I was one week away from my college graduation when I discovered that Tim Bergling — the superstar DJ and producer better known as Avicii — had quietly passed away in Muscat, Oman.
Bergling died at just twenty-eight years old, yet the news of his passing was not entirely shocking. He’d been publicly wrestling poor health for much of his career, most notably against acute pancreatitis (which was was aggravated by excessive drinking). Moreover, in 2014, he had his gallbladder and appendix removed, then cancelled a series of shows to recover. Two years later, he retired from touring entirely, explaining to Billboard: “It was something I had to do for my health.”
In wake of Bergling’s death, I’ve become inescapably trapped in inevitable nostalgia — transported back to my stake-less adolescence and, once again, obsessed with the whirling house music that defined it. I spent much of my high school years as a full-fledged rave kid, trekking on trains from the suburbs to attend tentpole shows in Manhattan. Though Avicii was hardly my favorite producer (I prefer trance over progressive house), his presence was always the most significant in our little, subcultural bubble. According to most metrics, he was the scene’s most successful. Without him, many of us wouldn’t have found it in the first place.
Tim Bergling never intended to become as famous as he did. The son of an actress, he always expected to pursue a creative career but didn’t begin creating music until age sixteen (after downloading the home-recording software Fruity Loops). Two years later, he met an ambitious promotor named Ash Pournouri and was convinced to start DJing as a compliment to his productions. Pournouri became Bergling’s manager and pledged to make him the biggest act in the world within two years. It initially seemed a lofty goal, but after his early 2010 single “Seek Bromance” charted across Europe, commercial opportunity seemed pressing. That’s when Tim Berg changed his stage name to Avicii and started churning out anthems defined by his signature melody. Approximately one year later, the world received “Levels.”
Months before its official release, “Levels” was already a staple feature in Avicii’s live sets. It was only an instrumental then, but its peppy chord progressions and swirling melodies were still addictive enough to earn global anticipation. One bootleg of the song posted on YouTube acquired upward of twenty million views. The song wasn’t finished though — not until its iconic Etta James sample was snapped into the place. After stumbling upon a clip of the singer performing “Something’s Got A Hold On Me,” Bergling tried to incorporate its hook into a few different beats before eventually deciding on “Levels.” As Pournouri explains: “It had the right melody, the right energy… All of a sudden, it just made sense for the vocal to be there.” The vocal mix wound up as the song’s official version and was released by Universal Music in October, 2011. That’s when things really took off.
It’s still not entirely clear why Avicii and “Levels” were so urgently claimed by the system. Yet, in wake of the song’s success, its signature brand of big-room house became an inescapable force in pop. Raves moved to the forefront of live concert experiences and conventional outlets (record labels, rock zines, radio stations, etc.) rushed to re-package their excitement. It was a chaotic time. Somebody had to simplify the story, shake hands and establish the new career model. Tim Bergling became that guy, eternally casted as Avicii, and spent two years as the world-traveling, must-see musician of the moment. Seemingly overnight, he transformed from an up-and-coming club DJ into a headlining pop act powerful enough to sell out stadiums. “Levels” became to EDM what “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was to grunge: that one song that was chosen for some undefinable reason. It became the most influential pop song of the 2010s, period, and officially catalyzed a new era of dance music.
EDM will take over your life if you allow it to. It will claim every holiday or free weekend in your calendar and dictate how often you see certain friends. Its party seemingly never ends, its concerts always being followed by an after show, their headliners always jumping on to the next city. The fact that most headlining acts are lone, superstar DJs makes their performances extremely scalable. So, much like P.T. Barnum once capitalized on railroad transit, modern touring companies employ the necessary infrastructure to squeeze every possible show out of their products (read: people). Avicii was an early victim of this system, having performed more than 250 times per year throughout much of the early 2010s.
Like countless other free-spirited youth, I became over-the-top obsessed with electronic dance music after “Levels” was released. I attended my first rave in January, 2012 (Steve Aoki at Roseland Ballroom!) and by the following summer, was already venturing to festivals habitually. I was only sixteen, but I danced through Electric Daisy Carnival, beach parties on Governor’s Island and three days of Electric Zoo. I made kandi bracelets with scene friends, learned to differentiate the sub-genres and discovered a previously unknown capacity for happiness. Obviously, Avicii was not the only DJ on my radar. But he was always the most iconic — the biggest brand, our only star. Naturally, we felt mutually accomplished through his success.
Throughout my EDM phase, I struggled immensely to establish a sustainable balance between my passion for music and other, normal social opportunities. Each show seemed to be another chance to engage with my secret universe so each time one was announced, I inevitably made efforts to attend. For a while, I genuinely enjoyed the process too. Eventually though, I became totally and irrevocably disillusioned.
