I did not know Tim Bergling, the 28-year-old Swede who died on 20 April. But I knew Avicii well. His bouncy, blatant electronic dance music – how you imagine strobe lights might sound – was the soundtrack to my first few years at university. In 2011, whether you were drinking cheap wine out of a mug in someone’s room, or amid a heaving mass of strangers at the same grimy nightclub you went to every week, or eating pizza outside afterwards, it was only a matter of time before you heard his breakout hit Levels. Often, you would hear it more than once, as DJs, buoyed by the joyous reaction its opening bars elicited, tried their luck to see if the same trick would work twice. It usually did.
There was such appetite for Levels that, when the rapper Flo Rida sampled it on Good Feeling just a month after its release, his take also topped the charts. The song was ubiquitous in the way only a smash-hit single can be, the kind that makes a specific time and place feel written into the music. Many of Avicii’s songs were like that: Wake Me Up, You Make Me, Hey Brother, Addicted to You, X You, I Could Be the One.
He often paired an upbeat acoustic guitar riff with an unlikely vocal – a 1962, gospel-inspired Etta James sample on Levels; the neo-soul singer Aloe Blacc on Wake Me Up; an uncredited Adele soundalike (Audra Mae) on Addicted to You – before launching into his trademark frantic synths, irrespective of whether the song had sounded like it was heading in that direction.
I now struggle to tell these songs apart, at least until the drop kicks in – but they were never meant to be heard by an individual, through tinny earbuds, in the daytime. These were the songs of Saturday night, 2011-14. If you are in your 20s now and went to a nightclub, music festival, house party or shopping centre between mid-2011 and early 2012, the chances are you had an Avicii moment, whether you recognised it at the time or not.
There is a particular snobbishness towards Avicii’s brand of big, unabashed EDM that relates to the notion that music of value cannot be computer-generated or enormously popular, but the same distaste is generally not applied to Daft Punk, for example, or Taylor Swift. His is the kind of music that is readily dismissed as something you “press a button on a laptop” to make. (Would that such a button existed!)
Even now, when the divide between high and low culture is being smoothed out and there is said to be no such thing as a guilty pleasure, you may be more likely to “own up” to liking Levels than to declare it proudly (you might just sequester it on your gym playlist). But Avicii’s music was that rare thing in a world where culture has atomised: the soundtrack to moments of pure, collective euphoria.
When, in 2013, Bergling was asked how he felt about criticisms of his music being “too mainstream”, he did not engage with the charge. “I’ve always been mainstream,” he said. “I don’t see it as something negative at all.” By defining the sound of that period, Avicii gave us a way to access it years later. Many of the bars where I first heard Levels have closed down and been reborn as nicer joints – but the opening bars take me straight back there, to Hope Bros and Temperance, to flashing lights and the first flushes of independence and something resembling adulthood. For a friend I had dinner with after news broke of Bergling’s death, the song evoked her last years of high school. We had never spoken about Avicii before, and certainly would never have introduced ourselves as fans – but I suppose I had known innately, by virtue of our ages, that it was likely to be something we shared. That is part of the joy of popular culture when it is properly popular: you are in it with everybody else.
Kanye West: making Twitter great again
My pick for bon mot of the decade? “I hate when I’m on a flight and I wake up with a water bottle next to me like oh great now I gotta be responsible for this water bottle.” That or: “What do I have to do to get a simple persian rug with cherub imagery uuuuugh.”
Both are tweets sent by Kanye West in 2010, the first and golden age of Twitter that West played a fundamental role in creating. The platform seemed purpose-built to accommodate his mile-a-minute inner monologue (“Sometimes I get emotional over fonts”; “I would like to thank Julius Caesar for originating my hairstyle”) and soon he had tens of millions hanging on his every 140-character observation.
But, like many Twitter users, West was clearly conflicted about the platform, deleting his entire oeuvre in 2012 on what NME called “a black day for anyone who enjoys the gushing firehose of randomness and arrogance”.
Now he is back (greeted with a hero’s welcome by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey) and apparently in the mood to inspire. “Constantly bringing up the past keeps you stuck there.” “Everyone should be their own biggest fan.” “Prince opened up for Rick James. everybody starts some where.” “You can say anything as long as you put the right emoji next to it.”
At the time of writing, West has sent 140 tweets in 11 days, but give him 10 minutes and a spark of inspiration and that total could double. Late on Tuesday night, he tweeted: “2024”, suggesting his slated presidential bid may have been set back four years. The day before, West had reiterated to a radio interviewer his support for President Trump, a similarly enthusiastic tweeter. The specifics of West’s run remain unclear, but if we can take tweets as policy announcements now, I would go for “practice [sic] pure love” over talk of nuclear buttons.
Will I visit London’s lump of gunk? Fat chance
I have not gone to see the pride of London, the fatberg, on display. I am left cold by the idea. But the seemingly bottomless interest in fatbergs, evinced most recently by Channel 4’s “autopsy from the sewers”, suggests I am in the minority. The most generous explanation for this national fascination is that it allows us to confront the physical impact of our single-use, plastic-is-fantastic society. But my sense is that it is more about voyeurism and our childish glee in being revolted – the same impulse that, when we smell something bad, leads us to urge others to smell it, too. To reiterate: no thanks.