The Weeknd: Dawn FM (2022) | featured image

The Weeknd’s ‘Dawn FM’ Carries the Weight of Party Hauntology

In Dawn FM, the Weeknd carries the weight of party hauntology, which explores how our cultural past haunts the present and future and mourns what never comes.

Dawn FM
The Weeknd
XO and Republic
7 January 2022

Canadian artist The Weeknd‘s album Dawn FM (2022) is one of the most dynamic pop records in recent years. Borrowing heavily from 1980s R&B, New Wave, synth-pop, and electro, it sounds closer to Michael Jackson and Depeche Mode than many of the Weeknd’s pop contemporaries. Driven by a sadness beneath the spectacle, Dawn FM comprises heavenly highs that are haunted at every turn by suicidal lows without obvious cause. Production by EDM heavyweights such as Max Martin, Calvin Harris, and Swedish House Mafia underpin its polished pop sound, modernising the retro-radio feel for today’s listeners. The 52-minute running time is a constant dancefloor euphoria, bathed in self-awareness for the simulation it produces – a simulation the Weeknd wants to break out of too. 

With minimal press leading up to Dawn FM’s release, it reached No.1 in ten countries, a testament to the longevity of Abel Makkonen Tesfaye’s decade-long career. It was met with widespread praise – The Guardian awarded it five stars, and it has a score of 88/100 on Metacritic, implying ‘universal acclaim’. The silver-tongued melodies and high-energy production of Dawn FM are so elating that it’s easy to overlook the desperate cries for help echoing within it. The Weeknd traces this anguish through Dawn FM‘s existentialist and nihilist themes, which seep through the easy-listening veil that its depression hides behind.

As the Weeknd is trapped within his past, he is also trapped within a musical past. This is seen through hauntology, which explores how our cultural past persists within the present and future, haunting it like a phantom, creating a mourning for lost futures that never came to be. Through Dawn FM, we hear what music theorist Mark Fisher calls “the sobs in the heart of the 21st-century pleasuredome” (Fisher, 2014).

What Is Hauntology?

Hauntology first appeared in Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1993) and has since become applied to various fields such as film, literature, visual art, architecture, and, most commonly, music. Derrida’s term, and the ideas that have succeeded it, are driven by the underlying notion that – to quote Hamlet – “time is out of joint”. It was popularised in the mid-2000s by music theorists such as Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds, who argue that modern music is haunted by nostalgia – a constant recycling and repetition of old aesthetics and sounds. According to Reynolds (2011), pop culture suffers from an “addiction to its own past”.

These past trends are continually imitated in the ‘new’ cultural products of today, creating a feeling of atemporality. The technological advancements of the 21st century have propelled this sense of time being out of joint. Smartphones, YouTube, and Spotify mean we can exist in the spaces and places of our past at any moment. Cyberspace is the main playground wherein culture functions today. 

In Ghosts of My Life (2014)Fisher coins ‘party hauntology’ to describe how modern pop music represents the same haunting, but its sadness is masked by the materialism and hedonism characteristic of most chart-toppers today. He states, “It’s as if many of the dancefloor tracks are pulled down by a hidden gravity, a disowned sadness…it’s hard not to hear these records’ demands that we enjoy ourselves as thin attempts to distract from a depression that they can only mask, never dissipate”. Fisher cites Drake and Kanye West as two examples of party hauntology. The hip-hop artists swim through material pleasures and lavish lifestyles but are weighed down by a sadness breaking through the celebrity guise. According to Fisher, they are “aware that something is missing, but unsure exactly what it is.” 

On West’s 808s and Heartbreaks (2008) – one of the most influential albums of the 21st century – he traces this melancholy, moving from braggadocios raps about luxury clothes and sports cars to autotune-drowned cries about the emptiness they leave him with. In the song “Pinocchio Story”West confesses:

“There is no Gucci I can buy

There is no Louis Vuitton I can put on

There is no YSL that they could sell

To get my heart out of this hell and my mind out of this jail

There is no clothes that I can buy

That could turn back the time…”

Illustrative of party hauntology, West has hit the pot of gold at the end of the American Dream and is left only with depression. He is haunted by the spectres of his past (such as the death of his mother). 

