Too often, as a carnivorous pop culture fan, I feel pressure to align my own ideology with that of a text’s. As if announcing myself a fan of a particular artist or cultural product, I'm saying, “I sign off on this. Everything espoused in this movie, book or artist’s catalogue…I agree with!” But that's some shaky ground to stand on.
Specifically, this is a problematic way to read and discuss the work of singer-songwriters. Songwriters seem to get less than a fair shake as storytellers. Whether they’re cultivating characters from lived experiences or not, the public seems to ascribe any of the content’s bad behavior as a tenet of who the musical artist is. And, for the listener, the album or song is often accredited by the public as a conduit for any bad habits or behavior that happen between its ends.
When a popular songwriter, such as Taylor Swift, sings about a relationship, it’s largely greeted akin to a gossip rag, leaving her (presumably) with less incentive to write narratives that reflect her own experiences at a 1:1 ratio (if that is what she is doing in the first place). Or when Kanye airs his frustration with fashion gatekeepers, it’s discussed more in the vain of his biography than what that frustration is a symptom of, for instance. This is carried out down the line to much less famous singer-songwriters, to the emo bois machinating an alter ego as a gentle and unassuming suburban hero of love because of this assumption that songwriters are their characters.
I’m not sure why this is more prevalent in singer-songwriters. Maybe because we see them saying the words and telling the stories, and most often are telling them in first person. There is less physical division between them; no actors or written words acting as surrogates.
This sentiment, that ideologies and lifestyles between myself and the pop culture I love do not have to be compatible, is perhaps never more present than when I’m listening to The Weeknd. The antihero than runs through the majority of The Weeknd’s work enjoys a lifestyle of noncommittal polyamory, incessant drug use and falling asleep after the sun rises. I enjoy coffee shops and reading before bed.
Yet, I love how The Weeknd exhibits the nuances of storytelling and the art of refining a character. He is a constant reminder to me that a songwriter’s work should be digested not as a memoir or a direct access to the artist’s lived experiences, but as another piece of fiction. I could care less about who the real Abel Tesfaye is.* As Barthes told us, the author is dead. And where the author dies immediately, the reader lives on.
Perhaps I am interested in his work because of its subject matter (sex & drugs, amirite?), but I’m also increasingly invested in the way he explores this subject matter – as a lifestyle that he needs to immerse himself in because he cannot love others, although he wants love in return. That attitude is what makes lines like “drugs started feelin’ like it’s decaf” such a visceral thought.
The omnipresent protagonist of The Weeknd’s career is a guy with a fascinating set of skills, neuroses, bad habits and hobbies that are immaculately conceived and tailored with an impressive attention to detail and reflection. Maybe that’s because he is this guy, including his most unsavory characteristics. Maybe not. Who knows? It doesn’t matter. Unless you’re his mom, cuz this dude’s always out way past curfew.
What matters to me, the listener, is the ease of access to which I can enter this headspace, getting a hypnotic idea of the protagonist’s subjectivity and explore the world he articulates. Like his Toronto neighbor, Drake, The Weeknd is often conflicting in his message. One song is celebratory, while the next is a complete regret of the former. The entire spectrum of these feelings, and the details Tesfaye employs to get there, is the text that I love spending time with.
Charles Bukowski has been immortalized for a similar oeuvre. I don’t particularly like the majority of his work, especially his fiction – perhaps it’s just not a world I’m interested in spending time in – but, like The Weeknd, he was quite good at furnishing a very specific headspace for his reader.
But, I’m not making a case for why you should listen to The Weeknd. I advocate for not feeling trapped or complicit by unsavory things that might be present in cultural texts that you earnestly enjoy. There are a ton of reasons to like and dislike something that it can’t possibly be distilled down solely to a complete promotion of every attitude and behavior present. You’re not standing behind every piece of pop culture you like as if to say, “This is who I am. Everything this character or author stands for, I stand for too.”
*OV’s own Stephen Kohlmann also talked about the fluid public perception of Hulk Hogan and Bill Cosby and their fictional counterparts here.