In March 2012, Madonna made a surprise appearance at the Ultra Music Festival in Miami alongside the twenty-three year-old Swedish DJ/producer Avicii. She had enlisted him to remix her latest single, ‘Girl Gone Wild’. “I’ve been here in spirit for many years, but it’s good to finally be standing on the stage, looking at all you people who have come here from all around the world,” Madonna told the crowd. “In my world the words ‘music’ and ‘dance’ are not separated. Electronic music has been a part of my life since the beginning of my career. I can honestly say that a DJ saved my life.”
“I had about three days to do [the remix] … and I was in the middle of touring as well,” Avicii told Billboard. “It turned out great. I already had a melody that I was going to use for something else, but it really fit with that one so it wasn’t that hard.”
Avicii was born Tim Bergling to actress Anki Léden in Stockholm in 1989. At sixteen he began posting his remixes online, and had signed a record contract by eighteen. He chose the stage name ‘Avicii’ after the Buddhist term signifying the lowest depth of hell. His breakout single, ‘Seek Bromance’, was a hit across Europe in 2010. A year later, he had another smash on his hands with ‘Levels’, earning him a Grammy nomination.
During his 2012 Ultra spot with Madonna, Avicii also premiered a remix of Lenny Kravitz’s ‘Superlove.’ A month later, Avicii’s ‘Silhouettes’ reached number 4 in the Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs chart. His début album, True, followed in December. In 2013, he had another worldwide hit with ‘Wake Me Up’, blending acoustic melodies with euphoric beats.
In March 2014, Avicii announced his collaboration with Madonna on her new album. Having brought ‘folktronica’ into the mainstream with her earlier albums, Music and American Life, Madonna had seemingly found a compatible partner. Among their compositions were ‘Devil Pray’, ‘Heartbreak City’, and ‘Wash All Over Me’, all of which made it onto the standard edition of Rebel Heart, released a year later. The title track, plus ‘Messiah’, were added to the deluxe edition, while ‘Borrowed Time’ and ‘Addicted’ appeared on a ‘super-deluxe’ edition.
However, this creative period came to an abrupt halt on March 24, when Avicii was hospitalised for exhaustion. Madonna continued working with different artists, including fellow DJ/producer Diplo. The final versions of ‘Wash All Over Me’ and ‘Rebel Heart’ were reworked by new producers, and a massive leak in November revealed several more unreleased songs.
“I ended up working with a lot of DJs – young DJs – and I naively didn’t think it through,” Madonna said in a later interview with Next magazine. “Oh, it’s summertime, it’s the festivals, and they’re on tour, and I’ll be lucky if I get them for three days, so a lot of that had to factor in. OK, I can’t wait for three months for this dude to come back. I have to find somebody else.”
“I’d love to work with her again,” Avicii told Rolling Stone, “but that was right when I was busiest, and I think she might have been disappointed in me for not being able to put in as much time as she wanted. A lot of things start suffering when you don’t have the energy or time to do things properly. You think you can get away with it, but the quality suffers.”
Having cancelled most of his live appearances in 2014, Avicii returned a year later with his second album, Stories. By 2016, he had quit touring. “To me it was something I had to do for my health,” he told Billboard. “The scene was not for me. It was not the shows and not the music. It was always the other stuff surrounding it that never came naturally to me. All the other parts of being an artist. I’m more of an introverted person in general. It was always very hard for me. I took on board too much negative energy, I think.”
Avicii’s health problems were mounting, including severe pancreatitis (reportedly caused by alcohol abuse) and hospitalisations for gallbladder removal and an appendectomy. A 2017 documentary, Avicii: True Stories, was released alongside a six-track EP. He was reportedly working on new music when he died, aged twenty-eight, on April 20, 2018. While the cause of death has yet to be established, it is believed not to be suspicious.
“You set the precedent for the rest of us,” Diplo wrote on Instagram after hearing of his friend’s lonely demise. “You were the gold standard … I know you had your demons and maybe this wasn’t the right place for you sometimes, but we need to protect true artists like you at all costs because there are not enough left and we’re losing too many …”
Madonna’s tribute was more concise, but also heartfelt: “So sad … so tragic. Goodbye dear sweet Tim. Gone too soon.”