Nine months ago, The Weeknd used a professional peak to announce the bottom of his career.
At the first of two sold-out concerts in September at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood – part of a world tour following 2020’s blockbuster LP ‘After Hours’ and its follow-up ‘Dawn FM’ in 2022 – the pop-soul writer Lily -Rose with Depp took the stage to film a climax scene for The Idol, the then-mysterious HBO series he co-created with Euphoria’s Sam Levinson.
“The Idol” had all the makings of a cultural sensation at the time, and its hype only grew louder over the next few months, even as Rolling Stone reported on the series’ struggling production and its descent into “sexual torture porn.”
“When my wife read me the article,” Levinson said of the Rolling Stone story after the show premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, “I looked at her and was like, ‘I think we’re about to be the biggest show ever have the summer.'”
In a way, Levinson was right — though probably not for the reasons he and The Weeknd had hoped.
“The Idol,” in which Weeknd (born Abel Tesfaye) plays a seedy LA club owner who slowly takes over the life of a troubled pop singer played by Depp, has dominated social media discussion since the beginning of its five-part season June 4th. According to a study by Parrot Analytics, viewer demand for the show is more than 20 times that for the average television series, with The Idol outperforming 99.5% of all drama titles in the United States.
Yet virtually all of the talk was scathing to say the least, with heavy criticism of the show’s clunky writing, Tesfaye’s clumsy acting, and the creators’ apparent inability to understand that the show engages in the very kind of exploitation it purports to denounce. Also, traditional ratings have been dismal, suggesting people are more interested in posting about how bad “The Idol” is than actually watching it.
Given that reaction, it was easy to imagine a hint of relief when Weeknd, 33, tweeted “ONE MORE EPISODE” this week ahead of Sunday night’s finale, as if you could hear the implied “ONLY” in his voice. (One music industry insider, who, like others in this article, was granted anonymity to speak candidly, said HBO’s decision to split the show episode-by-episode rather than cancel the entire season at once “has been like a seven-minute TikTok of …let it work”. A train crashes in slow motion.”)
Now that the show is coming to an end, what impact, if any, will its failure have on Weeknd’s music career?
It’s not surprising that he chose this moment to try a step into Hollywood. His song “Blinding Lights” is the most streamed track of all time on Spotify. “After Hours” spent four consecutive weeks at No. 1. He played the Super Bowl halftime show in 2021 and co-headlined Coachella in 2022. As a pop star, The Weeknd couldn’t really get any bigger when he got involved with “After Hours.” The Idol”; If anything, Dawn FM’s lack of major radio hits hinted at a commercial decline that was natural for his age.
Picture him around the point Lady Gaga took over her role opposite Bradley Cooper in his 2018 remake of A Star Is Born. Ahead of the show’s premiere, he even said that he’s “preparing to close the Weeknd chapter” and that he wants to appear under his real name.
But while “A Star Is Born” brought Lady Gaga rave reviews and an Oscar nomination for her acting — not to mention a chart-topping single in the film’s “Shallow” — “The Idol” has the Weeknd the target of countless Joking about his painful line readings and ridiculous facial expressions in the role of Tedros.
The series, for which he is known as the writer, is based on the flawed assumption that Depp’s character — a scantily clad white pop singer named Jocelyn — is the sort that a record label would still put money into. As digital streaming has weakened the power of music’s established gatekeepers, labels have learned that hits can be made (or found) far more cheaply than in the days of lavish video shoots and highly glamorous magazine covers; #MeToo has only further diminished the centrality of stars catered to an old-fashioned male gaze.
Of course, that’s not to say women’s bodies aren’t monetized in today’s pop industry. But consider that Miley Cyrus is the closest thing this year to a real Jocelyn-style hit.Flower“which explicitly dismisses the idea of relying on a man’s endorsement. Or take the proliferation of K-pop girl groups whose portrayals of sexuality have a very different vibe—more slay queen dominant, less winking submissive—than Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera.
As evidenced by Tedros’ countless nagging conversations with Jocelyn about her relationship with her abusive mother, The Idol also clings to the outdated notion that suffering is required to create great art – a notion inconsistent with one era , where mental health issues arise has become a ubiquitous marketing concept. To do justice to The Idol, A Star Is Born drew a similarly naïve line between pain and authenticity. However, Lady Gaga managed to sell that illusion with the cathartic “Shallow,” while the Weeknd’s songs from “The Idol” — none of which make it into Spotify’s widely acclaimed Top 50 — seemed little more than scene exercises.
The only standout is Jocelyn’s wannabe comeback single “World class sinner / I’m a freak“, a skillfully executed take on the bad-girl pop onslaught in which Depp tells a lover-to-be, “Get on your knees and get ready to be my bitch.” (Hilarious!) Yet in the world of the show is Tedros is unaware of what’s good about “World Class Sinner”, which raises the real issue of “The Idol”: To what extent should we separate Tedros, a sadist with a…? Shock collar at the ready, from the Weeknd, a gifted musician attuned to a dark vision?
With his scruffy looks, drug habits and penchant for rough sex, the character clearly borrows from the singer’s personality as seen in hits like “The hills” And “I can’t feel my face”; Part of the reason Tedros is so confident is that Levinson and Tesfaye no doubt assumed viewers who’d listened to Weeknd for years would fill in the blanks themselves.
But for all the unsavoryness of his music, The Weeknd has always maintained an endearing quality (and flair for hooks) that kept you on his side. In contrast, Tedros is a pure villain – one that Tesfaye hasn’t gifted enough as an actor to portray in a way that showcases his talent. He and Levinson appear to be seeking a critique of the music industry’s dehumanizing treatment of young women; Occasionally, “The Idol” shows a rush of self-confidence, as in a scene in a recording studio where producer Mike Dean (who plays himself) raises an eyebrow while Tedros gropes Jocelyn as she records vocals for a new song.
Still, the show treats Depp’s naked body so gratuitously that there’s no functional difference between her and what she’s mocking. In fact, a galactic reading of The Idol would say that Tesfaye and Levinson have managed to show that exploitation is alive and well in the record business – at an unexpected cost to their reputations.
Few in the industry seem to believe the damage to Weeknd will last. “Deliver bangers like him and tour relentlessly” – he’s currently touring stadiums in Europe – “and people will have the memory of a fruit fly,” said one veteran manager. One prominent songwriter pointed out that finding new stars is so difficult in today’s market “that the old ones are kind of bulletproof.” “Burn every copy of Vanity Fair,” which Weeknd appeared to be promoting “The Idol,” said another exec, and he’ll be fine.
On the other hand, after he voiced his humble view of the show, a source called back and said he had spoken to a younger woman close to him, who had told him Weeknd was now “in bad taste” of her and her friends’ view .
One has to wonder if Tedros’ barbarism will make it hard for the Weeknd to take seriously when he returns with his next batch of haunted boudoir jams. (Some of his grittier lines of dialogue have already become unkind internet memes.) As has his relentless attempt to position the show as a triumph on social media despite ample evidence to the contrary — a concern entirely at odds with the mystique that he nurtured so carefully in his early years.
Perhaps five episodes of a badly rated TV show isn’t enough to undo that image building. But if the Weeknd can’t sing about being horny in the shade, what other options does he have?