The feel-good song of the summer is a song about feeling so good, it becomes difficult to feel anything at all.
Or, from a less imaginative perspective, it’s about negotiating the ups and downs of a cocaine habit.
Either way, The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” currently sits at No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart at a time when the American airwaves have become increasingly druggy, with pop radio embracing various singles that portray consciousness-alteration as something glamorous and perilous.
This is probably a good thing. People do drugs in real life, and society can always use new songs that address the risks and rewards that real life has to offer. “Can’t Feel My Face” does its part, bouncing along to a rubbery bass riff while The Weeknd — the nom-du-pop of 25-year-old Abel Tesfaye — sings about sniffing his happiness through a straw.
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Camouflaging his death-wish in melodic euphoria, the song’s internal tension only makes its climb to No. 1 feel more poetic. When you’re this high, the only place to go is down.
Does Tesfaye see it that way, too? His 2011 mixtape, “House of Balloons,” was a flukey masterstroke made up of hazy R&B songs about sex, drugs, and the absence of shame, and it presented him as a young, enigmatic, fully formed persona.
But since then, his music-making has sounded like a struggle to translate his narco-nympho mystique into a string of successful pop hits.
His new album, “Beauty Behind the Madness,” is an overt courtship of mainstream ears — which means it often sounds compromised. There are too many ill-fitting pop flourishes, too many Michael Jackson genuflections, and too many inexplicable duets, including one with the wholesome Ed Sheeran, who stumbles in like he didn’t see the sock on the doorknob. So as Tesfaye pursues a wider audience, his corrupt aesthetic becomes strangely corrupted, making it difficult to tell whether he’s practicing artful sangfroid, performative nihilism, or zombie careerism.
But there’s no mistaking that the guy has a scalpel of a voice, and that he can wield it like an expert, making even his nastiest bedroom brags seem casual and suave. It feels irrational to admire the tools more than what’s being built with them, but his singing is consistently that terrific.
“Can’t Feel My Face” is where he best transposes his perversions into a stick of bubblegum — most specifically during the counter-intuitive plunge of the chorus. “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you, but I love it,” Tesfaye sings, descending to his lower register and loosening his phrasing. Instead of soaring into a tight falsetto, he chooses to sink and lurk, reminding us that this song is about the horrific lows of getting spectacularly high.
Still, after a long summer of listening to “Can’t Feel My Face” on repeat, it’s entirely possible to block that narrative out.
“I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll both be numb,” Tasfaye sings right out of the gate, “and she’ll always get the best of me, the worst is yet to come.” These lyrics are vague enough to pass as a love-song stuff, not drug-song stuff. Their ambiguity gives the music a greater power.
With that, we’re witnessing one of the great mysteries of pop at work: How a song can cleave itself from its words, how it can wriggle free from the singer who’s delivering it and divorce itself from its own meaning.
Unlike the mere, line-snorting mortals who sing them, certain pop songs are capable of ascending to a rarefied space where they are entirely and exclusively themselves.
In that sense, “Can’t Feel My Face” is a No. 1 hit about an out-of-body experience so complete, it sounds like it’s enjoying an out-of-body experience of its own.