June 23, 2012, will likely leave an indelible mark on pop music history. On this day, Swedish House Mafia, one of the biggest electronic dance music acts in the world, decided to call it quits at the height of its celebrity. The trio of Sebastian Ingrosso, Axwell, and Steve Angello is gearing up for a global farewell run aptly titled One Last Tour, which begins its North American leg in San Francisco this week with a five-night series at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium — most tickets for which sold out in about one minute.
The popularity of the group is unquestionable. Since the arrival of "One (Your Name)," the group's 2010 major-label debut single, the three Swedes have been poster boys for a new pop-crossover genre of electronic music dubbed "EDM." Nowhere has this had more of an impact than the U.S., where they helped to develop one of the most profitable business models in today's music industry by replacing revenue from recorded albums with ticket sales from ever-more spectacular live shows. The group's exit from the world stage as a unified trio leaves a legacy that will, for better or worse, be with us for a long time to come — and seems all but certain to result in a string of reunion tours.
What's remarkable about Swedish House Mafia is how it's become an easy point of entry for a subculture that was, at least in this country, historically marginalized. By combining an electronic sound palette with traditional pop song structure, the group managed to emerge from the European market, transcend the clubland niche, and gain a ubiquitous mainstream presence along the way. Listen to the music of Swedish House Mafia and you'll immediately notice that it has neither the speaker-shredding bass contortions of Skrillex nor the faceless trance rush of Tiësto — the two artists closest to the Swedes in terms of annual earnings, according to a recent Forbes article. Sometimes the music contains aspects of both styles, but muted and repackaged to include, say, a vocal hook from Pharrell Williams, or a soaring chorus from Swedish singer John Martin. Sonically huge anthems like "Save the World (Tonight)" and "Don't You Worry Child" saw the group moving away from trance and dubstep and toward an easily consumable formula engineered to sit comfortably between LMFAO and the Black Eyed Peas on radio playlists.
This commercial appeal catapulted the group through a series of achievements, including two Grammy nominations, an Absolut vodka TV advertisement, and the distinction of being the first ever EDM group to play — and sell out — Madison Square Garden. Like a trio of modern evangelists, Swedish House Mafia produced a short discography and extensive touring schedule that helped shift the taste of an entire generation of Americans toward dance.
In a way, this group is the contemporary analog to the Bee Gees, the Australian outfit that catalyzed the mass popularity of disco in America by offering a straight, white alternative to the genre's black, Latino, and gay roots. Doing much of the same thing musically — "house," after all, is electronic disco that rose out of Chicago's gay community in the 1980s — Swedish House Mafia took the countercultural and communal live experience of club music and replaced it with a fixation on pop-star identity. It swapped out the kinetic energy of attending a rave for a stage-focused spectacle more like a rock concert.
Accordingly, the group has received some criticism, especially for its live show. Relying on intense visual effects like pyrotechnics and lasers, Swedish House Mafia performances tend to err on the melodramatic side. Last year, the trio found itself at the center of controversy when Angello was caught using a prerecorded mix instead of actually performing live. Strangely, this may prove to be the most lasting part of the group's legacy, as the ensuing firestorm caused artists and fans to reevaluate their expectations.
You might even say it indirectly resulted in EDM's first manifesto. Deadmau5's "We all hit play" was a short blog post arguing that what's important to the genre are its fans and music producers, not self-important rock star DJs. That the Deadmau5 rant arrived just one day before Swedish House Mafia announced its retirement seems significant. Perhaps the group's greatest contribution to EDM culture will be the reminder it provided that commercial success in the genre doesn't indemnify a group against harsh criticism.