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The ND: Love After Life


Audrey Schmidt
31 October 2020

Burberry posted an advertisement on Instagram for their new Pocket Bag on 27 August captioned “A contrast of reality and fantasy”, featuring Bella Hadid as an Irma Vep type vampiric actress-character. Bella’s hips and shoulders move almost independently from her motionless head, with the uncanny effect of looking like a simulation or deep fake as she slinks around a sterile (empty but not abandoned) warehouse. Irma Vep—a classic film-within-a-film about remaking Louis Feuillade’s silent film serial Les vampires—is less about re-presenting the past than addressing the present and Bella, the 2020 L.A. vampire who plays herself, the perfect reincarnation.

Hadid is also the lost love object of the Weeknd’s new concept album After Hours, where he admits to cheating, is unable to promise he won’t cheat again, threatens to kill himself, negs her and then begs for her back so that he can make a mother out of her. Like any good Lacanian love song, what is enjoyed is the continual suspension, deferral and circulation around the object that can never be attained. It is, on the surface, the ultimate gaslighty fuck boy album, but it is also the posthuman love story that just keeps giving.

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There are multiple storylines and timelines at play in After Hours. There is the narrative timeline of the singles and their cinematic music videos (the most recent being released on 22 October) along with the short film and an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! but also that of the album as a whole—as a concept album. The second music video Blinding Lights follows the events of the first, Heartless, and both see a Tarantino-esque collage of visual cues from other films and events. He sports the bloody nose injury from Chinatown (1974) and the jacket and dance moves from Joker (2019). The neo-noir slasher mood, wigs and “female drama” recall Dressed to Kill (1980), the title and unfortunate series of events condensed into 24 hours is certainly where the album gets its title—Scorsese’s After Hours (1985)—and he’s tripping like he’s in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).

Each of these films themselves reference a plethora of other films and events. Dressed to Kill took cues from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960); Joker bastardised King of Comedy (1982); After Hours was the original Uncut Gems (2019) (in which The Weeknd appears “as himself”) with a more likeable lead but the same classic 24-hour “Murphy’s law” premise; Fear and Loathing was an adaptation of the book that Hunter S. Thompson based on his life; and Chinatown really completes the picture. Chinatown is a fictionalised docudrama that picked up on the events surrounding the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct but switches up the dates (the events of 1905 are set in 1938) and the roles of the real-life referents (heroes are villains and vice versa). In fact, Chinatown is often read as the scrambled but real secret history of Los Angeles.

With these many cues, After Hours is firstly about blurring fiction and reality in a cyclical, hyper-self-referential timeline. The day following the Blinding Lights music video release, The Weeknd appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to perform this song dressed in the same Chinatown nose bandage and Joker red jacket that appeared in the first two singles. The fictionalised Jerry Lewis Show of King of Comedy, The Murray Franklin Show of Joker all the way through to the real-life Jimmy Kimmel Live! The short film released on 4 March begins with the events of Jimmy Kimmel Live! as we follow The Weeknd backstage, stage-smile still plastered to his face, on his way to his next destination. Without including any of the songs on the album in full, the soundtrack features songs that drift in and out of earshot as though played through the stereo of a passing car, bleeding out from the club to the street, echoing through a deserted strip mall and train station. He is violently pulled by an invisible force across the station platform before finding himself as the villain in the elevator scene from Dressed to Kill. The elevator doors close and the film ends with an epilepsy warning. Fiction becomes reality, which cycles back around to fiction to tell us that The Real is, without a doubt, the best fiction.

The first track on After Hours is Alone Again, immediately recalling Gilbert O’Sullivan’s 1972 hit Alone Again (Naturally), which is first the story of being left at the altar (about heartbreak) but becomes the story of the (fictional) death of his parents—leading our protagonist to question the existence and mercy of God. This is the very same trajectory of Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak when it is revealed through the album’s final track, Pinocchio Story, that it is not the loss of his girlfriend that has caused the melancholic loneliness that pervades the album but the death of his mother during cosmetic surgery.

