The cylindrically shaped D.C. Armory is a massive venue, capable of holding 10,000 concertgoers at one time. And Friday night, the Swedish DJ Avicii played a set fit to scale.
From the moment he took the stage, Avicii twisted the knob that controls drama up to 11. It felt like dance music’s take on a TV soap: The rises in tension were immediate, almost panicky, and the payoffs were absurdly over the top. The audience for this show, a chaotic sea of baby-faced grownups, was immersed in the melodrama; laughing, crying, hugging and dancing. Young women pranced about in Christmas-bulbed tutus, and bodybuilders sucked furiously on pacifiers.
Avicii, whose real name is Tim Bergling, is one of the few electronic dance music acts that warrants the use of a space as large as the Armory. The 23-year-old rose to stardom on the back of his song “Levels,” which uses the beginning seconds of Etta James’s “Something’s Got a Hold On Me” as a singalong breakdown. When the rapper Flo Rida added his vocals and renamed it “Good Feeling,” the track found a home on commercial radio. Now, more than a year after the release of “Levels,” it’s still the moment of Avicii’s set that everyone waits for.
The buildup to this moment arrived with a fairly linear sequence of progressive house ballads. This subgenre of dance music features large, domineering synths, sugary pop breakdowns and effusive climaxes. It’s what dominates DJ charts and what dominated Avicii’s three-hour set, a string of songs that’s probably been played hundreds of times, by him and other festival headliners, in one form or another.
On Friday, “deep cuts” were in low demand. The audience was happiest with recognizable sing-alongs. Such familiarity brought a glorious sense of community to the room — and a nauseating feeling of deja vu. Many of EDM’s biggest names made their way into the performance, which included cuts from rising star Zedd and EDM stalwarts Swedish House Mafia. The tracks were mixed quickly and precisely. Moments of euphoric cacophony and lingering suspense sat in sharp contrast. The DJ pivoted between headbanging madness and saccharine balladry with startling haste.
When this worked best, one could hear practically the entire room let out a collective “whoa.” For example, when Avicii dropped into Nari & Milani’s arena-rattling behemoth “Atom,” thousands of wavering attention spans snapped into focus. But it only worked so many times over the course of three hours. Most of the rises and drops, builds and breaks followed an unsurprising formula.
Then “Levels” came on, and everyone rushed to get closer to the pencil-thin “rock star” wedged between spastically cycling cones of light. When the synths dropped out and Etta James’s voice rang from the stacks and stacks of speakers, everyone cried out together, “OOOOOh, sometimes I get a good feeling.” For thousands of starry-eyed Avicii fans, this was one of those times. But then, as confetti came pouring out from the stage, technical difficulties cut the moment short. The song dropped out, and the vibe quickly disintegrated.
Big-room performances such as Avicii’s live and die on brief moments, when the masses bind together in the presence of enormous spectacle and share in a collective sense of awe. Unfortunately, those moments Friday night were few and far between, and the most crucial of them all missed its mark.
Yenigun is a freelance writer.