The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” is the new No. 1 song on Billboard’s Greatest Songs of All Time Hot 100 Chart. In celebration, Billboard is launching a special collection of trading cards which will be followed by the debut of a limited-edition NFT collection.
Chubby Checker once described the steps of his 1960 chart-topping hit “The Twist” as someone swiveling their hips, swinging their arms in the opposite direction and twisting their feet as if they were putting out a cigarette. The song and dance were simple but irresistible: Thanks to separate chart runs in 1960 and again in 1962, “The Twist” was named Billboard’s all-time Hot 100 No. 1 single in 2008, a designation that factors in total weeks on the chart as well as exact chart positions, with weeks at No. 1 earning the greatest value and weeks at No. 100 earning the least. (Due to changes in chart methodology over the years, eras are weighted differently to account for chart turnover rates during various periods.) To this day, Checker boasts on his website that it’s an achievement no one else will claim “until 2065.”
Then came The Weeknd. In early 2020, the singer born Abel Tesfaye released an ominous music video that saw him doing his own little shuffle, swaying his hips and gingerly tapping his feet to a song, “Blinding Lights,” that had debuted just two months before — and which would soon leave its own mark on pop history. Though Tesfaye, 31, had topped plenty of charts before, the adrenaline-pumping synth-pop track (created with help from legendary songwriter-producer Max Martin) marked the final stage of his evolution from enigmatic breakout of Toronto’s underground R&B scene to genre-busting icon. And with cinematic, high-concept visuals and performances that took him all the way to the Super Bowl halftime show — all starring a mysterious red-jacketed, increasingly bruised and bandaged character Tesfaye played throughout — “Blinding Lights” and the album that accompanied it, After Hours, also cemented Tesfaye as not just a radio fixture, but an auteur in his own right.
“I feel like I’ve been making that record for a decade,” Tesfaye says with a sigh today. “Blinding Lights” had a slow burn, reaching the top of the Hot 100 in March 2020, the same week After Hours debuted atop the Billboard 200. But once it took hold, listeners wouldn’t let it go: The four-week No. 1 smash shattered the record for most weeks spent in the top five (43 weeks), top 10 (57), top 40 (86) and on the Hot 100 (90) — enough to dethrone “The Twist” on Billboard’s Greatest of All Time Hot 100 chart by the end of its chart run in September.
“From the first time I met Abel, it was clear that he was destined for global stardom,” says Republic Records co-founder/CEO Monte Lipman. “And it’s just one of those cases where the stars aligned. ‘Blinding Lights’ went into the zeitgeist and became one of those songs that just had this emotional impact on so many people around the world.”
From a fateful studio session to its high-concept rollout to its influence on his upcoming fifth album, Tesfaye, his closest collaborators and members of his team share how one of pop music’s most historic hits came to be.
“There Was Nothing We Had Heard Like That Before From Abel.”
After exorcising some personal demons with the 2018 EP My Dear Melancholy, — a dark, muted throwback to his early work — Tesfaye was ready to play pop star again on his fourth studio album. He convened an all-star crew — including Swedish superproducer Martin, who had helped him score his first Hot 100 No. 1 with “Can’t Feel My Face” — as well as longtime collaborators and co-writers like Jason “DaHeala” Quenneville and Ahmad “Belly” Balshe to channel his love of 1980s pop music and video-game soundtracks into radio-friendly anthems. The material came easily and quickly — he recorded After Hours tracks “Scared To Live” and “Save Your Tears” during the same session at New York’s Jungle City Studios as “Blinding Lights.”
Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye: My Dear Melancholy, was one of those things I had to just get off my chest, and I didn’t really want anyone’s input. So I was excited to be in the studio again with collaborators I love. You can only imagine how quick those songs came.
Max Martin, co-producer/writer: Abel came with the vision of what the song should be, which was a very different tempo and vibe than what is usually done. He took a risk, and that was very impressive to us. We all felt this song was very special even early on in the process.
Tesfaye: GTA: Vice City really opened my eyes to a lot of ’80s music, so there was a nostalgia for when I was a kid playing video games and listening to Hall & Oates and Michael Jackson while driving through the city.
Martin: My engineer Sam [Holland] had brought up equipment to project on the wall a computer-animated car driving through a futuristic city for inspiration. I hadn’t seen something like that before, and Abel came in and loved it.
Tesfaye: Me and Max hadn’t worked together since the Starboy album, so we were excited to connect again. And it was the first time I worked with Oscar [Holter, a close Martin collaborator], and that was instantly kismet. And Belly and DaHeala are my guys — anything I do, I feel like I have to bounce ideas off them.
Ahmad “Belly” Balshe, co-writer: Getting to watch the great Max Martin and Abel create is a dream in itself, and I’m just beyond honored and proud to be a part of something this legendary.
