Image via Mac Miller/Instagram
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Chris Robinson is looking for somebody to tell him that somewhere, in some vault or closet or attic, there’s hours and hours of recordings of Paul Desmond and Marian McPartland playing together just waiting to be heard.
I came to Mac Miller’s music late. Late as in three days before he died of an accidental overdose on September 7, 2018. I had never heard of him before. And because I mostly live under a rock, I didn’t know he was the dude Ariana Grande was dating before she briefly got engaged to Pete Davidson, who was on Saturday Night Live at the time. My first introduction was Miller’s NPR Tiny Desk Concert, and shortly thereafter, Swimming, which until the posthumous release of Circles, was to be his last album.
With a few exceptions, celebrity deaths almost never affect me. Anthony Bourdain’s suicide in 2018 felt like a kick to the gut. So did Robin Williams’ in 2014. But I can’t think of any other in recent memory that really got to me. That’s why I was a bit confused when I had a visceral reaction when I heard Mac Miller had died, especially since I barely knew anything about him or his music. I wasn’t alone: one could spend days and days scrolling through tweets and YouTube comments from people who were hit hard by his death, from musicians he had known or worked with to random fans. But I couldn’t figure out why the death of someone whose music I barely knew and who I knew almost nothing about elicited the feelings it did. Especially compared to my sad, but not physical reaction to MF DOOM’s death, whose music I had known and enjoyed for 15 years. Now, just over five years after Miller’s passing, Swimming—which I’d guess I’ve listened to more than any other album of similar vintage—continues to maintain a hold on me that I’ve been largely unable to explain.
My first impressions of Miller and his music in the days before his death were wholly based on his Tiny Desk Concert and the studio versions of two other tracks from Swimming: “Self Care” and “Come Back to Earth.” The first few times I saw the video for “Self Care” I didn’t really even like the song; it was almost too different from most of what I listened to. Most of the rap I listen to is noisy and abstract. But I kept coming back to “Self Care,” almost compulsively. One of my office computer monitors seemed to have the video on repeat. Something about the lines “Tell them they can take that bullsh*t elsewhere / Self care / I’m treatin’ me right.” I don’t remember what was going on in September of 2018, but looking back, I was probably dealing with some bullsh*t.
In the weeks following his death I still couldn’t explain Swimming’s quickening grip on me. I tried to come up with what I felt was a logical, if somewhat uncritical, interpretation. I took the imagery of Miller in a pine box, needing to get out of his head, and his sickly appearance and transformed that into assuming that Swimming was some sort of call for help. This wasn’t far from the takes of other fans, who guessed, or somehow “knew” that it was a breakup album, a goodbye letter, a prediction of his own death.
In one of his last interviews, published in Vulture in August, 2018, Miller debunked a lot of the post-mortem theories about the meanings of the songs on Swimming. Craig Jenkins asked him how the public sense of himself differs from reality and how he treats managing his public image, to which Miller responded by saying that trying to control how people think of him would be exhausting, that nobody is going to be able to really know him, and that he leaves the meaning of his songs up to interpretation and lets people read whatever they want into them.
The actual realities behind the creation of Swimming reveal how incorrect popular interpretations are. Miller began working on Swimming in 2016, long before the events that ostensibly inspired many of the album’s lyrics. As he told Jenkins, “‘What can I do? Stand on a mountaintop and say, ‘I wrote these songs at this point in my life’?” So my initial interpretation of his declaration that he’d do anything to get out of his own head on “Come Back to Earth,” as the feelings of someone deep in the depths of post-break up depression was wrong; he’d written the song years earlier.
In his essay entitled “The Death of the Author,” French philosopher Roland Barthes explains the logic behind efforts to attach a certain meaning to any written text. Barthes writes that “the explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end . . . the author ‘confiding’ in us.” In the case of someone like Mac Miller, whose songs seem so autobiographical, it’s easy to interpret Swimming as a confessional. It’s especially so when his death is so closely aligned with his catalog. Recall GO:OD AM’s “Brand Name”: “to everyone who sell me drugs/don’t mix it with that bullsh*t/I’m hopin’ not to join the 27 club.” But as Barthes points out, any text—or song—contains numerous meanings that listeners create that might not live up to what the song meant to the artist. Like Miller told Jenkins, there’s not necessarily a straight correlation between his personal life and his music and listeners will make of his music what they will.
