose clean–cut, unwaveringly wholesome images have been carefully manufactured for longevity, Tesfaye markets himself more like Katy Perry or Taylor Swift—though with noticeably less extreme makeovers between eras. Each of his albums have a distinct look (or set of looks) associated with it. On the other hand, Sheeran might grow out a beard or switch out the old checkered collared shirt for a black hoodie while campaigning for an album; Mendes trades in his unremarkably short hair for a curly bob, along with a plain blue or black t-shirt for a white one—with shorter sleeves.
The Weeknd's career is truly an example of the double standard in the music industry, especially with regards to album rollouts. When it comes to mainstream pop music, women are supposed to perform as an exaggerated version of themselves, reinventing themselves for each era. In the reputation–era video for "Look What You Made Me Do," Taylor Swift fought back all of the past looks of her discography as they clamored for her position at the top of the hill.
Katy Perry and Lady Gaga have gained reputations for campy, over–the–top fashion with the clothes they wear to award shows, performances and in their music imagery. No one has forgotten that infamous meat dress. Miley Cyrus shocked audiences at the 2015 MTV VMAs, wearing nearly nothing to the red carpet. It's as if women are expected to one–up each other, while men are accepted with the first (and maybe only) iteration of themselves. The Weeknd upends this norm by mocking his past self—the person he presented to the world.
The only counterpoints to this argument are Harry Styles, who has ruffled conservative feathers by wearing dresses in his editorial photos for interviews, and Bad Bunny, who shocked the world last year with his unexpected turn to drag—a surprising move, especially coming from a heterosexual man. One of Styles' more vocal critics, the controversial Candace Owens, inadvertently turned him into a meme with her call to "Bring back manly men." (Yes, a man in a dress still manages to shock, despite David Bowie doing it first in the 1960's). He makes dresses and somewhat femme pants an aesthetic but doesn't integrate, cohesively, his signature style into his work like The Weeknd.
As for Bad Bunny, his brush with drag for his "Yo Perreo Sola" video seems to be a one–off deal for now, a welcome statement of LGBTQ solidarity from a man with one of the biggest platforms in the music industry today.
Tesfaye has solidified his reputation as one of the most influential acts in pop music today with his After Hours era. The album's accompanying music videos are particularly ambitious, emphasizing the already cinematic quality of The Weeknd's music. It's a cinematic universe unto itself, made up of music videos, live performances, and official audios that blur the line between fiction and reality. It's difficult to the decipher through the drug–addled blur of blindingly artificial lights, where The Weeknd's character ends and Abel Tesfaye begins. Through it all, we see a man metamorphosing into his own demons, cackling at the pain, and setting himself apart from his peers.