Monte Lipman, co-founder/CEO, Republic Records: During a playback of an early version of After Hours in the studio, I was like, “Whoa, what was that?” We actually made him play it a couple more times. There was nothing we had heard like that before from Abel.
Tesfaye: I’ve always been tinkering with the [sounds of the] ’80s. It was much more subtle before, but I’ve always wanted to completely dive into it. And 10 years in, I think I’ve earned it.
Wassim “Sal” Slaiby, manager; co-founder/CEO, XO Records: He’s got that power to take something and make it cool, make it edgy, make it risky, make it kid-friendly.
La Mar C. Taylor, creative director; co-founder, XO Records: He knows exactly what he wants. If you’re a true Weeknd fan, then you understand sonically where he was going with his music. He was always headed in this direction. It was always building up to something like this. It was such an ambitious record for Abel at the time. It was either going to be the biggest song in the world — or go over people’s heads.
“I Had Never Seen Someone Take On A Character Like That.”
Making the song was only half the journey — Tesfaye also had to bring it to life visually. Just as he had shed the freeform locs of his “Can’t Feel My Face” days for a sharper look during his Starboy rollout in 2016, the singer sought a new look for After Hours, turning to renowned Hollywood tailor Fresh (who had previously worked on suits for his red-carpet appearances and other events) to transform him into a nameless character inspired by Las Vegas noir. With his signature red blazer, he became central to The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” performances and subsequent music videos, which followed the character on a disorienting, violent odyssey through the glitz and grit of Sin City — and inspired countless Reddit threads trying to unpack its meaning.
Taylor: Abel can have those long-winded rollouts and just keep the audience engaged the whole time. This was like George Lucas, when he dropped the first Star Wars poster a year and a half out from the actual film day, and every six months, dropped another teaser leading up to it.
Tesfaye: I toyed with the idea with Starboy and Beauty Behind the Madness — in the videos, I was telling a throughline story. So I feel like After Hours is me executing it at full potential, and me going full Method on it.
Fresh, tailor: He told me he had some ideas for his new album, and he wanted to try this suit concept out. He gave me some movies to watch.
Tesfaye: From Jack Nicholson’s character in Chinatown to the film Possession to Tim Robbins in Jacob’s Ladder, it’s just all of my favorite psychological thrillers and dramas in one universe.
Taylor: There was a nod to Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Casino by Martin Scorsese — really iconic Las Vegas cinema. We were just trying to pay respect to those great actors and filmmakers that really created our world for us.
Fresh: I put some things together, and that became the red suit. It really resonated with him, and he just kept reordering it. I think after the third reorder, I got it. I lost count after 15, 18. I saw the suit first come to life at the set of “Heartless” [After Hours’ first single]. I went to Vegas to deliver it to him. It was fascinating watching him work, and then just seeing it come together when the video actually hit.
Slaiby: When you see the “Heartless” video, he’s building that character for you. It wouldn’t make sense to just build the character where [“Blinding Lights”] starts. It feels like it’s coming up before going into the story and into the vision.
Fresh: When he did this, it wasn’t just Abel anymore. He created a persona and took this guy through a whole experience. I had never seen someone take on a character like that for an entire year.
Tesfaye: People were asking me if I was hurt physically, if I was mentally OK.
Lipman: There really is no detail too small in every moment and every performance.
Fresh: Abel is one of the biggest stars in the world, so to be the guy that’s responsible for producing that look and having some creative input in the concept, it’s pretty awesome. He did the best job since Michael Jackson did that red jacket.
“It Helped Us Get Through A Very, Very Difficult And Dark Period.”
The rollout of “Blinding Lights” unfolded in blockbuster fashion, beginning with the song’s debut in a Mercedes-Benz campaign starring Tesfaye in late 2019. “I’m so happy he got to make ‘Blinding Lights’ at the right time in his career, where he’s able to not only give the song the biggest push, but have a company like Mercedes say, ‘Wow, we want to be a part of this,’ ” says Slaiby. Yet fans gave the song a life of its own, too: Amid the pandemic’s onset in early 2020, “Blinding Lights” soundtracked a joyful TikTok dance challenge that offered quarantining families and front-line health-care workers alike a little levity. After the song hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 chart dated April 4 (just as After Hours launched atop the Billboard 200), The Weeknd kept it alive with virtual concerts, awards show performances and remixes (Rosalía joined a new version in December 2020), culminating with his 2021 Super Bowl halftime show. “The day I said goodbye to the red jacket character was at the Super Bowl,” says Tesfaye. “It kind of immortalized him.” Still, the world wasn’t quite ready to let go: His performance gave “Blinding Lights” a 45% weekly boost in streams and a 247% sales increase that kept the song going strong in its third calendar year, according to MRC Data.
