Such is the disconnect between dance-music culture and the respectable media in Canada that the first time many Canadians over 30 heard of the superstar Swedish DJ Avicii was on April 20, the day of his death. Small tributes appeared in arts roundups on TV and in newspapers, explaining that this DJ had played to festival audiences of thousands of people at a time and had become a multimillionaire by his mid-20s. (His net worth at the time of his death, at 28, was reported by British tabloids as US$85-million). The short pieces also had to explain that Avicii, whose real name was Tim Bergling, had produced a number of recognizable, uplifting pop hits, songs featuring singers most of us had certainly heard on the radio but whose composer we probably couldn’t name. Revealingly, his hit song Wake Me Up is the most searched song on Shazam. It’s the song you can hum along to but can’t place.
Meanwhile, fans of the dance music that created rave – house, techno, drum-and-bass and all their variants – a scene that likes to call itself underground, were respectfully silent. They had been, in Avicii’s lifetime, fiercely derisive of his feel-good brand of dancified, bubblegum-pop songs. The young man’s death was a tragedy that no one wanted to dismiss, and so the vicious scorn from music writers that has dogged Avicii and his school for the past few years has gone to ground. The electronic music magazines that have been publishing rants about the crass commercialization and dumbing down of their beloved genre are now publishing earnest retrospectives on this talented and troubled young man, with sober questions about how the machinery of DJ superstardom pushes its heroes into overly stressful and hectic lives.
News outlets have in the past week used the word “pioneer” to describe Avicii’s role in recent music, which is bemusing when you consider his conventional and conservative musical approach. These are old-fashioned pop songs with a metallic sheen, nothing more. Aesthetically, he was no pioneer. But what we are trying to describe with this term is his role as part of a school of genre-busting “big-room” DJs who united the formerly inimical musical strands of verse-chorus-verse pop and repetitive electronic club music. Tiesto, David Guetta, Steve Aoki, Calvin Harris, Deadmau5, Swedish House Mafia – these were the guys who changed the role of the DJ from steely technician to singalong leader. The “pioneer” designation is one you would read in the business section, not in the arts section: their innovations were changes to the economic landscape rather than the musical one.
The mainstream media’s distaste for Avicii had a slightly different tenor. They were not complaining about the eroding of cool in dance-club culture. To general-interest journals, Avicii was a representative of the terrifying world of the megastadium, those drug-fuelled festival events where a vast sea of affluent teenagers would risk getting crushed or groped, or overdosing. Exposé after exposé revealed EDM culture to be sexist and retrograde, a place where boys flashed muscles and girls flashed boobs, unknown pills were chugged like candies and a deadly stampede was always moments away. The huge festivals were not on the whole reported as joyous gatherings or stunning economic successes, but as the rituals of an impenetrably unsophisticated and fundamentally incomprehensible underclass.
Avicii’s music – pop hits created on a desk using computers, synthesizers and usually sampled singers – are generally happy, feel-good ditties. They use folk and soul singers. Avicii didn’t bother writing the words himself, even if he was credited as songwriter. His success represents the final dissolution of the line between producer and songwriter.
These songs were often described as “summer anthems”. But they cannot really be understood outside the context of the giant stadium dance floor. On the radio, they sound like pretty standard bubble gum pop, with a booming kick drum, soulful vocals and a grainy, simple synth riff that will stick in your head whether you want it to or not. Those riffs, on a small speaker, can sound a lot like the tunes played by plastic children’s toys, and they have the same maddening repetitiveness.
Older people are also often confused by the nature of his DJ performances. Unlike a techno DJ whose job is to create new compositions on the fly by skilfully layering beats and effects, the EDM DJ really only enchains prerecorded songs, leaving him with long periods – sometimes four or five minutes at a time – with nothing to do but dance and smile at the crowd. Avicii’s approach was to pump his fists and sing along, inaudibly, with the music. The idea that this was some kind of a live performance was understandably baffling to those who grew up playing instruments.
See videos, on the other hand, of the crowd’s ecstatic communion during one of these mass events, and you will understand that the event – the size of the crowd alone – is as important as the music or the DJ. When Avicii pressed a button that released the first few chords, and the assembled thousands recognized the summer’s hit, they roared with pleasure together, and the thrill they got was from the roar itself. I have been in such crowds and have felt the bizarre mystical transcendence of this moment, the sudden inexplicable euphoria. The pleasure is largely about being all there together; it is about a group bonding experience, not about music appreciation. Watch these videos and you will see a kind of mass elation you rarely see elsewhere (maybe only at sporting events). This is undiluted joy.
Big-room DJs around the world are spinning nothing but Avicii tracks this week. A church in Sweden has been ringing Avicii riffs from its carillon. Thousands of grief-stricken messages and videos are being disseminated online, by people for whom an Avicii set represented the great adventure of the vast crowd, maybe a road trip, and a moment of happy bonding with their friends, and they don’t care what programs he used to make it.