At the same time, there must be something in who Mac Miller was that led him to create music—especially Swimming—that holds such a pull on me. I don’t feel like he “knew me” and at the time of his death and shortly thereafter, I didn’t know much about him and hadn’t read his interview with Jenkins. Aside from the fact that I am also a musician, from what I know of Miller’s life, we have very little in common. Yet the pull to Swimming and later Circles and deeper into his catalog is as mysteriously strong as my physical reaction to his death.
Perhaps I listen to Swimming because I need its songs to mean things for me that are unique to my life that may not have anything to do with Miller’s original intent. Many times I’ve been in a mental place where I would do just about anything to find a way out of my head (“Come Back to Earth”); I’ve suffered the stranglehold of a bipolar crash, only to feel that momentarily, that just for a second, I think I might just be alright (“Dunno”; “Self Care”); I’ve played it cool to friends and coworkers even though under the surface I was a mess (“Perfecto”); I’ve felt my fingers slipping and thought that maybe in a “motherf*ckin’ instant I’d be gone” (“Small Worlds”); I’ve needed someone to put me back together when I was out of order (again, “Perfecto”).
There have been many times where I did not want to wake up the next morning. I’ve never attempted suicide, but the thoughts have been there. Well, Mac Miller did not wake up one morning. While listening and singing along to his songs, or even thinking about them, I fall into the trap of assuming with no prior knowledge that Miller’s drug use was his way of dealing with some sort of mental illness. I deal with my mental illness with drugs, but just the kind I get from Walgreens, which I always use as directed. In linking his drug use to what I speculate about his mental health, I map his lyrics onto my life experiences which may match something about his life.
Listening to Swimming isn’t just about me finding solace in knowing that I may not be alone in my struggles (even if my struggles are not anywhere close to being the same as Miller’s—our lives are/were too different). It’s also about wondering what my life would be if I hadn’t gotten a diagnosis from a psychiatrist, hadn’t been in counseling, hadn’t found the right combination of medications to keep me stable. Had I not initially gone to see the student health center shrink would I have turned to something beyond alcohol to keep me evened out? Would I develop a drug problem? Would I not wake up one morning?
For me, when things aren’t right upstairs, the idea of swimming is more akin to not drowning, which isn’t exactly the same thing. I don’t know what swimming meant to Mac Miller; I wonder if he exactly knew. What I do know is that with Swimming, he gave me something with which I could think about and better understand myself, which is a comforting feeling. Aside from feeling a general sadness about the death of someone so young, with his death I did not lose a person I knew, or even felt I knew; rather, I lost someone who wrote songs that I could draw a certain meaning from in ways that spoke to my own life.
The meanings I create and attach to Swimming aren’t all tied to being hopelessly mired in the depths of darkness. The album’s final track, “So It Goes,” ends with a 90-second instrumental wash of warm synthesizers. Synth string melodies that rise and fall and move against each other. Various fluttering, vibrating, and wobbly effects. Fuzzy bass lines laying down wide strokes of color. It’s a gorgeous sequence that I might put on repeat and listen to ten times. At this point in the song I always get tingly, as if I know the world will right itself.
Even now, I find new lines in Miller’s songs that burrow themselves into my mind. There’s one in “Star Room” from Watching Movies with the Sound Off that I had never noticed until hearing the recently released OG version a few weeks ago. The new beats must be different enough that previously glossed over lyrics appear to me, in particular: “I still don’t got the heart to pick up the phone when my dad calls/will he recognize his son when he hears my voice.” I haven’t spoken with my dad in over nine years. The resonance with so many of his lyrics with my life continues to be uncanny. The best I can do to comprehend Mac Miller’s importance to me is that he left a body of work that I could create and attach my life to that I need in any given moment, which he did so at a level that no other artist has done, and which I’d be surprised that any other will be able to do in the future.
What I think I find so compelling in Swimming is Miller’s struggle to find equilibrium between extremes. He goes from drowning to swimming, from feeling like he’d be gone in an instant to concluding that “we just might be alright.” There’s always that seed of hope and life. It’s a teetering and tottering balancing act that I know well. I’ve lived in dark spaces, trapped in my head. I’m a cynic and hold little optimism for the future. At the same time, I’ve had moments of clarity when my body and mind felt right that in some ways echo what I hear in so many of Miller’s songs. On Circles’ “Good News” Miller says: “I haven’t seen the sun in a while but I heard that the sky’s still blue.” That’s it, right there: things might be f*cked up, but knowing that the sun is still shining is all the reason to have faith that it’s all gonna be okay.