Mac Miller’s ‘Swimming’: A Reminder That We Are All Human
Unplugg’d Staff Writer Bryce Phillips reflects on the one-year anniversary of Miller’s passing and the legacy his final album left
I’ve been thinking about Mac Miller a lot this week.
Whether that is due to the release of Rayland Baxter’s Good Mmorning tribute album to Miller, the one year anniversary of his Swimming album, or the recent death of my grandma, I couldn’t tell you. The recently-passed one year anniversary of his last album has put him back into the mainstream consciousness, but for a portion of people, he has never left. His life and death still offer a reminder of the fleeting nature of life, as well as the delicate balance between beauty and ugliness.
I am not going to create some narrative of me being a life-long Mac Miller stan who devoured everything he created and knows his entire discography with obsessive fervor. In fact, his initial releases never did much to impress a past version of myself. “Donald Trump” never hooked me; Blue Slide Park and Watching Movies with the Sound Off (which I now have looked back on with a new appreciation) did not quite sell me. It was not until Swimming that I became enthralled with a piece of his art.
The switch that Swimming set off in my head highlights one of my favorite things about music as an artform: its evolution. Whether it’s Tyler, the Creator budding into the Flower Boy or former Commodore Lionel Ritchie dancing on the ceiling until he falls off and drops a country album, artists show new versions of themselves and their vision with every release.
With Miller’s evolution into Swimming, he also brings to the surface a main reason why music has and will always endure as one of the largest forms of expression: the ability to connect with people. With such a wide array of artistic output, it is easy for one group to throw “shade” at another for their likes. Fans spout opinions as inert truths and purists scoff at those who are “below” their musical taste. “Music today has no originality and all they do is copy the greats from my day!” “Ed Sheeran is just catchy hooks with a below-average voice!” Sometimes, these comments can lead casual disagreements to turn into vicious attacks of character.
My question is, what’s the fucking point?
My philosophy on music has always been to give it all a try, and if something sticks with you or appeals to you, roll with it. Yes, I have my genres and artists I follow with more vigor, but I love the sensation of listening to a project without knowing what to expect from an artist or a musical styling you usually do not dive into. This belief led me to download Swimming the night it was released, even after not being an initial fanatic for Mac Miller.
What gets lost in translation while debating or critiquing music is that it was created by a fellow human. Someone who breaths, bleeds, binges junk food, messes up, gets depressed, enjoys nostalgia, pines for another human’s attention, feels the pressure of society just like you created it and had the gall to put it out into the court of public opinion. This is not to say you can’t judge a musical piece. Half of the fun is over-analyzing every line and forming your opinion on a piece of art. It should function more of a reminder that just because you can hide behind a keyboard, doesn’t mean your toxicity does not have repercussions.
No one is immune to the mental toll of negativity or living a perfect life, as much as we would like to romanticize our favorite artist’s life behind closed doors. I am often shocked by how many people use the “well, why do they care what I say, they’re rich?” defense when their comments veer away from criticism and into being an asshole.
Mac Miller’s death is the ultimate reminder of the humanity behind music. The outpouring of support for Mac & his family showed the connection to a group of people that, even though some had never met him in person, felt tied together to his existence and were affected by his spirit. Everyone from Anderson .Paak & Schoolboy Q to Joe Schmo across the street have expressed their condolences and reflections on Miller’s life and legacy. All the beautiful tributes and moments people have shared are a sobering reminder of the person behind the art. That art created is not a singular piece. It is a living, breathing representation of where the artist was in that moment in time.
In contrast to the love shown for Miller, the assault of Ariana Grande via social media — blaming her for the rapper’s death — shows the ignorance and vitriol that exists within too many people. The ability for people to be heard and not seen created an intense barrage of hate towards Grande. People shaming her and blaming her for Miller’s death created a Scylla-and-Charybdis-like storm that could make the most positive person question the nature of humans. To maliciously attack someone who was so closely tied to Miller’s journey and cared for him immensely was the definition of repulsive.
What makes Swimming an album with the ultimate artistic staying power in the human consciousness is the pure emotion it evokes and the vulnerability behind the entire project. I mean honestly, try watching Miller’s NPR Tiny Desk concert, which features three songs from the album, without feeling connected to Miller or reflecting on ways that your own life connects to what he is saying.
Everything from Thundercat’s indelible psychedelic fingerprint to the experimental instrumentals to Miller’s poetically practical lyrics blend together to create a work of art that sticks with you beyond your time listening to the album. It has been a year and 100+ listens and it it still causes me to reflect with each new listen. When Miller says things like, “And I was drowning, but now I’m swimming. Through stressful waters to relief,” you can feel the walls between Mac Miller (the showman) and Malcolm McCormick (the human) disintegrating.
Throughout the album, the listener has the sensation that they are listening to the closest thing to Mac Miller unfiltered as possible. From the opening track “Come Back to Earth” and beyond, Miller is open about his demons and the toll they have taken on his life as he seeks to embrace self-acceptance and more optimistic view on life. Whether he is spitting harsh realities (“Seen it all unfold, sat back and watched. Knowin’ time don’t give a fuck about clocks until they stop”) or witty one liners (“She say that I glow below the waist, and the stroke is just so PGA”), the listener is getting an unconstrained Mac.
Music is unique for the way that it is encapsulated within a moment dependent on where the listener is in their journey. As a person still struggling with how to be the best version of myself, Miller is a guiding light in how to embrace who you are and use your strengths to get you through the struggles you are facing.
Miller’s Swimming album, death, and resulting legacy are a constant reminder for me to slow down and be more mindful of those around me. We are all lucky enough to be here once. Whether it is your sandwich artist at Subway or your favorite movie star, there is more than what is presented at face value. We are all swimming through our own stressful waters. Wouldn’t it be nice if those around us helped us reach the relief instead of pulling us into the depths?
Bryce Phillips is a staff writer in the realm of everything sports and popular culture. You can follow him on Twitter here.