It’s also where we hear what Mark Fisher once described as “the sobs in the heart of the 21st century pleasuredome”.1 Fisher writes that you can either hear this as “the moment when a commodity achieves self-consciousness, or when a human realises he or she has become a commodity”.2 In Alone Again we do not hear just “the soured sound at the end of the rainbow”3 but, just when you think the song is over, there’s a beat switch. There’s more: a life after achieving commodity self-consciousness. Where 808s ended with death, After Hours begins with it. It’s not just the death of love in heartbreak, the death of the Image-repertoire, but the love of death (again). It is not just amor but amor fati—the affirmation of romantic agony (as with drug addiction) as ecstatic (and recurrent) death drive.

Oh baby, won’t you remind me what I am?
And break, break my little cold heart
Check my pulse for a second time (second time)

The first four tracks of the album linger in this purgatory, exiled from the amorous condition and from the human condition. It is this lingering that is perhaps what inspired critics to dismiss this first half of the album. Because this is the all too familiar place where Fisher left off—with the tragic discovery of the “miserable hollowness at the core of super-affluent hedonism”4 and lost futures which so mark The Weeknd’s previous releases as with pre-evangelical/depressed Kanye and Drake.

In terms of a timeline, the video release schedule follows a more or less linear timeline which does not correspond to that of the tracks on the album. The cinematic narrative doesn’t begin until the seventh track, Heartless. This is The Weeknd’s psychedelic inhuman becoming. He’s Fear and Loathing high. Amphetamines got his “stummy feeling sickly” (bubby) but the cane toad he licks really kicks things into a new dimension. He’s lost the organ that pumps blood into the vessels that feed his body: “Trying to love me but they never get a pulse down”. While the album begins with Alone Again, our cinematic narrative starts here with the disintegration and desegregation of psychedelia—with ego death and death transcendence. This is post-commodity self-consciousness where we see that images have become more interesting, more real, than the referent—the shadow is the substance. Like another favourite of The Weeknd, The Mask, it is not that the mask becomes the substance but that it becomes the recognition of the mask as substance. The Weeknd is caught in the signifier’s network—a process which Žižek tells us has a “mortifying effect” on the subject in that “he becomes part of a strange automatic order disturbing his natural homeostatic balance (through compulsive repetition, for example)”.5

Blinding Lights sees the first appearance of the Chinatown nose injury (that was presumably acquired somewhere in the Fear and Loathing debauchery of Heartless). Although perhaps an unintentional reference, Glass by Kode9 and the Spaceape uses the very same metaphor in relation to fiction:

Creating blinding lights of fiction as our only clarity
Marked by the memories of a future past
It’s the beginning not the end that we have to reach last 6

So here we have not yet reached the beginning or the end. In Your Eyes begins where the short film ends, the inside of the Dressed to Kill elevator, where The Weeknd raises the knife in his hand before a jump cut to his bloodied victim escaping into the desolate L.A. cityscape. The chase scene continues to the club where The Weeknd loses his head. Literally. His would-be-victim decapitates him with an axe before carrying his head onto the dancefloor, holding it up to stare into his eyes with a lover’s lust as she dances with abandon, no longer threatened by The Whole. The music video ends as the couple disappear into the sunrise; she raises his head to the sky by the hair on his head like a sacrifice to the New Day. The mask is all that remains.

The music video for the album’s final track Until I Bleed Out was released next. The Weeknd, head intact, is in some kind of purgatory. Paralysed in a spinning confetti dreamscape before stumbling outside and collapsing in the snow—the opening scene for the Snowchild music video. And it is here that we meet in the afterlife of the self-conscious commodity-human.

She like my futuristic sounds in the new spaceship
Futuristic sex give her Phillip K dick

Snowchild is the story of becoming posthuman—a pact made with Hollywood to turn his “nightmares into big dreams”, “fiending” for money in a vampiric transition that was essential for both his success and to assimilate with those natural-born vampires from L.A. dynasties such as Hadid. For the Snowchild music video The Weeknd “crosses over” to animation. Captured by a Ghost in the Shell (1995) style robo-whore and dragged into the void, the abyss, which then becomes an elevator descending far below the first floor. Here we see headless prisoners chained to the earth behind the Hollywood sign and encounter the villain last seen in the Beauty Behind the Madness (2015) music videos. Cartoon Weeknd enters a room in the mansion from the Starboy music video, full of red-eyed panther-female hybrids which he tries to beat off with neon Elvis Chapel crosses before fragmenting into a colony of bats, a multiplicity, and reconstituting himself “elsewhere”.