Taylor: That TikTok challenge was so massive because I feel like people had so much time to be at home with their families, their loved ones, doing these cute little quirky videos. I feel like the timing of it was really important to the success of the record. The pandemic was awful, but seeing happy videos going viral of people dancing in the midst of the madness was really inspiring to see.
Slaiby: People wanted a song that was emotional but at the same time made you get up and dance and just feel free. I think “Blinding Lights” has all these feelings.
Lipman: It helped us get through a very, very difficult and dark period. The record brought so much joy and essentially brought people together, and it’s something that I’ve said to Abel, “You should be incredibly proud of.”
Jon Zellner, president of programming operations, iHeartMedia: If you think about songs that [cross over and succeed at different radio formats], you have this evolution that sometimes fizzles out. And that wasn’t the case with this song because it’s so melodic, it’s so memorable, and there’s so much mass appeal.
Lipman: With a song like this, you open the window and you hold on for dear life, because this record is going to take you to places you haven’t seen before and ultimately go into uncharted waters.
Taylor: As a visual person, the pandemic had a silver lining in the sense of, “Yo, we can get really creative with this s–t and push the envelope.” It was a real eureka moment when we had the late-night and Super Bowl performances, which gave us the flexibility of doing things how we wanted.
Zellner: The appearance at the Super Bowl helped [the song’s trajectory], because that’s really when you get into middle America.
Tesfaye: People can’t put a face to the song that they hear on the radio while they’re in the car or at parties. The Super Bowl puts a face to all those memories.
Zellner: When a station has played a song thousands of times, what will happen in research is that, through the law of averages, you’ll start to see a lower score when a song gets burned, or people get tired of it. In the case of “Blinding Lights,” there was very little burn on that song — and still is to this day.
“He Has Always Been Different.”
“Blinding Lights” paved the way for even more Weeknd hits, including “Save Your Tears” — which topped the Hot 100 in May thanks in part to an Ariana Grande remix — and the disco-infused “Take My Breath,” the first taste of his next album, which he says will be out before his After Hours Til Dawn stadium tour begins next summer. “That’s a lot of ground to cover,” says Taylor of the tour. “And we want to put on a show that has never been seen before in a stadium space.” Yet even as the cinematic universe of After Hours marked a new level of artistry from the singer, Tesfaye says the success of “Blinding Lights” helped give him the confidence to pull off his next, even more ambitious chapter.
Tesfaye: I started writing the [next] album during the pandemic, which felt like we’re all in this scary, unknown territory. And I wanted to make music I thought sounded like going outside — I was obsessed with that feeling. I just felt like I didn’t know how to make this album until now. It probably would be too ambitious for me prior. I knew what I liked, but I felt like I didn’t have the skill sets to deliver that type of project until now.
Taylor: As we did each body of work, it’s just getting more refined, more refined, more refined to the sound where he’s at now.
Tesfaye: Picture the album being like the listener is dead. And they’re stuck in this purgatory state, which I always imagined would be like being stuck in traffic waiting to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. And while you’re stuck in traffic, they got a radio station playing in the car, with a radio host guiding you to the light and helping you transition to the other side. So it could feel celebratory, could feel bleak, however you want to make it feel, but that’s what The Dawn is for me.
Lipman: When you think about The Weeknd now, it’s hard to just try and categorize him as any particular genre of music because he has reached that level of success. It’s also what makes him so exciting going forward, because you never know what’s next.
Tesfaye: Who knows what the next one is going to sound like? When it comes to my albums, there is a cohesive sound going on, but I can’t really stick to one style. So you’ll hear EDM, hip-hop and three other types of sounds in one song — and somehow, we make it work.
Taylor: To go from being the underground king to being where he is now, I don’t think it would’ve been received the way it is now if it wasn’t organic or if it didn’t happen naturally. I’ve seen a lot of artists in the past that have gone from underground to pop, but they compromised along the way. They sold themselves out and fell short in their offerings to their fans, the ones who put them in that position. But with Abel, there was none of that because of the progression and evolution. Everything felt true to his artist journey.
Tesfaye: [There were] songs that transcended into pop culture, like “The Hills.” But by the time “Blinding Lights” happened, I was 10 years into my career and established as a music figure in the industry already. So I’m glad “Blinding Lights” happened when it happened as opposed to it being the first single I’ve ever dropped. That’d be scary for me.
Slaiby: He has always been different — his way of making a song, his way of developing a show, his way of thinking of his marketing and rollouts. I think he’s going to be that artist who will be remembered 20, 30, 40, 50, 100 years from now.
Tesfaye: I don’t think [the success of “Blinding Lights”] has hit me yet. I try not to dwell on it too much. I just count my blessings, and I’m just grateful.