I can’t remember exactly when, how or why it happened, but some night at some show, probably somewhere in New York City, I stopped wanting to wave my hands in the air. Suddenly, the whole concept felt artificial and forced. Suddenly, the entire room looked so fucking stupid.
Somewhere along the way, Tim Bergling seems to have similarly stopped wanting to wave his hands in the air. Though his presence on the A-list was synonymous with partying, he did not want to be the figurehead for such a raucous movement. The fact that he was took an inevitable toll on him, both physically and emotionally.
In 2013, Ture Lillegraven (for GQ) described then-twenty-three year old Bergling as “subsisting on a diet of Red Bull, nicotine, and airport food.” She noted an anxiousness haunting him and attributed it to his high fame, describing the DJ as: “Justin Bieber big, [but] without the PG-13 reputation.” Throughout the article, Avicii performs five shows, earns over one million dollars, meets Pharrell Williams and gets aggressive stalked by Paris Hilton. It’s an exciting adventure filled with fully-expensed rides on helicopters, limousines and private jets. Yet, at no point in the lengthy profile is Bergling described as happy. Relieved? Sure — particularly on his way off stage, once he’s done being Avicii for the night. But happy? No. Not Tim. Not then.
“The scene was not for me,” Bergling explained to Billboard in 2016 on the heels of his self-dictated retirement. “I'm more of an introverted person in general. It was always very hard for me.”
Avicii released his second album, Stories, in 2015. Despite taking two full years to create it, he cancelled its accompanying tour dates immediately upon the release and checked in to rehab instead. As chronicled in the painful montage of his career, True Stories, he spent months working on himself. Exercise and meditation replaced constant drinking. Friends describe him as having been “determined to change his life.”
After somewhat recovering, Avicii returned to California to make music by the beach. He was still uninterested in touring, but remembers feeling “a shit ton better” and wanting “to get started on [his] new album.” This initially meant organic home studio sessions with close friends who happened to be songwriters. Yet, within months, the industry pressure returned. The offers started arriving — festivals, club residencies, etc. Soon enough, a cross-country road trip led him back to Miami, where he returned to the stage at Ultra Music Festival.
“I’ve been away for six months. Now I’ve literally done everything I can, and straight away… I still don’t like this,” he remembers feelings immediately after the performance.
“I felt shitty. I felt terrible because I saw how happy all the fans were and I… I don’t fucking like it. I’m standing up there and I have to pretend… I can’t see a way for me to do this and be happy about it, [so] I decided, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to quit.’”
In March, 2016, Avicii announced his indefinite retirement from touring — much to the dismay of fans, managers and promoters.
People often associate electronic dance music with illicit drug use, assuming all concert attendees indulge in MDMA (read: ecstasy). However, such presumptions fail to account for the addictive intoxication that comes from participation in the scene in itself.
Like no other genre in recent history, EDM lays claims over its fans. It re-wires their perceptions of night versus day, normalcy versus deviance and spirituality versus imagination. Its concerts transport them into unimaginable utopias and directly connect them to each other — thousands of oddly-related strangers. Its marketing convinces them that their underworld is elevated rather than some sunken place.
If you can’t buy into the narrative though, then EDM is utterly devastating.
I will not ever understand how trapped Tim Bergling felt by his career, how responsible he felt to his fans or how unfulfilled it all left him inside. I cannot imagine being longed for as deeply as he was or bearing the tolls that his fame obviously took on him. However, I understand quite well how it feels to base your entire identity upon your passion for a specific genre of music, then simply wake up one day no longer able to stand it. I’ve stood through DJ sets, surrounded by glowing bodies in neon garb, desperately trying to make myself enjoy the moment.
Much like Bergling, I’ve been in electrically-lit rooms that I felt guilty for despising. Unlike him though, no one noticed when I started to plot my exit. I became disillusioned with the scene, so I left. That was that. If only things could’ve been so easy for Avicii.
“I was expecting support. Especially with what I’d been through. I’d been very open with everyone I work with, everyone who knows me. Everyone knows that I’ve been anxious and everything, that I’ve been trying,” he explains in True Stories.
“I didn’t expect people to try to push me to do more shows when it really… When they’d seen how shitty I felt doing it.”
On April 20, 2018, news surfaced that Tim Bergling had died at just twenty-eight years old. Within a week, the world would learn that it wasn’t by accident. Then, about a week later, we’d learn more gruesome details.
To say that Bergling was painfully haunted by anxiety is — though accurate — a fallacy in reporting. Any person who’s read the articles or heard the interviews will surely agree. Instead, it must be said that Bergling was brutally ignored, perhaps even tortured. He was so obviously pushed to the edge.
Electronic dance music brews a dangerous culture of excess. There are too many parties in too many cities on too many nights of the week. The parties have too many attendees who’ve had too much to drink and are listening to music that's too loud. People like Avicii and I have known this for some time. I can only hope that millions more have learned it since April 20th, 2018.