Avicii Will Live Forever as an EDM Legend
The Swedish DJ and producer, who died at the age of 28, struggled in the spotlight, but his influence on EDM and its culture is permanent.
Photo by Mike Pont / Getty Images
This article originally appeared on VICE US.
In the hours following the news of the death of Tim Bergling—the Swedish DJ and producer known to the world as Avicii, who was found dead yesterday in Muscat, Oman—I've been fascinated by social media testimonials focusing on the experiences derived from listening to "Levels" and his other singles, celebrating their relationship to the artist's work rather than the (largely unknowable, partially by design) artist himself. This isn't to say that people are honoring him the wrong way—far from it, in fact. There's a sort of beauty in leaving your mark on the world as someone who helped create lasting memories for others—as well as a poetic irony that, for someone who worked within EDM, a sub-genre of dance music constantly obsessed with the now and oblivious to the future, Bergling likely helped create moments for people that will last forever.
Part of what made Bergling's success as Avicii—as well as, by extension, his many peers—so fascinating and so utterly defining of this decade was that you could derive maximum enjoyment from his music without even knowing his real name, or what he even looked like. This isn't to say he was Marshmello-level anonymous by any means (he was even the face of a Ralph Lauren campaign in 2013), but his biggest singles—2011's unbeatable "Levels" and the countrified 2013 Aloe Blacc collaboration "Wake Me Up"—possessed a level of ubiquitousness on Top 40 radio that your parents have likely enjoyed Avicii's music without even knowing who made it. Mainstream pop has never been so consumed with the cult of personality as it's been in the 2010s, but EDM and genre-adjacent artists like Bergling have largely represented the inverse of that trend, making music that's soundtracked millions of personal experiences while remaining a blank slate personality-wise.
As Avicii, he released two full-lengths, 2013's True and the 2015 follow-up Stories; the former notched Platinum status in the U.S., bolstered partially by the aforementioned "Wake Me Up." But his arguable musical peak—as well as possibly his most-loved song by the EDC-set—was 2011's "Levels," a song that barely scraped the Billboard Top 40 upon release but achieved a level of festival-speaker ubiquitousness. It's very much Avicii's One Song, in the sense that when you think of Avicii, you think of "Levels." (This is a compliment; in EDM and dance music in general, One Song is often all it takes, and many spend careers much longer than Bergling's trying in vain to nail it.)
"Oh, sometimes, I get a good feeling," the voice of Etta James—in a sample ripped from her 1962 single "Something's Got a Hold on Me"—ripples through a cavern of empty space, looping over a steady build of finger-snaps and synth pads until the song's zig-zag melody emerges again, huger than ever. The appeal of "Levels" is immediately obvious upon first listen, the sentiment totally applicable to anyone who's wrinkled their nose in response to being called a "millennial." Over the last decade, people of a certain age have often found themselves totally lost in the world—financially, politically, and so on—which led to seeking a sort of release from the pain of existing. Maybe hearing "Levels" makes you want to stand in a field and shout along, maybe it makes you want to spend some time with friends in a variety of settings—maybe it makes you want to buy stuff. Either way, if you've heard "Levels" at any point over the last seven years and it made you feel good, Bergling's mission was accomplished.
And it's the nature of that mission itself made Bergling's health struggles leading to his passing—the 28-year-old suffered from acute pancreatitis, an illness often caused by heavy drinking—bitterly ironic. "There's free alcohol everywhere—it's weird if you don't drink," he told GQ contributor Jessica Pressler exactly that in April of 2013, and following his death it's impossible not to view the statement as an ominous warning. At the heart of Pressler's profile—which otherwise and excellently chronicles the height of EDM's economic stranglehold on the music industry with equal parts bemusement and chuckling curiosity—is Bergling's struggle with alcohol abuse as a byproduct of shuttling from superstar gig to superstar gig.
A liquid diet of Bloody Marys, champagne, and wine led to a week-plus hospital stay and Bergling's diagnosis. According to the Pancreatic Foundation, the symptoms of acute pancreatitis include "severe, constant" abdominal pain that typically requires extended hospital treatment, the mortality rate hovering around ten percent "I probably drink more now than I should," Bergling admitted to Pressler, following up by claiming a no-two-day-benders rule as a self-imposed preventative measure of sorts before taking the journalist out for a debauched night on the town.
A month before the GQ profile was published, Bergling's doctors reportedly urged him to have his gallbladder removed, but he refused; in March of 2014, he underwent surgery to remove his gallbladder and appendix after a pancreatitis flare-up, cancelling a host of tour dates and a headlining spot at that year's Ultra Music Festival. Until his last performance on August 28, 2016—which marked his official retirement from touring—Bergling's tour schedule underwent constant upheaval as he struggled to deal with the complications of his illness.
As of writing, there is no cause of death known following Bergling's passing, but it doesn't seem inappropriate to assert that Bergling suffered greatly over the last five years from health issues caused by alcohol abuse—and it's worth considering how much the general permissiveness of the music industry, as well as EDM culture in general, were enabling factors. Centered around a loosely-categorized sub-genre of electronic music that mostly served as a financial boom-and-bust injection for the music industry over the past decade, the culture surrounding EDM has long been guaranteed a tainted legacy: on musical merits, it's easily dismissed, and we regularly ascribe decline-of-civilization platitudes towards its culture of chemical excess and rank misogyny.
Although there have been encouraging recent signs trending in the opposite direction, there was a stretch of time (let's say from 2012 to 2016) where EDM-festival casualty reports became a horrifying norm. Since 2011, seven people have died at the Las Vegas-based Electric Daisy Carnival; as of July 2017, there have been 29 drug-related deaths at dance events organized by Los Angeles-based companies. Coupled with the fact that the music industry is one that, if you're so inclined, will always keep a drink in your hand and any other substance you desire within arms' reach, Bergling's tragic and sudden passing serves as a reminder that this cultural toxicity is just as capable of killing the people onstage, too.
"I have a great opportunity to focus on myself and spend time trying to grow up in a way I never got the chance to—normal, or as normal as it could get," Bergling said in a 2015 statement following a spate of concert cancellations. "My team, label, and family have encouraged me to do that and I realize not many in my position get that opportunity." Along with possessing a level of frank transparency, the statement itself highlights the most tragic element of Bergling's passing: he was a young person making music for young people, his opportunity to further grow cut short even as the memories he soundtracked live on.]
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