Three years ago no one had ever heard of Abel Tesfaye, better known as, The Weeknd, but now it is nearly impossible to find a radio station that isn’t playing one of his chart topping, record breaking, dark, and sexually explicit songs. Tesfaye’s fame is undeniable as just this year he won two American Music Awards for Favorite Album and Favorite Male Artist in Soul/R&B,
— The Weeknd (@theweeknd) November 26, 2015
and the internet claimed him King as he received the most thumbs-up on Pandora’s Thumbs Up Chart for 2015. Not mentioning his countless other nominations (to keep this post short), he is up for SEVEN Grammy Awards next year. How did Tesfaye rise from being an underground Dark R&B artist at the beginning of 2011, to being the biggest name in pop music; breaking Billboard’s record by holding the top three spots on the Hot R&B Singles chart in 2015, putting him among the likes of The Beatles, Drake, Lil Wayne, and Taylor Swift, as recognized in this video?
I interviewed my friends to get their opinion:
The combination of The Weeknd’s vocal abilities with his explicit lyrics about sexual activities is what the public can’t get enough of. It is his voice, described by Carrie Battan in “Mass seduction: the Weeknd broadens his erotic thrillers.”, as eerily similar to the late King of Pop’s[Michael Jackson]-a piercing, high-pitched tenor with an alluring androgyny,” that captures the listener’s attention. Then you can listen to his songs over and over again because of his lyrics capture the most popular themes of today’s R&B genre: Sex and Drugs. Josh Eells, in his article for Rolling Stone, which featured The Weeknd as the Cover Image, “The Weeknd’s Dark Twisted Fantasy”comments on how The Weeknd’s lyrics present a conflicted, frequently cold view of women and relationships, and his emission of emotional numbness in his songs paradoxically creates emotional connection and understanding to audience. This raw emotional numbness and sexual lyrics appealing to today’s audience is discussed by NPR Music.
James C. McKinley Jr. scientifically proves that popular music sells better when it contains sexual references and lyrics in his New York Times article, “This Just In: Sex Songs Are Popular.” analyzing statistics from a recent study taken at the State University of New York in Albany of popular song lyrics that shows how songs with sexual relationships as the center theme, crush the competition for top spots on the charts, and how songs about sex sell better than other songs. These fact are in good standing with The Weeknd’s songs and his genre. McKinley Jr. specifically discusses Tesfaye’s genre stating how, For R&B songs that made it to the top, the most frequent themes were, in order, the singer’s sex appeal, boasts about the singer’s wealth as it relates to finding a mate, and descriptions of erotic acts. While The Weeknd’s songs generally focus on one of the major themes, they almost all incorporate the three major themes. This points to why the public has elevated his fame. An even more interesting note is that McKinley Jr. discusses how the basic themes of pop music have not changed, but the sheer quantity of songs with romantic or sexual themes have stayed the same in all genres except in R&B there was a sharp rise in such messages over the last 20 years. It seems as if The Weeknd caught the wave at the right time and is riding on top of it. His explicit detail to sexual acts and activity are unrivaled by other artists, leaving him at the pinnacle of the genre.
The famous marketing slogan “Sex Sells” stands truthful, and Tesfaye’s use of explicit, vulgar, and dark lyrics about suffering, drug use, and sex, juxtaposed with smooth, long, falsetto notes and very elegant, melodic music allow him to be at the pinnacle of the genre’s popular themes while appealing to what society deems catchy.