This (other) supernatural persona first appeared in the music video for Call Out My Name (2018), where he wanders post-apocalyptic city streets and spews/sings out a colony of bats, which then explode into smaller particles or sub-organisms. The difference is that The Weeknd remains constituted or whole himself in this first appearance, violently rejecting the colony as a foreign substance as opposed to being the colony. Back (or forward) to Snowchild timespace, The Weeknd “makes it rain” into a trash-fire nonchalantly, he looks up with hopeful joy at a city that appears to be Toronto (the past), but which then blows away in a gust of dust and reveals itself to be Las Vegas (the future, the L.A. afterlife). In Vegas, he only encounters the image of himself, in his red Joker jacket. Confronted with Groundhog Day (1993), Abel throws his head back and laughs (inaudibly).

As Ursula de Leeuw wrote in The Smiling Face Without Laughter: “The immediate response of laughter shows that there is a space of unthought which language cannot grasp. If the response of Nietzsche’s superhuman is to laugh at the thought of the eternal return, they affirm the insufficiency of language to explain what goes on beyond explanation.” In After Hours, and particularly in this moment, The Weeknd is the “active nihilist” (or comedian) Ursula defines (through Bataille and Neitzsche), who “affirms this fertile nothingness in the formless space of laughter.” Who here, at the end of Snowchild, finds himself at another familiar beginning: at the opening scene for the Heartless video, the first single to be released from the album, and the beginning of our cinematic narrative. (If you’re not keeping up with the beginnings and ndings, I suppose that’s the point).

Faith is the only track on After Hours that doesn’t take place in the present and is, at the time of writing, without a corresponding music video. Its stop-start beat heightens the stadium quality established by Heartless—where we can imagine perfectly timed stage kicks and jumps. All of this upbeat performativity seems to bely the song’s content which references R.E.M’s 1991 classic, Losing My Religion. As we know by now, belief is irrelevant. In this song, The Weeknd has already lost his faith: “Molly with the purple rain / ‘Cause I lost my faith / So I cut away the pain”.

Purple Rain by Prince is an apt point of reference considering it follows a similar “musical drama” format that is at once the lead single from the 1984 album of the same name, and also the soundtrack to the 1984 film of the same name. But more than this, Purple Rain is a reference to the end. To the apocalyptic purple made of red blood with blue skies. The title track of Princes’ previous album, 1999 (1982), hinted toward the future that hit in 1984: “could have sworn it was Judgment Day, the sky was all purple”. It’s about wanting to be with the one you love (and lost) when the wild beasts of earth claim it by sword, famine or plague, when the full moon becomes like blood and the stars of the sky fall to the earth.7 For the Weeknd in 2020, he’s gonna hit judgement day with ecstasy, literally. With euphoric amor fati, but, as the judgement day of Faith is set in the past, we know there are after hours to come. The Weeknd, like Dolores in Westworld, is haunted by fractured memories of previous iterations, of his many and dispersed celebrity images. This is not to say that he desires, as Foucault wrote, to recover a “‘lost’ identity, to free our imprisoned nature, our deepest truth”. Rather, it indicates a desire “to move towards something radically Other”.8 An After Hours.


On 13 August 2020, peak (first wave) pandemic, The Weeknd released two more animated videos for Blinding Lights and Save Your Tears. Here, we find an avatar, bobbing from side to side as though waiting for his player to make their selections before the game starts. Floating usernames and comments on the album are lit up in Vegas-neon. The inhuman avatar now roams his cyberspace kingdom filled with floating TikTok logos and usernames attached to comments such as “This, tickles my pineal gland. No, seriously” and “Please check my music”. In Save Your Tears (The Tik Tok Experience),The Weeknd avatar zooms through a tunnel in his convertible as golden Metropolis (1927) figures stab at the highway like in The Mummy (1999) before his own disembodied head appears menacingly behind him, threatening to swallow him whole. The highway disintegrates and we see the car floating in a wrecked city of disintegrating high-rises like an explosion in slow motion, complete with Vegas signifiers, dice and playing cards. The picture zooms out to reveal a more monstrous, omnipotent Weeknd avatar, looming silently over the scene of unmoored destruction.

The most recent music video was released on 22 October with the album’s second track, Too Late. The song follows the familiar tragic construction of Alone Again, which begins with a demand and (tragically) ends with the unsatisfactory meeting of this demand: too much, too little, too soon, too late. The tragic end is the discovery that the end of the rainbow offers no promise of redemption or (re)union.

