Avicii
Avicii
Sean Eriksson

Avicii's Life & Legacy: Timeless Music Tinged With Tragedy

The death of Swedish DJ/producer Avicii – real name Tim Bergling – at age 28 in Muscat, Oman on Friday (April 20) left a worldwide fanbase struggling to come to terms with the loss of one of dance music’s brightest stars and bravest trailblazers.

Contemporaries were quick to canonize the Stockholm native. Skrillex hailed Avicii as “truly a genius and an innovator, yet sensitive and humble.” “You were the best of this generation,” Diplo wrote. “A real superstar.” Hours before performing “Without You” on Coachella’s main stage in tribute, Kygo bade farewell to “my biggest inspiration and the reason why I started making electronic music.”

Avicii's influence extended well beyond his electronic counterparts: Imagine Dragons called working with Bergling "one of my favorite collaborative moments," while Charlie Puth hailed him as "the man who really opened my eyes as to what my productions could one day sound like."

Electronic dance music is a relatively young genre and many of its architects are still alive. Its millennial fans are unaccustomed to burying their heroes. Tim Bergling may have outlasted the proverbial “27 Club” by a little more than five months, but he remains electronic music’s premier entry in the pantheon of tragic stars extinguished too soon.

In many ways, Avicii’s rise was emblematic of the modern electronic artist model. Unlike previous generations of DJs, who spent years climbing the club residency ranks, Bergling began as a bedroom producer who quickly built an online audience for his music and only learned to DJ once touring demand forced his hand. At age 18, he met Arash "Ash" Pournouri, who would become his longtime manager and a guiding force in his career.

"My ambition level was to make him not a DJ or a producer, but an artist," Pournouri recalls in Netflix documentary Avicii: True Stories.

Released under his Tim Berg alias in October 2010, soaring single, “Seek Bromance,” put Bergling on the map, topping Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart and hitting No. 13 on the UK Singles chart. A fan favorite that remained a staple of his live set, the immaculately produced release combined lush melodies with a floor-filling drop that put the scene on notice – there was something special about this young Swede.

“You made me want to try and make dance music when I first heard “Seek Bromance,” Diplo recalled on Instagram Friday. “And then you kept making me feel like shit ‘cause you kept getting better and I couldn't even mix a snare right.”

Subsequent releases like “Fade into Darkness” and “Blessed” showcased Bergling’s standout melodic sensibility and cemented his standing as a rising star. But many fans’ introduction to Avicii came in the form of “Levels,” the then-21-year-old's ebullient hit that achieved ubiquity to the point of parody between 2011 and 2012. Inescapable at festivals, “Levels” was overplayed in rare fashion for a track that’s largely instrumental, aside from its soulful Etta James sample. That was Avicii’s gift: the ability to channel euphoria into instantly iconic chord progressions and unmistakable melodies.

“By gear and ear, he became one of the best melody writers I’ve ever met,” Nile Rodgers told the Los Angeles Times at Coachella on Sunday.

Earning his second Grammy nomination for Best Dance Recording, “Levels” lifted Avicii’s career to new heights. In 2012, Bergling performed coveted slots at marquee festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza and Ultra, where he performed on the main stage with Madonna. His 2012 Le7els Tour, described by Goldenvoice's Paul Tollett as one of the "first all-arena North American tours by an electronic artist," took him to landmark venues like Miami's AmericanAirlines Arena and Boston's TD Garden. That September, Avicii became the first DJ to headline New York’s storied Radio City Music Hall with two historic performances.

Avicii could have been forgiven for staying the course, but he never shied away from taking stylistic risks at a time when many of his contemporaries were more hesitant. Bergling weathered a torrent of fan criticism over his polarizing Ultra 2013 main stage set, which featured unreleased material from his pending debut album, True, played with a live bluegrass band, complete with banjos, fiddles and soul and country singers Aloe Blacc, Audra Mae, Mac Davis, and Dan Tyminski.

Avicii was unapologetic in an open letter released shortly after, doubling down that “this album is about experimentation and about showing the endless possibilities of house and electronic music... people will soon see what it's all about."

True’s strong commercial debut (No. 5 on Billboard 200) vindicated his sentiment, producing three Hot 100 charting singles, including global smash, “Wake Me Up.” Masterfully fusing electronic, country and folk elements and paving the way for future cross-genre collaboration, Avicii’s career-changing hit topped charts in 22 countries and peaked at No. 4 on the Hot 100. It remains the most Shazamed track of all-time. Another single, “Hey Brother,” hit No. 16 on the Hot 100 and rode an understated remix to country radio crossover (No. 59 on Country Airplay).

“When the music came out, he seemed like the smartest guy on the planet because it did connect,” Kaskade recalled during SiriusXM’s on-air tribute Friday.

True's triumph also transformed him into one of pop's most in-demand producers. In 2014, Bergling co-produced three songs for Madonna's Rebel Hearts album, as well as Coldplay's Grammy-nominated single, "Sky Full of Stars." “I think he didn’t only do a lot for dance music," collaborator Andy Sherman of Shermanology tells Billboard. "I think he did a lot for pop music."

