KCRW DJ, Music Director and dance-music aficionado Jason Bentley had just returned on Monday from two weekends at Coachella, where the untimely death of Swedish EDM star Tim Bergling, better known as Avicii, last Friday cast a pall over the festival that had played a large role in driving the genre into the mainstream. After all, it was Daft Punk’s 2006 performance at the festival’s fabled Sahara Tent that ushered in the era of dance music as a multi-media stage extravaganza, and Avicii was the one who first truly brought EDM into the pop charts.
Still, “Avicii always appeared to me as a reluctant star,” says Bentley. “He came from Sweden with these boyish good looks and a hit single. He became a part of that first wave of EDM superstars, but he was a soft-spoken, quiet guy, who didn’t speak English all that well. Socially, he was a bit awkward. It sure felt like he was thrust into that situation, and never felt particularly comfortable with the demands of being not only a celebrity, but a leader of the scene.”
Since Bergling’s April 20 death, many music fans have drawn parallels between the dance music innovator and the late Kurt Cobain. Bentley was himself reluctant to compare Avicii to the Nirvana frontman, another artist closely associated with a musical movement he helped to usher in.
“I’m hesitant to use that comparison because they’re so different in terms of music and personality,” he says. “I do see a connection in that they are both youthful figures their generations can identify with. Obviously, both died way too soon, and their deaths marked the end of an era.”
Bentley points to the fact that, aside from Kygo — who paid tribute to Avicii during his Coachella set — and Odesza, there were few related artists at Coachella this year to respond to the young artist’s death.
“Most of the titans of EDM — Calvin Harris, Tiesto, Skrillex, Deadmau5 — weren’t there. The only ones who made a point of Avicii’s passing were Kygo and the South African DJ/producer Black Coffee. The emphasis at Coachella was more on R&B. I believe it signals a finality or turning point in the dance scene.”
It’s been only six years since Madonna introduced him at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival, shortly after the fresh-faced 22-year-old had remixed her single, “Girl Gone Wild.” Just a year later, in 2013, Avicii returned, performing his own first big hit, “Levels” (“A game-changer — it should have won the Grammy that year,” Bentley says) and a collaboration with soul singer Aloe Blacc dubbed “Wake Me Up” which went on to become a huge pop hit but baffled the Ultra crowd.
“We were just totally perplexed,” says Bentley of the bluegrass/country-meets-EDM mash-up. “We didn’t really understand completely what was going on, but it proved how wonderfully pliable dance music can be, the way it can morph, change and sample ideas by bringing them together in a new way.”
Avicii was the first EDM artist to actually crack Top 40 radio, starting what Bentley refers to as “a gold rush feeling, with investment bankers, money managers and venture capitalists all circling and interested in dance music. We’d all been predicting commercial success for the genre since the ’90s era of The Prodigy, Moby and Orbital, but Avicii finally ushered it in.”
Five years later, many are wondering what Bergling’s death may mean for the music and the scene that he did so much to push forward.
“I never saw him raging, partying or out of control like a lot of other people on the scene,” Bentley says. “The significance should leave us thinking about the EDM community and what we can do better to nurture, support and sustain our artists. It was really too much, too soon. Avicii wasn’t prepared for that kind of lifestyle.”