Fame, angst and Avicii, EDM’s reluctant global superstar
Swede self-identified as an introvert who was uncomfortable with his jet-set lifestyle
Swedish DJ and record producer Avicii pictured on Table Mountain, South Africa in a photograph posted on Instagram in January.
Avicii performs at Radio City Music Hall in New York in 2012. Photograph: Karsten Moran/The New York Times
Avicii performs at the Sziget music festival in Hungary in 2015. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Early in 2012 posters appeared around Dublin advertising an upcoming concert at the O2 Arena.
The artist being touted was far from a household name.
In fact, if you weren’t a fan you might never have heard of Avicii. Yet here he was, about to headline the country’s largest indoor venue a matter of months after his first hit single. Such is the way of overnight success.
The Swedish DJ and producer, who has died unexpectedly in Oman aged 28, may have been in the vanguard of the ultra-contemporary “electronic dance music” (EDM) scene.
But Avicii, real name Tim Bergling, was also an old fashioned rags-to-superrich story, who went in a fingerclick from programming beats in his Stockholm bedroom to playing before tens of thousands of rabid fans (earning upwards of $250,000 per set). In 2015, Forbes ranked him as the sixth-highest-paid DJ on earth and estimated his annual earnings at about $19 million.
Avicii’s enthusiastically yammering music was controversial from the beginning. EDM was regarded as a bratty younger cousin to the Nineties rave uprising. Exploding in the mid-2000s, it offered a slick corporate take on repetitive dance-floor tempos.
Veteran ravers loathed it. However, teenagers and those in their early 20s - young Americans especially - adored its non-judgemental, good-time message.
EDM was helped enormously by the support of mainstream artists such as Madonna, whose 2012 LP MDNA was her valentine to the sound, and by the emergence in the US of dance mega-festival such as Las Vegas’s Electric Daisy Carnival.
And in Avicii - he claimed his stage name referred to the “lowest level of Buddhist hell” - it had its first golden boy and superstar.
The supreme irony of Bergling’s life is that he became famous - he was dubbed by some the “Justin Bieber of “EDM” - despite chronic shyness and an ambivalence towards the genre for which he was regarded as posterboy.
He self-identified as an introvert and confessed to feeling intensely uncomfortable with his jet-set lifestyle, in particular the constant partying.
Living on the edge took an enormous emotional and physical toll and in 2016 he announced he was giving up touring, following multiple hospitalisations for, among other things, inflammation of the pancreas related to excessive drinking (one of his farewell final shows would be at Marlay Park, Dublin).
The heavy price of fame was made clear by a poignant 2013 profile of Bergling in American GQ - this just two years after his Etta James-sampling breakout Levels - in which the described globe-trotting success as a purgatory from which there was no escape.
Free alcohol everywhere
“You are traveling around, you live in a suitcase, you get to this place, there’s free alcohol everywhere - it’s sort of weird if you don’t drink,” he told the magazine, outlining his regime of champagne before bed-time, Bloody Marys at the airport, wine on the plane.
“I was so nervous. I just got into a habit, because you rely on that encouragement and self-confidence you get from alcohol, and then you get dependent on it.”
Avicii will be remembered for introducing dance music and DJ culture to a mainstream audience in the United States, where Nineties rave and house music was confined to local hot-spots. As a musician, history may be less kind as his records largely consisted of incessant beats and samples. This was dance music as jack-hammer onslaught, bullying you into submission rather than carrying you aloft.
Yet he was by no means an unthinking crowd-pleaser, much less a panderer. He caused an outcry when telling GQ that he programming his sets in advance, with his “live” performances mostly consisting of him twiddling the volume and controlling the visuals.
“I love DJing, I do,” he had said. “I love everything that comes with it; it’s fun and it’s kind of glamorous. It’s just like when it’s right in the moment and you have that stupid bright light on you. It feels so awkward.
“I guess, deep inside, I know that it’s a different kind of performing. You’re not performing like a guitar player or a singer is performing. Technically it’s not that hard.”
This seemed to be a source of genuine angst and he is to be credited with trying to take his music - and his audience - in new directions. The result was the most divisive moment of his career, the Mumford and Sons-influenced faux country track Wake Me Up, debuted to gobsmacked punters at the 2013 Ultra Music festival in Miami (he worked at this phase with an Irish tour-manager, Ciara Davey).
Expecting a tumult of grooves, the estimated 110,000 in attendance were instead treated to vocalist Aloe Blacc crooning over blue-grass guitars.
“I knew it was going to be a shock,” Bergling would tell Rolling Stone. “All they see is country and house music. They think, ‘Country? That’s old people.’ I knew it was going to be like that. It freaked me out when I got a bad reaction to the song, though, I must admit.”
It was a brave gesture from an artist who seemed unable to glide through his gilded circumstances. The life of a mega-star brought real spiritual and physical pain - and he wasn’t afraid to speak out about the dark side of success.
It is for this honesty and courage that he likely to be remembered, as much as for his music.