Dawn FM is defined by this same see-sawing between material excess and remorse. On one hand, the Weeknd’s cycling through drugs, women, and partying to bury the pain is as blatant as ever. On the other, the matured artist – now on his fifth album – is no longer able to numb it as he once could. Superstardom has only propelled his pleasure-torn nihilism, and as grief seeps through the celebrity persona, he can no longer hide in the dark.  

The Darkness Before the Dawn

The album opens with a monologue by Jim Carrey, host of Dawn FM, which sets the tone for its radio-broadcast style – “You’ve been in the dark for way too long / it’s time to walk into the light and accept your fate with open arms…” As Carrey narrates, the Weeknd makes a sudden pitch-shifted scream – “Free Yourself!” – hinting that all is not as it seems. It introduces the core theme – the Weeknd is stuck in purgatory and is trying to get out. Discussing the album with Billboard, he said:

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.

– The Weeknd, Billboard

Dawn FM repeats that it is “easy listening”. All you need to do is “sit back and relax”. You won’t be overloaded with experimental sounds or stripped-back rawness – its darker nature is concealed within its catchy melodies. On the second track, “Gasoline”, the bouncing synth riffs deliver an energetic club song. Closer attention to the lyrics – “it’s 5 AM, I’m nihilist, I know there’s nothing after this” and “pour out the gasoline, it doesn’t matter to me” – show it’s bathed in hopelessness. However, these flashes of vulnerability never last for long. 

After describing traumas and past regrets in “Out of Time”, the Weeknd’s sadness is buried and covered up in the following track – “Here We Go…Again”. He flexes about Billboard photoshoots, Macallan shots, and yacht cruises in an apathetic tone, aware of his inability to change. In the same way his former labelmate Drake uses hedonism to conceal insecurity, the Weeknd uses it to conceal depression. The chorus echoes – “So here we go again” – mocking his lack of any new obstacles to face. It’s the same vicious cycle all over again. All he does know is, “when I make her laugh it cures my depressive thoughts”.

Like its predecessor After Hours (2020), Dawn FM makes frequent allusions to death. Track names such as “Sacrifice” and “Take My Breath” exhibit a death drive, sifting through destructive habits and the ghosts of yesterday still lingering in the present. In “A Tale by Quincy”, legendary producer Quincy Jones discusses how childhood traumas impacted his relationships throughout his life. Hauntology is seen as a ‘failed mourning’ – the refusal or inability to give up or move on from one’s past. The Weeknd explores this haunting in his past – preventing the new dawn he so desperately seeks.

The Weeknd depicts the party as the purgatory he can’t escape from – the gladiatorial arena for his pleasure pursuits. The music video for “Sacrifice” begins with the Weeknd in an empty void listening to Dawn FM – “…it’s time to walk into the light…”. The camera fades into this ‘light’ above him, an artificial glow. He awakens on a nightclub floor, surrounded by a dancing crowd of hooded, faceless figures. The crowd chains him to the stage, forcing him to perform beneath the strobe lights. Slowly, the artificial light above pulls his spirit from his body, his face blurred and distorted. By song’s end, he too has become like the ghoulish figures holding him hostage – faceless, lost in the infinite whirls of spacetime.

He can no longer separate his real identity from the hollowed celebrity persona shaped by corporate sponsorships and tabloids. This loss of self is evident in “Every Angel Is Terrifying”. Opening with pulsating synths and space-soaked harmonies, fake album advertisements mock his Hollywood image. The title also references Brett Easton Ellis’ novel of the same name, which follows a young protagonist in LA who, disillusioned by drug-fuelled partying and one-night stands, becomes alienated from society. As Fisher (2014) says, party hauntology shows “the moment when a commodity achieves self-consciousness, or when a human realises he or she has become a commodity. It’s the soured sound at the end of the rainbow…”

Dawn FM excels at existing on two levels of meaning. For anyone seeking easy listening, the radio-friendly rhythms are sure to entertain; for those intrigued by the haunted messages crooning through the radio broadcast, it steeps far below the plastic depths of most pop music today. What makes the record profound rather than superficial, unique rather than recycled, is this self-awareness of its hypocrisy that runs throughout it. At every turn, it poses the question: does any of this matter? 

