Avicii was a dance-music futurist with deep ties to the past

Avicii, seen performing in San Francisco in 2016, died Friday.
(Rich Polk / Getty Images for Rolling Stone)
Pop Music Critic

As one of the biggest stars in electronic dance music, Avicii operated with an implied faith in the value of the future.

“In the road of life, I tumble forward,” went the words to his song “For a Better Day” — lyrics that might have served as a kind of mantra for a Swedish DJ and producer whose creativity was closely tied to technology’s evolution.

Unlike many of his EDM peers, though, Avicii — who died Friday at age 28 of an unspecified cause — also conveyed a deep belief in a more old-fashioned way of doing things.


It was there in his collaborations with the likes of Madonna and Coldplay, pop stars from a time before anyone used the term “EDM.” And it was there in the proudly rootsy textures he used for his 2013 album, “True,” which inspired a backlash among some dance-music partisans for its blend of surging beats and bluegrass-style guitar and vocals.

But nothing said more about Avicii’s interest in history (and how it persists) than his breakthrough hit, “Levels.”

Released in 2011, the song is built around a highly recognizable sample of “Something’s Got a Hold On Me,” the early-’60s R&B tune by Etta James.

“Oh-oh, sometimes / I get a good feeling,” James sings, and the earthy quality of her singing — its hard-won knowledge of how not long that feeling will likely last — creates a vivid contrast with the track’s sleekly reliable computer groove.

Avicii was pointing to more than James’ song, though. “Levels” delivers a callback as well to an earlier song by a fellow EDM star, Pretty Lights, who sampled “Something’s Got a Hold On Me” in 2006.


Which meant that Avicii had to be pleased when the rapper Flo Rida and his producers later borrowed “Levels” to create yet another new song, “Good Feeling,” which ascended to No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in early 2012.

Just like he’d done, someone dug up an artifact from the past and set it tumbling forward.

Twitter: @mikaelwood