Is Avicii the Bob Dylan of EDM?
The producer's retirement feels like the end of an era, but the real question is what's ended—and what is yet to come.
"The music he's created over the years, I don't really listen to it, but the fact that he's making it, I respect that." — Hansel, Zoolander
A producer and DJ who looks like a sexy, sharp-nosed Swedish robot with a knack for melding explosive drops with huge pop hooks, Avicii has spent the past few years becoming an avatar for the international EDM explosion. But the 26 year-old, real name Tim Bergling, has had enough of rockstardom and the considerable horseshit that comes with it—on March 29, he announced in a long note on his website that he's retiring from live shows, and his 2016 tour—which mostly consists of an April/May Vegas residency, as well as festival shows and an August residency at Ushuahïa in Ibiza—will be his last. Although the note didn't explicitly say why he decided to stop performing, his history of alcohol-related health problems is widely presumed to the the cause for this decision.
Avicii took his name from Avīci, the Buddhist concept for the lowest level of hell, and it seems like for the past few years he's been trapped in an Avīci of his own creation: do the whole superstar DJ thing long enough, with enough people's livelihoods depending on your ability to hopscotch around timezones and make the untz-untz happen for an endless menagerie of partygoers, and it stops feeling like an endless tour and more like a forced march. Avicii's retirement feels like the end of an era, but the real question is what's ended—and what is yet to come.
Coming of age in the mid-aughts and exploding in the 2010s, Avicii and EDM have enjoyed something of a symbiotic relationship. The genre's buzz as the hot new sound in pop piqued interest in its biggest star, while Avicii's ability to craft pop in a way that made sense to anyone who listened helped bring more fans into the fold.
In his own way, Avicii is like EDM's Bob Dylan—a transformational figure who lent credence to a growing movement, only to realize that the whole affair was pretty bullshit and walk away from it all. "Silhouettes," with lyrics like "We will never go back to the old school" and "We are the future and we're here to stay," echoes the same fuck-the-olds perspective Bob espoused when he sang, "Your sons and your daughters / Are beyond your command" on "The Times They Are A-Changin'." The similarities between the two artists go even further: the Beatles got turned onto weed by Dylan; Mike Posner "took a pill in Ibiza to show Avicii I was cool." Dylan also openly fucked with reporters who didn't understand him, while Avicii overshared with GQ's Jessica Pressler in 2013—talking candidly about his struggle with alcohol addiction and how what he does on stage is "technically it's not that hard"—then wrote a bitchy Facebook post claiming he was misquoted.
Avicii blindsiding ravers at Ultra 2013 by playing country music with a live band is probably as close as we'll ever get to Dylan facing an audience of royally pissed off folk fans at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965, telling The Band to "PLAY FUCKING LOUD!" during "Like a Rolling Stone." The jangly, folky, "Wake Me Up" and Avicii's 2013 country-pop debut album True can definitely be read as an affront to the EDM establishment that birthed him, but it can also be understood as a canny hedge—an escape hatch the career-savvy artist could hop into if EDM ever imploded, via pivoting from festivals like EDC to Stagecoach. Maybe Dylan similarly sensed that the folk scene was over so he hitched his wagon to an amp. But if that's the case, at least he had the common decency to hide his true intentions and be a public dick about the his stylistic change. Unlike Dylan, however, Avicii's flirtation with country-tinged pop was mostly an anomaly—he'd soon return to more traditional EDM sounds with his production work on Coldplay's "Sky Full of Stars" as well as his The Days/Nights EP. Vestiges of his failed experiment still linger, though: "Broken Arrows" off last year's Stories features a synthesized banjo line and a guest vocal from country superstar Zac Brown.
Do the whole superstar DJ thing long enough, and it stops feeling like an endless tour and more like a forced march.
The parallels between Dylan and Avicii become even more uncanny when you consider their late-phase shitshow periods. In 1966, at the height of his fame, Dylan got bucked off a motorcycle and wound up with a broken neck, subsequently ditching his touring schedule and holing up in upstate New York to spend time with his wife and children. He wouldn't tour again until 1973. As time has passed, Dylan scholars have questioned the severity of the motorcycle accident, suggesting that more than anything, Dylan was just exhausted from touring, writing, making a film, and recording new music. He'd taken to amphetamine use just to keep up with his schedule, and its effects had clearly taken its toll: pictures of him from that period show a gaunt speed freak, with freakishly intense eyes and tiny pants. It's likely if Dylan hadn't wrecked his bike, he would have been facing severe burnout from drugs and exhaustion.
Avicii might not have gotten into a motorcycle crash, but he, too, has decided to quit while he's ahead—or at least while most of his vital organs are still functional. The announcement that he's done touring can be seen as the comedown of a million Red Bull and vodkas, years of shows and naps on planes, festivals, studio sessions, photoshoots, and afterparties—and more naps on more planes on the way to more shows. In 2012, he was hospitalized due to a form of pancreatitis associated with alcohol abuse. In March of 2014, his constant partying and touring had left him with a burst appendix and gallbladder issues so severe that he had to have his gallbladder removed.
