The Meaning Behind “Can’t Feel My Face” by The Weeknd

Can it possibly be that “Can’t Feel My Face” was released all the way back in 2015? It seems like a perpetually new track, simply because it hasn’t really gone away since it was released by the Weeknd and went to the top of the pop charts. 

Videos by American Songwriter

But how did this engagingly upbeat song come to be? Why was it such a departure for the Weeknd compared to his previous work? And what did the guy who helped make stars out of The Backstreet Boys have to do with any of it? Let’s answer all those questions and take a closer look at the meaning behind this monster hit.

From Mystery to Madness

Abel Tesfaye, who hails from Toronto, Canada, didn’t just become a Super Bowl halftime performer overnight, although it might have seemed that way to some who didn’t follow the earliest stages of his career. Tesfaye had actually built his success through a series of anonymous tracks released on YouTube, creating a buzz that sustained even when he began performing on mixtapes using the moniker The Weeknd.

Even before he had released a proper studio album, Tesfaye had already gained an impressive reputation among critics with R&B stylings, which contained some classical sounds while also incorporating plenty of contemporary twists and hip-hop vibes. But it was mostly downbeat music, albeit music that was laced with sly humor even as it went to some dark places.

The groundswell of support behind The Weeknd only rose when he finally had the chance to release a proper studio album after thriving with his mixtapes. Kiss Land, which was released in September 2013, only solidified Tesfaye’s hold on the world of R&B. Tesfaye’s already-devout fandom made the album a hit, but he still hadn’t made it beyond that.

Tesfaye soon began to make commercial inroads on the singles chart, albeit, in both cases, with some piggybacking involved. He joined with Ariana Grande for “Love Me Harder,” and then “Earned It” received a boost from its inclusion on the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack. The Weeknd had pretty much conquered a very specific niche of the music world, but could he do it on a grander scale?

To do that, he likely understood that he needed a song that gave fans a little bit more of an upbeat feeling when they heard it. To do that, he turned to a man who knew how to produce material like that perhaps better than anybody else in the post-millennial era.

Mighty Max

To be clear, Max Martin is one of five writers listed on “Can’t Feel My Face,” along with Tesfaye, Ali Payami, Savan Kotecha, and Peter Svensson. He co-produced the song with Payami. But considering the incredible list of hits that he’s had a hand in creating over the years, starting with his work with Britney Spears and The Backstreet Boys, it’s impossible not to see the connection between Martin and the song that would do what none of the Weeknd’s previous songs had done: top the pop charts.

“Can’t Feel My Face” was the third single released from the Weeknd’s second studio album, Beauty Behind the Madness (2015). All it takes is one listen to hear how it separates itself from the rest of his work. With plenty of synths, an indefatigable beat, and an undeniable nod to vintage Michael Jackson, the first reaction upon hearing the song is to dance, not to brood.

In an interview with Zane Lowe for Beats 1, Tesfaye admitted that the song was a departure. Still, it helped that he had already dipped his toes in the water of a more accessible sound: “‘Can’t Feel My Face’ definitely made me feel nervous because it was so separate from what I’m used to putting out. It was a risk. But doing songs like ‘Earned It’ and ‘Love Me Harder’ definitely – I think ‘Love Me Harder’ was even more nervous for me, so doing that I was kind of sending a message and kind of easing into ‘Can’t Feel My Face.’”

One interesting note about “Can’t Feel My Face”: It was the first time that Martin had ever hit the top of the charts while working with a solo male artist. All his previous No. 1 songs came with either female artists or groups. 

What Does “Can’t Feel My Face” Mean?

Well, it doesn’t refer to what happens when you get a shot at the dentist’s office. But the cool thing about the song is that it can have a couple of different meanings. One of the ingenious things that Tesfaye did with “Can’t Feel My Face” was to put out a song that cast a wider net, while still including some of the trademarks for which his faithful audience knows him.

After all, the lyrics start off awful dark: 

And I know she’ll be the death of me
At least we’ll both be numb
And she’ll always get the best of me
The worst is yet to come
But at least we’ll both be beautiful 
And stay forever young

When you read those words on the page, it seems clear that The Weeknd is referencing drugs in “Can’t Feel My Face.” (He even hints as much in the track “Reminder” from his 2016 album Starboy.) But when you hear them in the context of the rush of the music and Tesfaye’s seductive vocals, you could easily believe that he’s singing about a heady, romantic relationship that might not be the best for him.

In any case, “Can’t Feel My Face” elevated Tesfaye to another level of popularity. It’s hard to imagine that The Weeknd could have made that much-publicized Super Bowl appearance without this song making him a household name even among casual music fans. It may be a song about feeling nothing. But listeners have been feeling spectacular about it all the while.

Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

5 Artists Who Covered John Prine Songs and Made Them Their Own

Ron Pope

Ron Pope Plots 2024 A Drop In the Ocean Tour