Avicii and EDM’s Promise of Post-Recessional Excess

Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

In late 2011, I moved back to Los Angeles after a yearlong exile in Seattle. I had lived in L.A. for six years prior to that, but I might as well have been starting from scratch, and I spent several months couch surfing, looking for a job and an apartment, not an unusual practice for me at all in the years since my college graduation in the unfortunate Year of our Lord 2008. Things had bottomed out for me in 2010 — the combined effects of prolonged unemployment, a series of acute depressive episodes, and two or three heartbreaks. But now I was back, baby, having reinvented myself as a TV recapper and writer, scrapping together a freelance career on the back of a few Tumblrs. I finally found a job writing copy for an entertainment news YouTube channel, and with about $1,000 in my bank account, I signed a lease on a $900-a-month one-bedroom across the street from Hollywood Forever. I had nothing to furnish it with but the contents of two suitcases; when my next check came in, I had a mattress dropped off.

I remember waking up for the first time in that dark, empty apartment, my laptop plugged into the wall and sitting on a folding chair I had found outside and claimed for myself. I had spent so much of my 20s feeling hopeless, but for the first time in a long time I felt like I was building toward something. I opened my laptop, still stealing the signal from next door, and found Avicii’s “Levels” on YouTube. After listening to the preroll ad, its ubiquitous, towering synth line blasted from the tinny speakers, I started doing push-ups. When it was over, I put on the Skrillex remix.

Avicii was but one of the towering, single-named DJs that rose up in the early 2010s wave of EDM, but he was maybe the most emblematic. Tim Bergling was an Adonis-faced Swedish kid who looked like he should be modeling for the latest Ralph Lauren campaign, not commanding arenas full of blissed-out rave babies. But he had a song — a world-conquering song, and that was enough to have a lucrative career the likes of which nobody had seen since the digital erosion of the record industry began at the start of the millennium. The EDM boom was already well underway before Avicii’s arrival, but in “Levels,” it found an anthem.

I used to joke that EDM, a still-contentious term that officially stands for “electronic dance music,” should actually stand for “exciting dumb music.” That was what it was to me, never embodied more purely than in that first single. It made an eternal rubber stamp out of its Etta James vocal sample, and had enough of a nod to old-school rave music in its build to be approachable as a dance track. But its central hook, the stabbing, skyscraper-tall synth line, shiny and sleek and feeling like it could touch God, was what made your heart leap when it came on at a party or in between sets at Coachella or in your dark unfurnished apartment, doing push-ups before catching the 6 a.m. bus to your job in Inglewood. It spoke of all the promise that had been missing in the past few years, it offered the possibility of getting everything you want after all, like so many golden envelopes from Discover Card addressed to the Current Resident, exclaiming effusively that you are already preapproved.

By the time his single “Silhouettes” dropped in the spring 2012, I listened to it constantly, often at the treadmill at the gym where I could now afford a membership. Huffing and puffing away at my quest toward bougieness, the track felt like a manifesto, brazenly ahistorical with its androgynous vocal chest-thumping:

So we will never get back to
To the old school
To the old grounds, it’s all about the newfound
We are the newborn, the world knew all about us
We are the future and we’re here to stay

We’ve come a long way since that day
And we will never look back at the faded silhouette
We’ve come a long way since that day
And we will never look back, look back at the faded silhouette

The first video that accompanied it on YouTube was a collage of tour footage of Bergling, hopping onto private jet after private jet, always at night, always lit by the Cobrasnake-esque glow of an on-camera light. In between the jet-setting were gigs, big and loud and barely distinguishable from each other, populated by picture-perfect EDM babes, and the up-down-up-down of repetitive, predictive doses of bliss. Watching the video again makes me feel incredibly nostalgic, but also gives the overwhelming sense of an entire youth culture borrowing on credit. Our jiltedness at not getting the adulthood we’d been promised as kids — reliable employment, the outside chance of one day owning a house — had retreated to lick its wounds and come back as a voracious, bottomless need for everything shiny and stupid and expensive we could get our hands on, even if we had to scam our way to it (to this day, you are never going to see me pay out of my own pocket for festival passes).

“We will never look back at the faded silhouette” feels more than a little bit sinister now, as a generational statement. Like every apocalyptic radio pop song of that era, asking us to live like tomorrow will never come, there was an overwhelming need for the music of the era to freeze time, both to stave off adulthood, but also to deny every feeling of doubt and sadness and confusion that had come before, to will it away in order to start our lifestyle brands or build our Twitter following. I had managed to convince myself in 2011 that I could still get what I wanted, but in reality I had a very small reservoir left, constantly one disaster away from moving back home again. So, like a deranged motivational speaker for one, I played a nonstop loop of EDM hits on my headphones and ran on the treadmill like a maniac, telling myself there was no other way to go but up, working my day job all day and grinding away on freelance work by night, pushing myself up the literal mountain above Griffith Park till I was so exhausted I cried.

Perhaps the music of Avicii — who convinced a wave of jaded music critics that Vegas-oriented dance music could be kind of great after all — is the sound of selling out. But it’s also the sound of willful self-realization, of dragging yourself out to the party because the only other option is too dark to think about. When I listen to “Levels” and “Silhouettes” and the candy-shower of sweetness of the Nicki Romero collab “I Could Be the One,” I think of lots of amazing, brainless, carefree moments at house parties or in festival crowds under seizure-inducing lights. But I also think of fucking work, of yelling so hard at the recession and my depression that I could almost scare them away for good.

In 2016, Bergling retired at the ripe old age of 26, the nonstop grind of touring having led him to alcoholism and severe health problems. I don’t think I’m the only person of my generation who could see themselves there in some alternate timeline. His death is tragic, and it’s unfortunate that we’ll never get another one of his heaven-scraping jams. But it’s hard not to feel like his passing is also the official passing of an era. The EDM of the beginning of this decade feels plastic, even predatory; meanwhile, the new kids of America are spending their 4/20 marching against the NRA. The ultracapitalist, gender-normative, predatory culture that informed my 20s seems more irrelevant than ever. But if I’m at a wedding, or a barbeque, and “Levels,” comes on, I will dutifully stand for my generation’s anthem, and think back to the time when it felt like we could dance our way out of anything unpleasant.

Avicii and EDM’s Promise of Post-Recessional Excess