His real name was Tim Bergling but he chose his moniker, Avicii, from the Buddhist term for hell – avici. When he walked on to the stage in his signature jeans, t-shirt and a backward baseball cap, the crowd went wild and when he happily shuffled music behind the decks, magic happened. He was one of the world’s most successful EDM artistes but was taken away too soon. He was 28. Just 28! For someone who once played Wake me up in a loop for a month, the news of his untimely death late last night was a big blow. It still gives us goosebumps to refer to him in the past tense.
Within minutes of the news of his death, musicians and performing artistes – including Chainsmokers and Diplo – from around the world, poured in their condolences. I am no music expert. Neither have I the knowledge and skill to honour his art with a fitting tribute. But I did come across a wonderful memorial piece by The Guardian, that beautifully sums up the shy artiste, whose music spoke louder than words and who was the poster boy for EDM.
Just 21 years old at the time of his breakthrough, Bergling was perhaps an unlikely star. All cheekbones and platinum hair, he never seemed entirely comfortable in the spotlight. Friends and colleagues described him as shy and quiet, a sweet kid with the heart of a technician. In interviews, his responses could come off as canned or reticent, as reporters probed for answers from an artist seemingly more comfortable at his computer assembling tracks.
But his music was a different story. Avicii was one of the first EDM stars to arrive on the scene fully formed, and he hit just as dance music was for the first time gaining mainstream popularity in the US. Tracks including Levels, Fade Into Darkness and Silhouettes were slick, massive, earnest and unapologetically pop-oriented. With them, Avicii paid homage to influences like Swedish House Mafia and Daft Punk.
These tracks became anthems for the millions of millennials and Avicii’s music was wildly popular among a generation coming of age in the post 9/11 era. He crisscrossed the globe headlining the world’s biggest dance music and mainstream pop festivals – Tomorrowland, Ultra Miami, EDC Las Vegas, Coachella and more – and signing on for massively lucrative Las Vegas residences just as the city was establishing itself as the United States’ EDM hub.
His music earned him a pair of Grammy nominations, one for his work on David Guetta’s Sunshine and another in 2013 for Levels. His own biggest smash was 2013’s Wake Me Up, a folk music crossover that was booed by the audience at Ultra when Avicii debuted it at the festival in 2013. No matter. Featuring singer Aloe Blacc, the urgently uplifting track hit No 1 in more than 40 countries and presciently tapped into the market potential of mixing EDM and country, a template many artists have since recreated. The song appeared on his 2013 solo debut album True, which hit the top 10 in more than 15 countries.
Mainstream popularity can often feel like ritual sacrifice, as we build people up only to stand captivated as they descend – into addiction, into turmoil, into avīci. Tim Bergling’s story has come to a tragic if not entirely unpredictable end, one at odds with the joy of the music he so expertly produced during his brief but influential moment at the top. It’s hard to mourn to a song like Levels that so adamantly denies the darkness. EDM is about joyful celebration in the face of conflict. Perhaps this was Bergling’s undoing. It is also his legacy.