It’s way too late to save our souls, baby
It’s way too late, we’re on our own
We’re in hell, it’s disguised as a paradise with flashing lights
I just wanna believe there’s so much more

The music video for Too Late begins with two bandaged up L.A. girls driving through The Hills on their way home from surgery. “This is my jam, turn it up” says one as lines from Escape from L.A. waft distantly through the stereo: “LA girls all look the same / I can’t recognize / The same work done on their face / I don’t criticise”. This is the cyborgian post-human L.A. girl we’re all familiar with. She’s the RoboCop on 808s and Heartbreak, the “Silicone Sister” in Bruce Springsteen’s Blinded by the Light (which of course recalls the second single released on After Hours, Blinding Lights), or even The Adolescents who chanted “L.A girl, L.A. world” in 1981: “Stuck in your world of dreams again / My life starts where your life ends”. In Escape from LA, “She a cold-hearted bitch with no shame,” but The Weeknd doesn’t criticise, he affirms the emptiness of the symbolic order and accepts the “object part” of the love object. He finds a jouissance in the loss of meaning, the void.

The L.A. girls grind to halt as The Weeknd’s decapitated head appears on the road ahead of them. They begrudgingly get out to investigate and on realising The Head belongs to The Weeknd, one remarks “he is so hot!” and they take him back with them to their mansion in The Hills, simulating some kind of two-and-a-half-some. Eventually they hire a lookalike stripper, slice his head off and re-attach The Weeknd’s head to the newfound muscular bottom-half before they “double down” (one face sitter, one dickrider, face to face), reeling in bloody ecstasy over their new Frankenstein.

On the album, Too Late is followed by Hardest to Love. The upbeat instrumentals of the latter is the first song where we get a hint of the 80s, video-game-esque bangers to come. Vocals echo in and out as though wailing out from inside the void with the crackle of timespace radio interference, which then bleed out into a glitchy synth pop soundscape with a stuttering techstep heart/breakbeat that recalls another iconic breakup album: Björk’s Homogenic (1997).

And what we had is dead inside
You’re actin’ like it’s still alive.
It’s hard to let me go
Together we are so alone

Freud made a distinction between mourning and melancholia: “In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself.”9 Mourning culminates in “letting go” but melancholia entails “holding on”—in a sense melancholia is prior mourning in terms of the temporalities of grief.10 It is here, through Melancholia that Fisher defined haunting as a “failed mourning”. He wrote, “It is about refusing to give up the ghost or—and this can sometimes amount to the same thing—the refusal of the ghost to give up on us.”11 For The Weeknd, it is not just that he is holding on to this “dead love” but also that he must become undead so that his undead love object does not let him go. Fisher latched on to melancholia or haunting as failed mourning but wrote nothing of Freud’s mania. As Freud elucidates, “the content of mania is no different from that of melancholia, that both disorders are wrestling with the same ‘complex’ but that probably in melancholia the ego has succumbed to the complex whereas in mania it has mastered it or pushed it aside”.12 At once self-cancelling and self-absorbed, The Weeknd seems to have moved on from My Dear Melancholy (2018) with the post-melancholia mania of After Hours.

While Hardest to Love is, on the surface, a heartfelt confession of failure and self-loathing, it is also ego-affirming. It is an oscillation between melancholia and mania because try as he may to divorce himself from the amorous Image-repertoire, to bury it, “what was renounced reappears; out of the hasty grave suddenly breaks a long cry”.13 This cycle, between mania and depression, is the definition of Bipolar. Darian Leader suggests in his treatise Strictly Bipolar that the rise in Bipolar diagnoses (from less than 1% to 25% of the American population) goes hand in hand with “mania” being reinscribed as a positive goal of 21st century life—one that matches its strange and convulsive rhythms.

