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.
See also: Five Predictions for the Future of Music
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.