Has Avicii Introduced America to the Turbo-Folk Production Aesthetic?
Avicii is an EDM artist. That’s a sentence which carries death and taxes levels of certainty. By the time many of us graduated from college, “Levels” was a club staple, the throbbing soundtrack for many an LNDP and possibly the occasional DFMO. I have long been partial to the single that followed, “Blessed,” but as far as Americans are concerned, “Wake Me Up” is his first release of note since Tim Bergling gave us that wondrous blast of Etta James and Swedish house production.* So Avicii is an EDM artist, but now we have “Wake Me Up”, which is sung by a guy Wikipedia calls a soul singer, and was performed at Ultra with a live banjo (also, Aloe Blacc can sing).
I think the first time I referred to “Wake Me Up” in conversation with another person, I called it, “the Avicii track that sounds like it was mashed up with Mumford & Sons.” The first time I heard it, in a rain storm and heavy traffic, headed north on I-95, I thought, “that’s awfully canny, and/or grossly contrived, to release something that rips directly from two of the most popular genres in recent years.” I’m hardly the only person to have that reaction:
Was it, I ask, not a pretty cynical move to shove two of the biggest genres of successful music in the past 12 months together, Human Centipede style?
But after further review, I don’t think Tim Bergling was making a calculated play for fans of suspenders and pork pie hats. Look at the artists he worked with to produce his debut album, and the way he discusses bluegrass music; there seems to be a serious attempt to expand musically, and a genuine interest in the genre.
Aesthetically, I think something more interesting has happened. I think Tim Bergling/Tim Berg/Tom Hangs/Avicii has discovered the turbo-folk production aesthetic for America.***
No singular definition of turbo-folk has managed to establish itself with the same authority achieved by, say, Weber’s definition of the state, to pick something at random from the social sciences. But most definitions are reasonably consistent with each other.
A humorous 2011 article covering its removal from Skopje’s bus system notes:
Turbo Folk music emerged in late 1980s and 90s in Serbia as a sub-genre of Balkan folk music blended with dance and pop elements and quasi-meaningful lyrics. Although widely rejected by music critics as plain kitsch, this blend soon became mainstream among the masses in many Balkan states.
According to the Christian Science Monitor,”Turbo-folk is a flippant – oxymoronic – term that stuck to a genre of traditionally inspired folk songs set to a techno-pop beat.”
The Guardian describes turbo-folk as a fusion of, “pop, folk and oriental sounds.”
And Uros Cvoro, in the March 2012 issue of Culture and Politics [gated], writes:
Turbo-folk is high-energy pop mixed with traditional folk music. It borrows elements of Oriental and Mediterranean melodies channeled through electronic dance rhythms and fuses them with MTV-style video presentation. Its performers are predominantly scantily clad, sexually provocative women singing about love, passion, death, sex, and money.
I think most all of those definitions would, with no or only minor adjustments, describe with reasonable accuracy, the production aesthetic of any bluegrass/EDM combination, and certainly Avicii’s smash “Wake Me Up”. Bluegrass certainly qualifies as folk, and I think only the most rigid genre-fier would insist that that Avicii’s synth-heavy dance tracks don’t qualify as pop music at this point. What I don’t think is that Avicii came upon this recipe by trolling Youtube for videos of Neda Ukraden. But regardless of its genesis, the idea is, in a global sense, both not new and highly successful (at least, commercially). So is Avicii the vanguard of its incipient success on American soil? Is it only a matter of time before Woody Guthrie lyrics start showing up in dance tracks, or we hear Bela Fleck as the featured guest on a club banger? I doubt it, but considering how easy it’s become to splice together a few synthesizer arpeggios and release a hit, you have to respect Avicii’s willingness to try something a little more challenging.
*Based on the fact that nothing actually charted in the U.S. between “Levels” and “Wake Me Up”
**This post makes it seem like I spend a lot of time thinking about Avicii songs. It’s not not true, but it’s not really true, either
***I haven’t decided yet whether or not I’m being facetious with this hypothesis. If it turns out I was right, I was definitely serious
****Plenty of people (I use plenty loosely – only three people will read this) I’m sure will object to my use of EDM as a genre in itself, but I have no interest in trying to parse the differences between say, nudisco, Italo-disco, and Calvin Harris