Today, Avicii’s “Levels” stands as one of the triumphs of the early EDM era, a single riff combined with an Etta James sample and built upwards into the clouds. The song doesn’t sound produced so much as discovered, a ball of energy that could neither be created nor destroyed. Its success announced not just the arrival of a new star, but the ascent of a new genre: EDM, a post-recession sound that presented populist electronic music as a short-term fix for both music industry stagnation and millenial—sometimes millenarian—angst.
On Friday, April 20, the song’s creator, Swedish DJ and producer Avicii, was found dead in Muscat, Oman, the cause of death not yet known. His real name was Tim Bergling, and he was 28 years old. In the seven years since the release of “Levels,” Bergling became the face of the mainstream embrace of EDM. Diplo called him “the best of this generation” in a post on Instagram, and at Coachella this past weekend, Kygo told crowd that “Avicii was my biggest musical inspiration and he was the reason I started making electronic music.” Nile Rodgers, the guitarist from the disco band Chic, said he was “one of the greatest, natural melody writers I’ve ever worked with” and referred to him as “my little bro.”
Bergling was born and raised in Stockholm, and honed his production skills on a message board administered by the DJ Laidback Luke as a teenager. In 2010, he scored a minor hit with “Seek Bromance,” which crossed over to pop radio in some of Europe. He followed with “Levels,” and the song went platinum in 11 countries—even the United States, where dance music had long struggled to reach a mass audience.
He would go on to release two studio albums, True and Stories, as well as four EPs. Sixteen of his singles went platinum in Europe and three (“Levels,” “Wake Me Up,” and “Hey Brother”) did so in the United States. As a DJ, he headlined festivals like Ultra, Electric Daisy Carnival, and Tomorrowland alongside established artists like David Guetta and Swedish House Mafia. He was the first major star that EDM created, and in the genre’s instant feedback loop, it felt to many as though he was the star who had created EDM.
Avicii’s quick rise made him both a posterboy of EDM’s success and a target for the backlash against it. In 2013, a vicious yet well-received GQ profile condemned not just the artist but also his fans, branding them a mindless flock of “Oontz-a-Loompas.” To his fans, however, Avicii was an innovator and a fellow-traveler. “Levels,” save the Etta James loop, is just an instrumental, but when his songs included lyrics, they often returned to themes of loneliness and connection. Rather than tell stories, they voiced fleeting desires almost religious in content: the longing for connection and harmony, the hope of finding a purpose bigger than one’s self.
The new lyrical mode dovetailed with a sonic structure that, like most of EDM’s big hits, rose and fell, triggering endorphin release with almost exploitative regularity while never totally erasing the existential potency of that term loop. Songs like “Hey Brother” and “I Could Be the One” go round and round and round in the circle game, as Joni Mitchell once put it. They take the listener up and down, but don’t end in fulfillment or resolution. Instead, they gesture outside themselves, implying a community, somewhere, of people who have the same fears and listen to the same songs. The resolution here, is not in the lyrics or melody but at the festival (or the Avicii show), where angsty millennials could go and, at the very least, be together, listening to Avicii.
Despite this emphasis on performance, Bergling retired from touring in 2016, and only recently began to open up about the toll that playing shows had taken on him. (At small gigs he would occasionally play a dance remix of the Miracles’ “Tracks of My Tears.”) “The one thing that kept me from stopping was that I felt weird–like, ‘Why the fuck can’t I enjoy this like all the other DJs?’” he told Rolling Stone late last year. Bergling realized—in fact, he experienced—one thing that EDM’s critics got right: that, taken to the extreme, the genre’s emphasis on pleasure could have devastating physical and psychological effects. It could pathologize those who felt the very boredom and dissatisfaction from which the music in part arose. (Not long after becoming a star, Bergling became dependent on alcohol and developed acute pancreatitis.)
Outside EDM, he is likely best known for his song “Wake Me Up,” a Top 5 hit on Billboard’s Hot 100. His song “Silhouettes,” from 2012, had proclaimed that “we would never get back to / to the old school.” Less than a year later, he debuted “Wake Me Up” by inviting bluegrass musicians to join him onstage, again at Ultra Music Festival. The performance was excessive even by the excessive standards of EDM. It is, in retrospect, the only moment in the genre’s strange history that felt genuinely shocking.
In fact, the most shocking part of the Ultra performance, Bergling’s reverse Dylan, may be that it wasn’t even a gimmick. Or at least that, for Bergling, it was much more than one. Ahead of the show, he had listened to enough bluegrass to request the involvement of a specific vocalist, Dan Tyminski, and completed a session with 71-year-old “In the Ghetto” songwriter Mac Davis, who was also joined him onstage. Later, he visited Nashville to collaborate with country artists like Kacey Musgraves and Thomas Rhett.
In interviews, Bergling’s collaborators emphasized his extraordinary talent for creating music that many still mistake for simple. Nile Rodgers went so far as to call Bergling “the John Coltrane of FruityLoops,” the person who finally convinced him that digital beatmaking is a serious art. Yet Rodgers also saw the effect alcohol was having on the DJ. On Friday, he recalled the heartbreak he felt the last time he saw him, at a show both where both artists were performing: “It was a little bit sad to me because he had promised me he would stop drinking, and when I saw him he was drunk that night. And I was like, ‘Whoa. Dude. C’mon. What are you doing?’”
If Avicii was a symbol of EDM, he suffered a sort of symbolic death in Mike Posner’s “I Took a Pill in Ibiza,” a 2016 hit thanks to a remix from the duo Seeb. The song begins with Posner taking the pill of the title in order to impress Bergling, who thus becomes the accidental vendor of the very lifestyle he had grown to distrust. It’s a song about trying to move forward, both personally and musically, and in it the name “Avicii” stands for a decadent past.
Still, Bergling was uniquely positioned to survive the end of EDM. He never seemed comfortable being the genre’s symbol and would insist that people call him not Avicii, but by his first name Tim. The Avīci (01) EP, released last August, showed that he was still searching for new sounds and still writing some of the sweetest melodies in pop. “Lonely Together,” his final single, used soft, unsteady synths to express the desire for connection that has always felt like the heart of his music.
Everybody remembers the chord progression of “Levels,” and the optimistic Etta James sample, but the song has another element that’s often forgotten. Two minutes into the radio edit, tucked quietly in the trough between two big hooks, it seems to have been forgotten even by the song itself. Yet for ten seconds, melancholy strings take hold of the melody in ambiguous counterpoint, whispering a secret message soon swept up by the beat. When I listen now I hear a bit of sadness lost in the rave, a small premonition of what’s to come.