September 20, 2018 | Arts and Culture
thank god i have a future
reflecting on reflecting on rapper mac miller’s death
The first thing you’re supposed to do is place yourself relative to the death. And since you asked, I remember exactly where I was. Exactly. The collapse of Mac Miller’s body from toxic chemical overdose occurred in precise symmetry with a downward step, as I dropped through the doors of CVS into the sunny afternoon blue. I know this to be true because, sometime before landing, I felt the text in my pocket.
With the vibration, my eyes fluttered downward. Returning to center, they refocused on a scowling jogger, heaving his weight closer each instant. Middle-aged, nearing burnout, the man had signaled his approach a beat earlier, but had clearly made substantial progress since then. How absurd that I, a 20-year-old—so young, virile, and valuable—should be in his way. Pulling graciously out of the jogger’s path but feeling hateful for having had my movement interrupted, I leaned forward and blew a sarcastic little “whoa!” into his passing ear. It was good to be alive, to move my body however I cared, and to assert these as facts. Smirking, I pulled out my cell phone and let it lead me in a stiff idiot’s shuffle down Thayer Street. When the runner looked back, I wanted him to see me sacrificing my strength and health to instant gratification. I wanted him to associate my incivility, my shallowness, and my cruelty with my age. In absolute truth, I wanted his anger. I wanted him to feel me wasting my youth while he fought to slow his own decline. But this was all over in an instant. The lessons of his dying body disappeared in my phone’s short, electronic light.
Squinting down, the text I read was simple, “Mac Miller died of overdose.” It came from the same friend who, in June, had alerted me with the equally spare “XXXtentacion is dead.” As then, the news wasn’t anything less than horrible. Yet today, my first instinct was to smile. Here was my friend—among life’s many small duties, he clearly considered it key to update Julian Towers on dead rappers. I wondered why he felt the need. Had the shock of the news rendered its truth dreamlike and vulnerable to doubt, demanding he confirm it through another? My reply of “Holy shit!” proving, yes, this was real—a 26-year-old lay dead in California?
Honestly, probably not. It had been years since I’d cared much about Miller, and the same was probably true of my friend. Sharing his death had been reflexive, an act of pure lizard-brain function. It contained no more inherent significance than had he linked to the day’s other big news story: “I Love It (ft Lil Pump).” The text even read bland, like a terse internet headline. It signified nothing, except that together, we occupied the same generational pocket, and that our continued and diligent attention to culture was very important. I almost asked why, but quickly stopped myself. This was too much thinking at 10 a.m. Googling to verify, I bookmarked a couple sad-faced social media reactions to read over lunch, and pocketed my phone.
At a friend’s dorm that evening, in the glassy-eyed haze before a night out, order dictated it was my turn for Spotify privileges. Nobody looks forward to this; I have zero room-read, and tend to forward hipster esoterica in place of music people actually care about. Still, this wasn’t my worst showing: Astroworld left to play undisturbed several tracks at a time, plus plenty of Lil Uzi. Nevertheless, I grew restless and, after some tossing back and forth, snuck Mac Miller into the queue. Fingers tapping anxiously, I played at being casual while speaking with my friends, all the while knowing that right after this, the very next song, I’d be letting a ghost in. But “Matches” came and went without incident, and I realized I had been melodramatic. Miller’s flow, always a laconic drawl, was no match for the gathered revelry. Everyone probably thought “Sicko Mode” was still playing.
Kicking off a bad, pompous line of thought, I began to wonder if their ignorance was somehow symbolic, the party a closed-room, miniature recreation of the cultural conditions that preceded Miller’s death. His tenure as a party-rocking, 19-year-old YouTube superstar—Easy Mac with the cheesy raps—left a scrim of humor and levity on his name, a distance that hung around, even as the music grew explicitly desperate (“To everyone who sell me drugs / Don’t mix it with that bullshit / I’m hoping not to join the 27 club,” he rapped in 2015). That night, that screaming-but-silent dichotomy was damn near physicalized. Especially when viewed alongside the death of XXXtentacion, the criminally aggressive, attention-seeking “Look at Me” rapper whose violent death had been greeted as a sort of form-meets-content, the ultimate and final art of his short life. By contrast, there was little about Mac that suggested overdose would be his destiny, even though, frankly, near everything did. It would be as though, tomorrow, Stephen King came out as a serial killer; all the signs are there, but, like, c’mon dude.
Not caring to contain it longer, the truth tumbled out, something like, “Yo, my friends, my fools. Mac Miller.” This, finally, provoked the protests of concern and discomfort I had anticipated, something like, “Dude…why?” Beyond sheer ghoulishness, playing Miller’s music at such a debauched moment seemed almost spiritually unwise, a heedless act of provocation. The song would likely have been shut off if I hadn’t reminded my friends that this was probably an important generational moment. The queue grew longer. Old favorites like “Party on Fifth Avenue” and “Frick Park Market” were requested, bracketed by curious discovery of his “new material”— for most people, a designation that stretched back to 2013. People tried to sing along, but the words were misshapen.
In an instant, I saw what had made Miller’s death such a strange, affecting moment. Ensnared and finally drowned in the bubbles of their own zeitgeist, the recent deaths of Lil Peep and XXXtentacion were certainly tragic, but didn’t seem to stand outside the narratives we’d been eagerly following. By contrast, Miller had already had his moment, and his distance from mass relevance was made possible by how intense the glow of his early career was. I’m happy Miller met my generation when he did, somewhere between the first Bar Mitzvah Party and freshman dance. I know many precocious, former teen-wonders emboldened by his DIY spirit to reach further, to be better in their own fields. You’ll find few people our age that don’t recall playing video games to the beat of “Kool-Aid & Frozen Pizza,” finding solace in lines like, “Yeah, I live a life pretty similar to yours / Used to go to school, hang with friends, and play sports.” You’ll find even less who still listen to Mac. His evolution, from youngest frat boy in New York to West Coast abstract searcher, garnered critical acclaim as well as respect from music nerds like me, but cost him the zeitgeist. That this was how he died, outside our collective Spotify playlists, made for an uncomfortable sort of guilt; how long can we remain attentive to the culture that once cradled us? With age, will we shut out everything that doesn’t hold our interest, only tuning in when it is too late for Mac Miller, for culture, for us? I didn’t sleep that night, equally anxious about dying young and growing old. If nothing else, I’d apologize to the jogger