Avicii, Americana, and the Future of Pop Music
Back at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012, when Avicii's "Le7els" was pumping out of any device with a speaker attached, I couldn't get enough. I cherish pop sensibility as much as chops or technical prowess. Baby-faced Swedish producer, Tim Bergling, does not exactly conjure the most complicated or challenging arrangements, but his hooks are sharp enough to rip you right open.
For his next big single, "Wake Me Up!" Bergling managed to blur the lines between genres that could not be more disparate: electronic dance music and... county western.
A discussion about Avicii that ends at hooks would be criminally redundant. The real reason I've called you here today is to discuss Avicii and the future of pop music as we know it as reflected in his embrace of musical Americana.
But to understand the near future, it's essential to review the recent past.
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When The New York Times declared, in the still-gurgling wake of Ultra Music Festival 2012, that Electronic Dance Music had definitively supplanted good ol' fashioned rock 'n' roll as the soundtrack to global youth culture, "Le7els" was the national anthem of a bold new republic. The song was officially released less than 5 months before, but Top 40 pop new school ravers from here to there were well acquainted with its highly infectious instrumental mega-chorus courtesy of pop-rapper Flo-Rida's "Good Feeling."
Released in August 2011, and receiving heavy airplay from its debut, "Good Feeling" uses "Le7els" as an instrumental base, and turns a sample Avicii used as an interlude -- an excerpt from gospel singer Etta James' 1967 single, "Something's Got a Hold on Me" -- into a righteous, feel-good zeitgeist-affirming vocal hook.
In 2011, Etta James was still experiencing aftershocks from a end-of-career (and life) surge in popularity generated by Beyoncé Knowles' portrayal of her in Cadillac Records, a musical biopic released in 2008 that tells the story of soul-blues-R&B institution, Chicago's Chess Records. In 2009, she performed on Dancing With The Stars and in November of 2011, she released her critically acclaimed final album, The Dreamer, before passing away from leukemia two months later.
Though he was not the first to sample, "Something's Got a Hold on Me" -- that distinction belongs to '90s house artist Doi-Oing, followed by eclectic electronica act Pretty Lights in 2006 -- Avicii appropriates Etta James with the richest results. "Le7els" uses James' impassioned declaration -- "Whoa-oh/Sometimes/I get a good feeling/I get a feeling that I never, never, never/Never had before/Oh, no" -- as a mid-song breakdown that doubles as a familiar house trope: the white-hot and lusty R&B/Soul vocalization. The end result is a powerful interlude that doubles both as a palette cleansing break from the first half of the song, but also starts a rolling boil of anticipation for the onslaught of hooks about to be reintroduced.
"It's timeless," Bergling told Rolling Stone at the beginning of 2012. He went on to describe Etta's vocals as "raw" and being compositionally attracted to "the power" of the Motown legends' pipes.
"She really has soul."
The keyword is soul. While the song's signature sample certainly fits within the EDM archetype of the impassioned African American vocalist, one should probably pause to wonder if the good feeling James wailed about was inspired by peaking on research chemicals during Skrillex at Electric Daisy, or if there is possibly a more serious message about personal perseverance in the face of adversity rooted in all the -isms dealing with race, sex, and class.
To pose our central question in-reverse: Does Avicii know why the caged bird sings?
Thus far, Fatboy Slim seems to be the only person to ever question the selection. At Ultra 2012, Slim's goof-laden set featured an abruptly-played clip of Etta singing her song, complete with live footage beaming from the Jumbotron mega-screens behind him. Represented visually, Etta's 'soul' could maybe be understood as something deeper -- or at least maybe more personal -- than presented by Avicii, Flo-Rida, et al. Fatboy Slim quickly segued into his own track, "Star 69," featuring the endlessly repeated verse, "They know what is what/but they don't know what is what/they just strut/What the fuck?"
The lack of outcry is likely proportional to the relative harmless nature of the crime. White artists appropriating black artists out of context is nothing new, and there are bigger fish to fry. For example, young adults that dress like Native Americans to attend a rave.
Like all once-ubiquitous bangers, "Le7els" has receded into the murky soup of pop culture consciousness. However, Avicii is nowhere near finished infecting North America with the mighty sonic decadence of contemporary electro-house. And once more, roots music is key to the equation.
"Wake Me Up!" was released in June of this year and again builds a strobe-sparkling EDM mega-structure around a dusty folk music core. But by substituting gospel-derived vocals and fairly conservative electro-pop riffs with all of the trappings of knee-slappin' country -- as expressed by Garth Brooks and Country Music Television -- the process of appropriation is taken in all new directions.
Much like "Le7els," "Wake Me Up!" has a vertiginous compositional history. As Avicii explained to MTV UK,
"I had a demo with Mac Davis singing, the guy who wrote all the Elvis Presley stuff, but I needed another singer to do the parts. At the same time, I was tipped off about doing another track with Aloe Blacc and I started working on that track. When I was with Mike Einziger from Incubus, we came up with the chord progression and the melody for 'Wake Me Up' but no real lyrics. None of us sing, and we really needed to get that demo down and the only person I knew that lived in LA was Aloe, so I called him and he was free. Lyrics come really easy to him so he wrote them in a couple of hours and we finished the track."
Unfortunately, Aloe Blacc is not listed on the single's official album work nor on chart listings. When a radio DJ reads back, the song is credited simply enough to Avicii. As a result of this lack of recognition, Blacc released his own "Wake Me Up" (sans exclamation point) EP, a five song suite featuring a version of the title track performed acoustic.
Although Blacc's protest EP is appropriate, his version does not achieve the same massive ends as Avicii's. By melding country music with Casey Kasem techno, the young Swede has formally enacted a courtship of the EDM-military-industrial complex's hardest demographic to reach: Middle America.
The genius in Avicii's songwriting evolution lies in his ability to give and take. The lyrics to "Wake Me Up!" strike a remarkable balance between confetti YOLO nihilism and the honest wisdom of the archetypal cowboy. Even the video approaches the narrative of "dance music in America" as it may be vaguely represented by the clip's pair of female protagonists lost in a run-down dusty world resembling the "Really Old" (and "Totally Boring") West.
As dance-pop becomes the new default, it's going to assimilate attributes of previous trends, waves, and movements, much like how an invading empire might allow its new fiefdom to maintain its own regional customs. EDM is the new rock 'n' roll, is the new pop music. But is it also on its way to becoming the new Americana?
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