Sex Advice

How The Weeknd Preserved Sexuality for the Masses in the Pandemic

Mary Grace Garis

Photo: Getty Images/W+G Creative
When I watched the Pepsi commercial teasing The Weeknd's Super Bowl halftime show performance slated for this upcoming Sunday, I was left feeling… a little perplexed. For one thing, it's set in world where masks don't seem to be a thing (Florida?), which is ill-advised for teasing an event happening in 2021. But it also attempts to PG-ify the artist's raunch level—the sexuality he, himself, emanates and that which comes through lyrically and musically from his tracks. The ostensible goal is to give the artist, who was born Abel Tesfaye, a decidedly wholesome sheen so families can comfortably watch his performance over buffalo wings and ignore his scientifically-backed status as the sexual beacon of the pandemic.

Okay, okay—"scientifically proven" may be a stretch, but there is some data to back up the claim. In June, lingerie retailer Pour Moi mined the most common songs on Spotify users’ erotic playlists (that is, playlists with names like "Netflix and chill," "baby-making," and the less-than-subtle "masturbation playlist") and The Weeknd was found to be a top artist for setting the aural mood for both partnered sex and solo sex. I hardly found this shocking—he's had a permanent placement on my own and my friends' sex soundtracks this year, too. But, why?

My hypothesis is that it's because of how he drives us. The Weeknd's music allows listeners to embody their different sexual fantasies, and in a pandemic that’s left many feeling out of touch, sexually speaking, that's especially important. And for all the folks who have been listening to House of Balloons long before lockdown began: Yes, The Weeknd has long held court in the genre of sex music. The difference is that in the pandemic landscape, he’s become the audio equivalent of an arousal oil. In case all the sweatpants and constant threat of death haven't tipped you off, we’re living in a not-so-sexy moment in history, which has compromised many of our libidos.

And that's where music can play its part as a sexual salve. To illustrate this point, Tatyannah King, a sex educator and sex coach with Blex Technologies, points to 2017 research out of McGill University, indicating how the euphoria people experience while listening to music is triggered by the same part of the brain that conjures pleasurable feelings associated with sex, recreational drugs, and food. "So naturally, simultaneously engaging in two major activities that cause the release of those feel-good chemicals doubles the sensations of sensual and erotic stimulation," she says. And when sex drive isn't a given, as is the case for many during these pandemic times, that added boost from a sultry song can be effective for setting the mood.

But, again, why The Weeknd? King says his music, specifically, helps her access an alter ego of herself who's decidedly more empowered sexually. "[His songs] make me feel 10 times more confident in my erotic power, and I feel like that’s how most people want to feel when they’re listening to sex music," she says. "They want that extra push that makes them feel self-assured as a sexual human being."

Audio erotica uses sound and visual language to allow space for visceral imagining. The Weeknd does the same thing in his music, with both subtle seduction acts and more NSFW dirty talk.

She also points out that lyrically, The Weeknd is able to set a mood for a range of settings, taking us out of our stressed, distracted, the-world-is-going-to-end mindset by using auralism, or the experience of being turned on via sound, as his tool. Consider how audio erotica has been steadily gaining popularity in recent years; unlike visual porn, audio erotica uses sound and visual language to allow space for visceral imagining. The Weeknd does the same thing in his music, with both subtle seduction acts ("So baby let me kiss your inner thigh/Let me kiss it for you" in “Heaven or Las Vegas”) and more NSFW dirty talk. "He isn’t just spewing some mess you’d read in over-the-top messages from thirsty strangers on Tinder," King says. "Most of his sex lyrics are more descriptive of a scene between him and his lovers."

For another example, take "I Feel It Coming," which isn't the most sexually explicit track, despite it providing a sweetness in its eroticism; the words want to make you climax so intensely that they wash away the pain of, say, your toxic ex. Then again, maybe that memory of your ex is something you want to hold onto. An April study from the Kinsey Institute used a sampling of 1,559 adults that investigated how the pandemic is impacting our sex lives. It found that imagination and fantasy seriously factor in. According to Zoë Kors, sex and intimacy coach at sexual wellness app Coral, which counts the Kinsey Institute researchers as advisors, it found that the most common fantasies in quarantine rely simply on previous sexual experiences, breaking quarantine to be with someone, having sex with exes, and even having nonsexual needs met, like simply being touched. And the lyrics of "Blinding Lights" validate the experience of so many people.

The music video for “Blinding Lights” was released January 21, 2020, the day the U.S. reported its first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus—and it would become a harbinger of love during the lockdown era. Unhinged and completely alone, the video follows The Weeknd as he drives down bizarrely empty streets, with lustful lyrics put to a bomb '80s-era hook. By the time After Hours debuted on March 20, Americans had ended their first week in quarantine. And after over a year of living during time of COVID-19, the video now has over 358 million views, clearly showing how it resonates with lonely pandemic sex fantasies.

Thematically, After Hours is a little more sad than sexy, yet that somehow makes it a perfect expression of people's pandemic desires. They yearn for both comfort and risk, they experience urgency and remorse.

"Listening to ‘Blinding Lights,’ I’m immediately struck by lines like ‘I’ve been on my own for long enough,’ ‘I’m going through withdrawals,’ and ‘I can’t sleep until I feel your touch,’” says Kors. "Particularly if you’re alone during the pandemic, these sentiments are very relatable."

The lyrics can also be potent fuel for solo sex; lines like "no one’s around to judge me," can subtly reinforce how it’s okay to meet your own sexual needs, given that shame is still an obstacle for many to overcome in pleasure. Mostly, though, it just suits self-pleasure. "If you’re listening to music while you masturbate, it’s likely you want whatever music you choose to complement the experience," Kors says. "You don’t want something that’s distracting—mental distraction quite literally dampens sexual arousal—so these lyrics may suit what someone is naturally fantasizing about at this time."

Catering to the "sex with exes" fantasy, see the most recent single off After Hours: “Save Your Tears." "The song seems to be told from the perspective of a regretful ex, which, again, has become a common theme among fantasies and even sexual behaviors among single people during the pandemic," says Kors. "I’ve noted in my practice that people have been texting their exes more often."

Thematically, After Hours is a little more sad than sexy, yet that somehow makes it a perfect expression of people's pandemic desires. They yearn for both comfort and risk, they experience urgency and remorse. They want to envelop themselves in a fantasy with someone who, eh, probably isn’t that great for them. People want sexual escapism during this pandemic, and whether that's through something highly sensual or mournfully lustful, The Weeknd has a song for it.

So basically, don't be surprised if you feel weirdly turned on during the Super Bowl halftime show.

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