Warning: This essay contains descriptions of self-harm and suicidal ideation.
“Remember when we saw Avicii?”
I was 19, the hottest I’ll probably ever be in my life, and stuck in Reno after being convinced to go on a college ski trip. I don’t ski — an attempt in eighth grade left me sore and wondering why anyone would pay to willingly hurl themselves down a hill — but my best friend and some sorority sisters wanted to escape LA for a weekend.
If you weren’t down for winter sports, there wasn’t much to do in Reno; there were budget hotel rooms filled with plastic bottles of vodka and bad energy drink mixers and slot machines I accessed with the help of an excellent fake ID. And then there was a performance: This random guy named Avicii was playing in town.
He was the one who did “Levels,” the song that played ad nauseam in the frat houses where I partied. I had no idea who Avicii (real name: Tim Bergling) was — I had no idea what “electronic dance music” was — but the show was something like $20, which seemed pretty low-risk, high-reward.
There were no seats, and as I would later learn, EDM events were more of a stand-and-sweat-on-each-other situation. It was dark, and the only thing you could see clearly was keyed-up frat dudes saying “bro” over and over again, forcing me to come to terms with the fact I was in my own personal brand of hell.
This tall, gangly Swede wearing a baseball cap and hoodie came onstage and I clapped and hollered just to feel like part of the crowd. I wasn’t sure if he was a DJ or a college kid who got lost. Then it started: one track, two tracks, three tracks. When “Levels” finally came on, the room erupted. I remember thinking, Is this how religious people feel at church? I stood there, surrounded by strangers, but somehow I’d never felt so understood. I was seen.
If you have depression, time is warped. You think about your past and agonize over everything you could have done differently. You think about the future, dreaming of a day when you can get out of bed without hating yourself enough you take a razor blade to your forearms. You think about any moment that’s not the present, because right now you’re sinking into lower depths of despair. Right now, you’re drowning.
Since I was 10 years old and told a camp counselor I wanted to hang myself with a jump rope, I have felt the pain of thinking — no matter how many people told me I’m wonderful, I’m smart, I’m important — that this world is not meant for me. I have smiled to my friends at dinner, cracked jokes while thinking, I’m going to kill myself tonight. I have felt things so low that I felt as if my body would physically crack from the weight of darkness that sits on my chest.
It was the first time I wasn't just listening to music. I was feeling it.
But when I was in front of Avicii, I wasn’t concerned with whatever was outside those doors. I didn’t know the words to his songs, but I knew them. As I heard that epic buildup, those slow-building notes finally climaxed in a moment of ecstasy where there was a beat drop so forceful you couldn’t help but jump, your body reacting to an unsaid agreement between you and the music. It was the first time I wasn’t just listening to music. I was feeling it.
After that night, there would be more Avicii songs in my life. “Levels,” his first huge hit and still the most famous, was eclipsed in my mind by “Silhouettes,” “The Nights,” and “Broken Arrows.” He experimented with different genres — his dip into country was particularly masterful. And while other DJs produced songs about that one awesome party to end all parties, that one summer to end all summers, that one vacation to end all vacations, Avicii’s songs were a shade darker. His lyrics were filled with repressed pain that could maybe, hopefully, be soothed with one more beat drop.
The singers featured on his tracks sang about conversations with fathers and brothers, about literally crying out for your love, of being so lost and alone in the present, you want to be woken up in the future. The song names weren’t “Party All Night” and “Let's Get Druuuuuunk”; they were “Divine Sorrow,” “For a Better Day,” and “Fade Into Darkness.” They were my depression manifested, music that could make you simultaneously cry and dance.
For years, my friend and I would remind each other how we got to see Avicii in the middle of nowhere. "Remember when we saw Avicii?" "Oh my god, I know, right?!" It was a badge of honor, a concrete mark that we knew first. We witnessed something we didn’t even know we were being blessed with. I don’t remember what the building looked like, I don’t remember what I was wearing or what my friends and I talked about that night. I just remember the feeling of pure euphoria engulfing me, letting me briefly forget that I thought I didn’t belong in the world. For a few tracks, nothing really mattered but my own two feet standing firmly on the ground.
Avicii stopped playing to college crowds and started selling out arenas and residencies at Vegas nightclubs. I always thought I would see him again, but he stopped touring in 2016, the result of heavy drinking and the eventual removal of his gallbladder and a ruptured appendix.
His presence, like his drops, reverberated throughout the fabric of music as we know it.
As EDM became more and more popular, I always thought of Avicii. He was a mainstream bona fide music superstar; and soon, if you turned on the radio, everything from Nicki Minaj songs to Katy Perry pop tunes seemed to feature a beat drop. Though he didn’t produce those tracks, his fingerprints were all over them. His presence, like his drops, reverberated throughout the fabric of music as we know it.
I got older. I graduated, got married, got a job. More importantly, I got a therapist and psychiatrist. I became ardent fans of other EDM artists. I still go to raves and concerts and festivals, and some people will look down and ask why I would subject myself to “trash” music. I try to explain but often fall short of anything poetic and convincing. All I can think about is how when I’m at an EDM show, I always take a moment to look around and watch the people surrounding me. They’re college kids, they’re married folks, they’re architects, smoothie makers, teachers, skateboarders, ice cream scoopers, babysitters, drifters, bankers, parents. They’re people still trying to figure out their lives, but in the meantime we’re all together in one place, united by a singular chase to just have a good fucking time.
My husband sent me a Facebook message with a link about Avicii’s death. I froze in shock and found myself crying, something I rarely, if ever, do.
In a statement provided to BuzzFeed News, Avicii's family said:
Our beloved Tim was a seeker, a fragile artistic soul searching for answers to existential questions. An over-achieving perfectionist who travelled and worked hard at a pace that led to extreme stress. When he stopped touring, he wanted to find a balance in life to be happy and be able to do what he loved most — music. He really struggled with thoughts about Meaning, Life, Happiness. He could not go on any longer. He wanted to find peace. Tim was not made for the business machine he found himself in; he was a sensitive guy who loved his fans but shunned the spotlight. Tim, you will forever be loved and sadly missed. The person you were and your music will keep your memory alive. We love you, Your family.
The depression club is one no one really wants to be a member of. You don’t get cool perks, people aren’t jealous of you, and, unlike other clubs, you can never really leave this one. Even now with therapy and medication and a better understanding of how my brain works, depression always lingers behind me, a half-step away from striking. But when you meet someone else who’s going through something even remotely similar, the levees holding back all the smothered hurt breaks. That first night I saw Avicii, I realized we could all be a little less lonely together.
I opened up Spotify and listened to song after song on the “This is: Avicii” playlist, reliving my life through the lens of a soundtrack. I saw myself at 21, dancing and screaming the lyrics to “Wake Me Up” on a party bus with my then-boyfriend and now-husband. When I heard “Hey Brother,” I thought about how the last time I heard that song, I was getting dressed for the funeral of my last-remaining grandparent. “Seek Bromance” brought me back to a Vegas hotel room, where a bunch of college kids were drinking too much, screwing around, and living like that weekend would be their last.
My best friend and I were no longer best friends. Time and life had separated us, and when we ran into each other around town we greeted one another like long-lost sisters, with talks about lunches and happy hour drinks that we both knew would never come into fruition.
After I heard the news, I got the overwhelming urge to text her. And I knew what five words could recapture the magic of what we felt at 19 on a cold night in January:
“Remember when we saw Avicii?”
To learn more about depression check out the resources at the National Institute of Mental Health here.
If you are dealing with thoughts of suicide, you can speak to someone immediately here or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which you can reach at 1-800-273-8255.