That September, he canceled all of his concerts, later revealing to Billboard that though he'd stopped drinking following his medical scare, he hadn't stopped working. Taking time off was meant to allow him to fully recover—rumors circulated that he even checked into rehab—but it's unclear whether Avicii really managed to get healthier. Look at this picture of him and Mike Posner earlier this year, like really look at it, and you can see a man with the weight of the world's most widely-mocked genre on his shoulders. You know what they say: heavy is the head that wears the backwards snapback to hide the premature male pattern baldness.
Look at Avicii, and you can see a man with the weight of the world's most widely-mocked genre on his shoulders.
But there are important differences between Dylan and Avicii too. Dylan remains one of today's most respected musicians because of the perceived artistic depth that fueled his work. On the other hand, Avicii became one of EDM's biggest stars because of his ability be a flawless cog in an economic machine—to serve as a blank canvas upon which the $6.9 billion industry might project its hopes, dreams, fears, and quarterly earnings reports.
"I have always been mainstream," he told GQ in that controversial 2013 story. And, well, yeah. Throughout his career, Avicii has been so shamelessly commercial that it almost feels like a parody of selling out. Sure, he churned out big hits, some of which was in fact quite good, but that's always been secondary to the Avicii machine.
Avicii is the platonic ideal of the post-music musician—the Artist as Brand—to the point where he created an entire Avicii-branded hotel during Ultra 2014, only to cancel his shows at the hotel and festival last minute, due to an emergency hospitalization that resulted in gallbladder surgery.
Like many musicians of the post-music era (yes, that's a term I made up), Avicii's songs are extremely popular—"Wake Me Up" has been streamed over 400 million times on Spotify alone—but they essentially function as marketing materials meant to help drum up interest in his live shows, which, along with brand endorsements, Billboard estimated earned him $24 million in 2014. Which is to say, the music was never the central draw of the Avicii live experience. Hell, Tim Bergling wasn't even the central draw of the Avicii live experience. Instead, the Avicii live experience offered fans the chance to interface with the brand "Avicii," one whose ideals—fun, positivity, and hedonistic "rebellion"—aligned almost perfectly with those of mainstream EDM. Audiences flocked to Avicii shows because they wanted to perform the role of "raver" just as much as they wanted to hear him perform "Levels."
Avicii is the platonic ideal of the post-music musician—the Artist as Brand.
After Avicii plays his final show on August 27 at the Creamfields Festival, a whole lot of people are likely going to be cut off from a major source of revenue, including booking agents, publicists, managers, roadies, stylists, and dudes who professionally sneak drugs through airport security. It's going to really fucking suck for them. If only there were a way to keep Avicii the brand running strong, while giving the tired, tragic Tim Bergling some well-deserved rest. I'm joking, of course, but I get the distinct sense that someone else—perhaps his puppetmaster-esque manager Ash Pournouri—has had this same thought, and they weren't joking at all.
Imagine a day when superstar EDM DJs are like Popes: an endless succession of white dudes replacing each other when they can no longer fulfill the role. The idea that you can just slap some schlub up onstage and say that he's not an individual performer but the embodiment of a musical brand—and is therefore replaceable—is one that both KISS and Andrew W.K. have both openly toyed with. And it's one that's been taken to the next level by things like the infamous Tupac Hologram of Coachella 2012, as well as the computer-generated superstar Hatsune Miku, who prove that an artist doesn't need a physical body at all. This concept seems uniquely suited for EDM, a genre whose stars regularly perform other people's songs, and often rely on ghost producers to help create their music. If Hollywood reboots franchises with new actors and fresh concepts every few years; why can't we do the same with DJs? Just think of the fun names we can give our fresh-faced DJ sequels—Deadmau6. Tïestwo. SkrilleXI. Steve 4oki. Thriplo.
For all the time he's spent being "Avicii," maybe it's time for Tim Bergling to take a step back and figure out who he really is—after all, it was only after walking away from superstardom in '66 that Dylan was able to record albums such as The Basement Tapes and Nashville Skyline. Maybe a post-touring Avicii will flit from sound to sound like Dylan eventually did, metamorphosing freely without having to worry about giving his work an immediacy that allows it to work in a live setting. Maybe he'll follow Scott Walker's example and leave a robust pop career behind for experimental music. Maybe he'll decide he just needed a break and will eventually get back on the road, pumping out more sugary singles for the rest of his life. Or maybe he'll decide he's had enough of music and become a designer for Ikea or something. At 26, Bergling has an extremely long career ahead of him. He just needs some time to figure out what that career will end up looking like, rather than being stuck in the rut of one that's slowly killing him.
For a look behind the curtain at the DJs still electrifying the Vegas strip, watch Noisey's recent documentary about the scene.
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