Last week brought the shocking news of Swedish DJ Avicii’s passing. After years of chart-conquering singles, long tours with crowds of thousands and a rise to the main circles of the EDM scene, Avicii announced his retirement from live shows in 2016 and started working on his third studio album with a planned trilogy of EPs before its release. Born Tim Bergling in 1989, he died in Muscat, Oman at the age of 28 on 20 April 2018. The Saint pays tribute to him with a closer look at his career and a personal story to explore what made him one of the biggest stars in the world of music.
Bergling’s stage name comes from Avīci, the lowest realm of Buddhist hell Naraka. Struggling to find a username for his Myspace account (as even his own name had already been taken), his choice fell upon Avīci after a friend explained its mythical background. In April 2010, he released the song “Bromance”, the first in his discography to climb to the upper half of Scandinavian charts. Later that year, its vocal version “Seek Bromance” dominated Europe, and caught the ears of international listeners. Diplo remembers in his commemorative Instagram post, “You made me want [to] try and make dance music when I first heard “Seek Bromance”. And then u kept making [me] feel like shit cause you kept gettin better and i couldn’t even mix a snare right.”
“Oh, sometimes I get a good feeling, yeah. Get a feeling that I never never never had before. No, no. I get a good feeling, yeah.” Perhaps one of the most recognisable lines in modern pop, the 2011 single “Levels” samples Etta James’s 1962 gospel “Something’s Got a Hold on Me”, shedding light on Avicii’s adventurousness in experimenting with genre. A mixture of house, EDM, and gospel, “Levels” is the embodiment of a hit and is considered by many as one of the greatest achievements in electronic dance. The version we know today premiered at Ultra Music Festival in Miami, which later became a general key checkpoint in Avicii’s career, as it was also the scene of the controversial unveiling of his 2013 studio album True. What exactly happened? Following the gig’s negative reception, Avicii confessed on Facebook, “In a 75 minute set, I brought a 15 minute different breakdown with live musicians to a festival with nonstop dance music for 3 days straight and 2 weeks in a row. I really wanted to switch things up and do something fun and different, as I always strive for, and this album is about experimentation.” Indeed, Avicii’s enormous set was interrupted by acoustic performances from artists he collaborated with on True, including Aloe Blacc, members of the band Incubus and Mac Davis. One of the songs played was “Wake Me Up”, an interesting mixture of folk, country, and EDM, which initially upset the crowd at UMF. Since its worldwide release four years ago, the song has garnered more than 1.5 billion views on Youtube (no need to mention its position on international charts and eventually overwhelmingly positive reception).
An introvert forced into a world of extroverts, Avicii was not ready for fame. Mike Posner’s Grammy-nominated single “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” features the lines “I took a pill in Ibiza / To show Avicii I was cool”, hinting at the hierarchy between artists, the problematic thriving to live up to idols, and the materialistic pleasures that can eventually lead to a star’s downfall. In 2016, Avicii announced he would retire from exhaustive touring due to health issues, and focus on his follow-up album to 2015’s Stories. “It was something I had to do for my health. The scene was not for me. It was not the shows and not the music. It was always the other stuff surrounding it that never came naturally to me”, he revealed in an interview with Billboard.
I cannot deny that his songs were unmissable components of a night out during my years in high school. He reached out to millions with his songs, and it’s not about being a fan and constant listener, but the joy he brought to clubbing and the popularisation of EDM. On the day of the news of his passing, I was walking home late at night on Lamond Drive and overheard “Levels” from the other side of the road. I looked for the source of the sound and eventually noticed a student carrying a large speaker in his hand. Whenever its three-minute runtime ended, he just played it again to make sure all the inhabitants of Lamond Drive could remember Avicii. This got me strangely nostalgic, and reminded me of a pleasant high school memory.
Six years ago, in my second year my class joined an exchange program with a bilingual French school in Slovakia. Season 4 of Breaking Bad had just ended, everyone was reading The Hunger Games in preparation for the movie, and no matter where you found yourself on a night out, you were going to hear Avicii’s “Levels” at some point. Exchange programs can be tough – depending on which student we were assigned to, the cliques on both sides were bound to be broken up. After a week of getting to know my classmates better as well as the Slovakian students, we spent our last night in their favourite local club. It all started out a bit awkwardly: we were all under 18 and got shut down by bartenders if we asked for drinks, and none of us really wanted to go dancing unless someone else came with us. And then, “Levels” started playing from the speakers, a friend of mine and I got up and hit the dancefloor, and encouraged the others to join us. After all the trashy pop and EDM we’d heard that night, “Levels” was the tune we all recognised, the song that was generally cool to know and dance to. No matter how much my memories from my early teens make me cringe today, this one from the Slovakian club with “Levels” bringing together our group of silly, prejudiced 16-year-olds remains one of my most vivid and pleasant sources of nostalgia.
We all have our Avicii stories: it doesn’t really matter if you liked his music or not, there definitely was a moment in the past decade where one of his bombastic productions was playing in the background while something great was happening to you. Succeeding in sharing your art with people all around the globe in the timespan of such a short career and being remembered by millions by your late 20s is a tremendous achievement that most of us only get to dream of. Tim Bergling did it, and may he rest in peace.