 

We talked for the cover of @billboard 5 years ago, and I was worried for him then. He was more talented than his "DJ/producer" label suggested, and more sensitive too. He always struck me as lonely, despite his fame - that's a familiar story, but not in the peak years of #EDM, when posses rolled deep, and everyone was moving too fast to feel. People were making money everywhere, off the backs of young men they called by their real names as if they were real friends ("Sonny," "Tijs," "Tim"). In the middle of that, he made a song that struck me then, because it was vulnerable, and is haunting me now. "Wake me up when it's all over / When I'm wiser and I'm older." And then: "Wish that I could stay forever this young / Not afraid to close my eyes." It was a hopelessly conflicted desire to skip and grasp the moment; to be both absent and present. It was sad, scared - the opposite of the Year Zero hedonism of the rest of the movement. There it was, all along. His music is different to me in the wake of his death. I will not forget him. #avicii #ripavicii

A post shared by Kerri Mason (@klmnyc) on

 

To the outside world, Avicii appeared to be on an inexorable trajectory to the top – the freshest rising hitmaker in a scene that fetishizes youth and thirsts for crossover. But performing up to 250 shows per year had taken a toll on Bergling's health. Billboard writer Kerri Mason, who interviewed Avicii for his 2013 cover story, chillingly recalls “Wake Me Up” expressing a “hopelessly conflicted desire to skip and grasp the moment; to be both absent and present. It was sad, scared – the opposite of the Year Zero hedonism of the rest of the movement.”

Bergling was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, in part due to heavy drinking, and was forced to cancel a series of shows in 2014 for the removal of his gallbladder and appendix. He returned to the road in early 2015, but canceled all remaining tour dates one month before releasing his sophomore album Stories that fallThe album did not match the commercial success of its predecessor, peaking at a modest No. 17 on the Billboard 200 and producing a European hit in lead single, "Waiting For Love."

Avicii: True Stories paints a harrowing portrait of Bergling's struggle with severe anxiety around touring during this period. A particularly haunting scene finds the artist venting about receiving resistance from his management and agency for canceling tour dates: “I have told them this: I won’t be able to play anymore. I have said, like, I’m going to die. I have said it so many times. And so I don’t want to hear that I should entertain the thought of doing another gig.”

Avicii's retirement from touring in March 2016 shocked the world, but few in dance music circles truly believed he would never return to the stage. He seemed to reluctantly acknowledge this in his emotional open letter to fans, writing "one part of me can never say never, I could be back… but I won’t be right back.”

But it’s clear that Bergling always felt more comfortable in the studio than the spotlight. Many dance artists can’t be bothered with making an album; Avicii remixed his entire debut for kicks. Even while playing main stages, he sometimes seemed to be more present within the music than the moment: eyes closed, mouthing lyrics without a microphone, his fingers flailing in chord progressions over phantom instruments.

"Such a talented guy that was not ready to perform for so many people,” collaborator Nicky Romero tells Billboard. “He was the one that wanted to make the music but not so much the one who wanted to be on stage all the time.”

“To me it was something I had to do for my health,” Avicii told The Hollywood Reporter of his decision in April 2016. “The scene was not for me. It was not the shows and not the music. It was always the other stuff surrounding it that never came naturally to me. All the other parts of being an artist. I'm more of an introverted person in general. It was always very hard for me. I took on board too much negative energy, I think.”

After years in the public eye, the first thing the fledgling retiree did was go off the grid, ditching his cell phone to travel Africa for three months. In December 2016, Avicii parted ways with Pournouri while continuing to work on new music.

In August 2017, Bergling released Avīci (01), the first of three EPs that would comprise his third album, featuring collaborations with Rita Ora, AlunaGeorge, Sandro Cavazza, Billy Raffoul and Vargas & Lagola. Avīci (01) garnered mostly positive reviews, with listeners hailing the welcome return of his melodic hallmarks.

"This is the first year I felt like I've been able to kind of live normally for the first time in eight years or something," Bergling told BBC Radio 1 host and DJ Pete Tong following the release.

Collaborators were raving about Avicii's work ethic ("He wanted to make sure every word was right," Raffoul tells Billboard) and contemporaries whispered about the high quality of his unreleased material. It appeared as though Bergling had finally turned a crucial corner in his career, which made Friday's news particularly devastating.

"Everybody thought he was in a better place, especially the last two months,” says Romero. “It was a shock to everyone because it felt like he was picking up, making music, and back in the studio again.”

Following the news, Neil Jacobson, president of Geffen Records and longtime Avicii A&R, told Variety that Bergling had been working on “his best music in years.” Says Jacobson: "He was so inspired. He was so psyched. We had done a month of grinder sessions. We had to actually put end times on the sessions because Tim would just work for 16 hours straight, which was his nature. You had to pull him out. Like, 'Tim, come on. Go to bed. Get some rest.' … It’s just a tragedy."

"As a dance music icon, he touched the lives of millions around the world, and broke down barriers between genres like dance music and country," Pasquale Rotella, founder of Insomniac and Electric Daisy Carnival, tells Billboard. "He helped our culture make an impact on the mainstream that will never be forgotten."

Despite the toll the scene took on him, Avicii's outlook on the electronic music stayed optimistic until the end. Even as he pulled back from the public eye, he remained committed to pushing the genre forward and breaking down boundaries.

“The music is still growing, it's still evolving,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “That's why, in a way, I had to make the decision I did. Because I don't feel that EDM is going to stop."

Additional reporting by Dave Brooks and Dave Rishty.