“The confidence, exhilaration and energy that characterise the early stages of mania seem so well suited to the exhortations to achievement, productivity and intense commitment that today’s businesses demand… The very features that classical psychology ascribed to the manic attack emerge as the aims of personal development.”14

Creativity, Leader argues, has become “a circus exhibit and … a localisable and marketable property of the psyche”,15 a condition exemplified by a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in 2000 that saw a pharmaceuticals company install a real live artist at the Zyprexa stand. The artist who worked on his collage throughout the conference came to both emphasise the manic-depressive’s public creativity and to show that mood stabilising drugs would not interfere with this highly sought-after effect of mania. Given this, it is not surprising that Bipolar is so common in the world of performers, particularly comedians. Interesting too that “collage” should be the patient’s medium of choice, shared by The Weeknd in After Hours. It may be the quintessentially L.A. disease. However, where Leader describes these rhythms as “strange”, surely this oscillation is quite familiar to us as the boom/bust cycle of capitalism. It is no coincidence that they call it an economic depression. It is this cycle melancholia, mourning and mania that The Weeknd wrestles with in After Hours.

While it’s hard to say where our narrative truly begins or ends, the fourth track on the album seems as good a place as any. An organ kicks off the wake in Scared to Live whose corresponding lyrical referent is “don’t be scared to live again”. An interpolation of Elton John’s iconic pop ballad Your Song secures this song (and album) the status of “dedication” par excellence. Your Song is affective simplicity perfected. It recognises, as Barthes did, that “song is the precious addition to a blank message, entirely constrained within its address”. Admitting the ineptitude of words for the task at hand, Your Song concedes:

It may be quite simple but now that it’s done
I hope you don’t mind
I hope you don’t mind
That I put down in words
How wonderful life is while you’re in the world

As Barthes continues, “Song means nothing: it is in this that you will understand at last what it is that I give you; as useless as the wisp of yarn, the pebble held out to his mother by the child”.16 Fitting that again the dedication should begin first and foremost with the mother, that monstrous figure that haunts all lovelorn men. Over glistening, uplifting synths, The Weeknd sounds like he repeats Elton’s quickly ascending phrase “I hope you don’t mind”, but it has morphed to become “I hope you know that”. Fusing the euphoria or jouissance of love (as with Your Song) with its spectral post-mortem:

So don’t be scared to live again
Be scared to live again
I hope you know that (oh), I hope you know that (oh)
We fell apart right from the start

The end is inscribed in the beginning. As with life, love’s finitude is a condition of its existence “right from the start”. But still, nothing seems quite so finite for the posthuman celebrity. There is no “end” in Weeknd. If American cinema tells us anything, it’s that the end of the world always begins in L.A., at the end of the rainbow. Celebrities, and [particularly the L.A. Girl, hit the future first (or as Žižek says, “Hollywood knows everything”). And, as our model for image circulation, our fifteen-minute aspiration and ideal, they offer a glimpse at the afterlife of our own commodity self-consciousness, somewhere over the rainbow. Cher asked in 1998, in the song that popularised the use of auto-tune as an effect rather than a pitch-corrector, “do you believe in life after love?” Now the question is mani(a)cally reversed. Do you believe in love after life?

Kimye do:

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  1. Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (John Hunt Publishing: 2014), 134. 

  2.  Fisher, Ghosts of My Life, 134. 

  3. Fisher, Ghosts of My Life, 134-5. 

  4. Fisher, Ghosts of My Life, 135. 

  5. Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, Second Edition (London: Verso, 2008), 146. 


  7. Mashup of The Bible. lol. 

  8. Michel Foucault, Remarks on Marx: Conversations with Duccio Trombadori, trans. R. James Goldstein and James Cascaito, (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 1991), 120. 

  9. Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Volume 14, 1914-1916., ed. James Strachey, 1957, 246. 

  10. Roland Barthes expanded on this concept with an “amorous mourning,” in which: “The object is neither dead nor remote. It is I who decide that its image must die (and I may go so far as to hide this death from it). As long as this strange mourning lasts, I will therefore have to undergo two contrary miseries: to suffer from the fact that the other is present (continuing, in spite of himself, to wound me) and to suffer from the fact that the other is dead (dead at least as I loved him.)”—Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (London: Penguin, 1990), 106-107. 

  11. Fisher, Ghosts of My Life, 26. 

  12. Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia”, 254. 

  13. Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse, 108-109. 

  14. Darian Leader, Strictly Bipolar, Later Printing Used edition (London; New York: Penguin Books Ltd, 2013), 2. 

  15. Leader, Strictly Bipolar, 34. 

  16. Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, 77. 

Cover image: xaviar.mp4, me recreating the weeknd’s after hours album cover in the sims, 21 March 2020. See: