The passing of Mac Miller and our inability to understand addiction
I can’t separate myself from the passing of Mac Miller on September 7th. I didn’t know him, aside from through his music, and he of course didn’t know I existed. Mac and I are the same age and he died a week after I reached six months of sobriety. I don’t bring up my own sobriety to turn this into some sort of teachable moment, nor, even, to advocate for the path of recovery. I bring it up to say there is absolutely no way, had I been Mac, that I wouldn’t have been just as bad. Since quitting drinking there hasn’t been a single day it hasn’t crossed my mind. The things helping me not relapse have been my family and friends, the fact that I’m broke, the solitude of my own space, and my own will. Mac had friends and family with his best interest of course, but he likely also had people and fans practically forcing drugs on him. Even if he didn’t he was also rich and had access to substance that I don’t. Mac also had a constant spotlight on him. Craig Jenkins, in his heart-wrenching profile released only weeks before Mac’s death, describes Mac spotting and hiding from paparazzi during their interview. So, essentially, Mac was left with just his will to remain sober. No question I’d have lost that struggle too.
Another confession, since this is what this piece is apparently, I hated Blue Side Park and the early tapes when I first heard them. I thought Mac was a joke and his music easily dismissed. Then, on the day Yeezus dropped no less, my ex-girlfriend convinced me to listen to Watching Movies With The Sound Off and I fell in love. That record, obviously, isn’t as good as Yeezus, but I’d be lying to you if I told you I played Yeezus as much as I’ve played Watching Movies. It was weird, it was drug-addled, the production was incredible and Mac was messing with his voice on every single song. There were heartbreaking odes to lost ones and bangers. I was a little over a month away from my 21st birthday and a month away from trying coke for the first time. I ran to all my friends to try and get them to give the new Mac record a chance. “It’s incredible,” I told them, “Mac obviously did a ton of psychedelics and is tapping into something!” And that’s how I became complicit in a narrative I’ve spent the past six months doing my best to fight: that the only good art is made by wounded addicts in drunken frenzies or drugged out hazes.
The truth is drugs and addiction probably did help Mac. It certainly changed the perception around him. Gone was the backpacker, fun loving, “Donald Trump” Mac Miller that frat boys so loved and here was the more introspective, psychedelic, “REMember” Mac (that being said there are still some seriously goofy moments on Watching Movies, see “Gees”). But drugs didn’t make him a better musician. Time and practice made Mac a better musician. Figuring out his sound made Mac better. Figuring out who to collaborate with – Flying Lotus, Earl Sweatshirt, Clams Casino on Watching Movies and then later Bilal and Kendrick Lamar on The Divine Feminine and Thundercat on Swimming – made Mac better. Finally, becoming truly comfortable to experiment with his voice made Mac Miller into the consistently evolving artistic force he was before his tragic overdose. We’re truly lucky Mac decided to start singing as well as rapping.
On top of all that, the psychedelia and drug use narrative weren’t necessarily what the fans kept coming back to after Watching Movies, The Divine Feminine – a concept album about love and Mac’s personal learning from the women in his life – and Swimming are equal parts funk, jazz, soul, hip-hop and zero parts psychedelic. People kept coming back for the open vulnerability of his music and his willingness to explore every single emotion he was experiencing. His drug use was no longer about experimentation but a method of coping with these joyous highs and terrifying lows. At least that’s what my drinking was. Mac didn’t “want just happiness, and I don’t want just sadness either. I don’t want to be depressed. I want to be able to have good days and bad days.” He was trying.
So, what do we do with all this aside from making the trending takes of “don’t do drugs,” and “check in on your friends, especially those so openly struggling?” None of that helps us grieve or mourn Mac. Nor is it even all that enlightening. Saving Mac wasn’t as simple as him not doing drugs, nor could any of us have saved him, because the world isn’t set up to save or protect people like Mac. Ariana Grande is currently being blamed for Mac’s overdose on Twitter and not a single one of those people have stopped for a second to question why we so easily embrace the wounded, self-medicating artist and then act surprised when the inevitable happens. None of those people even care to consider that Trump’s proposed 2019 budget aims to decrease “spending for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration by $665 million.” I guess the takeaway is this then: millions of people like Mac Miller have died before him and many like him will continue to die when our response to tragedies like this is to hop on Twitter and blame the death of a victim of substance abuse on an ex instead of attempting to affect a single modicum of change in our understanding of addiction and mental health.