Futures That Never Arrived

The hidden sadness that looms within modern pop music, beneath the high-energy smokescreens revelling in pleasure and material excess, depict the sounds and moods that party hauntology is known for. However, hauntology also reconceptualises time itself. It is not seen as linear; rather, the past, present, and future interact and co-exist within one another in a feedback loop. This non-linear quality creates what Fisher (2012) describes as a “yearning for the past…we are constantly mourning something that does not exist and attempting a future that does not exist either…” 

It does not suffice to say that Dawn FM is an ’80s throwback’. The extent of recycling and reproducing sounds and styles extends far beyond ‘borrowing’ and points to its hauntological feeling. As the Weeknd is stuck in purgatory, unable to envision a new future, the ’80s soundscape mimics the same issue. Compare the track “How Do I Make You Love Me” with the ’80s synthpop classic “Don’t You Want Me” (1981) by The Human League – it’s like flipping the record.

The Weeknd’s vocal style often draws comparison to Michael Jackson (“Out of Time” could be a hidden track on 1982’s Thriller) – one of the few artists to truly replicate that transcendent pop sound. A tacit reason for this is many of the Weeknd’s songs precisely mimic the ’80s sounds Jackson popularised, from its juicy funk bass riffs to its non-verbal vocalising and the trademark “Woo!” If MJ got the party started, the Weeknd is singing the eulogy at its wake, long after the lights have gone out.  

Born in 1990, the Weeknd never experienced the ’80s. Instead, the ’80s sounds and styles of the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (Rockstar, 2002) serve as his key inspiration. “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,” he told Billboard. His experience of the ’80s is not derived from the actual decade but from an early 2000’s video game, which is already a pixelated replica. This exhibits a ‘hyperreality’, whereby simulations of reality have become more real than reality itself.

An Evening with Silk Sonic (2021) – one of the biggest albums of last year – shows this same borrowing from the past but from a decade earlier. The entire LP – musically, lyrically, and visually – is ’70s funk. Silk Sonic (Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak) do not package it as ‘new’ – they wear its old-school flavour right through to the bone. Like Dawn FM, it is a joyous listen, as charismatic and rhythmically complex as modern pop music comes, praised by critics and fans alike. Going back further, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (2013) is a tribute to the late ’70s and early ’80s scenes of disco, funk, and soft rock. The electronic duo disregarded sampling and modern recording techniques for the older analogue production styles, not only replicating the sounds of the past but the very ways in which the artists created the records. The album cover, music videos, and promotional content all offer the same vintage feel. Even its track titles (“Give Life Back to Music” and “Fragments of Time”) show a mourning for a musical past.

This trend seen throughout the popular music of today poses a larger question: what does it mean that the most popular and influential artists of today seem unable to create anything new? Pop music has always relied on yesterday’s trends, but in the cybernetic infobahn of the 21st century, the extent to which we look to the past to express our present has greatly intensified. As Fisher (2014) states:

“We can act as if we’re experiencing all this for the first time, that the future is still ahead of us. The sadness ceases to be something we feel, and instead consists in our temporal predicament itself, and we are…dancing to ghost songs, convincing ourselves that the music of yesteryear is really the music of today.”

— Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life

The constant imagining of the future, whether it was Blade Runner (Scott, 1982)or the retro-futurist sounds of Kraftwerk, created images of what our tomorrow would look like. As these futures cease to arrive, vacuumed into cultural memory, they leave behind a deep melancholy. This is alike to how Francis Fukuyama dubbed “the end of history” (1989); it feels as if cultural evolution has reached its endpoint and is now inverting back inwards on itself.

While Dawn FM repeatedly promises ‘the light’ is coming, it never actualises. Its heaven stays out of reach, waiting in a future that never comes, while the Weeknd (and the listener) remain in purgatory. As the black backdrop of the album cover suggests, dawn has come without sunlight. In January of this year, the Weeknd cryptically tweeted, “Did you know you’re experiencing a new trilogy?” The clear evolution from After Hours to Dawn FM speaks to the potential for a third instalment. Whether this release from purgatory will lead the listener into heaven or hell remains to be seen. In the meantime, as Carrey tells the listener on the album’s fittingly titled closer, “Phantom Regret by Jim”, “you have to wait here when you’re not all there yet”. 

Works Cited

Derrida, J. Specters of Marx. Routledge. 1993. 

Fisher, M. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Zero Books. 2014. 

Fisher, M. “What is Hauntology?Film Quarterly. Vol. 66. No. 5. 2012.

Mamo, H. ‘The Greatest Hit: The New No. 1 Song Of All Time‘, Billboard. 2021. 

Reynolds, S. Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2011.