Before he became one of the great American novelists of the 20th century, Kurt Vonnegut fought in and survived World War II, where he was captured by the German Army in Dresden and survived a bombing from Allied forces by hiding in a slaughterhouse meat locker.
Vonnegut’s imprisonment and brush with death in his early life led him to a long career of writing scathing, satirical novels and stories about the lengths that humans will go to destroy one another, as well as ourselves. His most well-known novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, took its inspiration from Vonnegut’s own internment in Germany. In the book, war is a fact of life, and death is as absurd as it is mundane. People are burned, bombed, and killed in every imaginable and unimaginable way. Each death is described matter-of-factly, in plain language, and followed by a single phrase each time:
“So it goes.”
These three words follow over 100 deaths—from individuals to the thousands at Hiroshima and Nagasaki—throughout Slaughterhouse-Five. “So it goes,” the narrator (Vonnegut himself) comments. This is life, and death is its only guarantee.
This is not to say that the phrase is meant to be taken as a statement of apathy. In a letter to the editor at The New York Times, writer and teacher Bryan Scoular took issue with a misinterpretation of the quote as such, arguing that its repetition is not apathy but “comes to represent the randomness of death—how death can come to anyone at any time.” In this way, Scoular argued, readers must “ask themselves about the meaning of death (or its lack of meaning).”
This weekend, the hip-hop community is reeling over such a question, as Mac Miller, a man who brought light to so many of us, has passed at the age of 26. Just over a month after the release of Miller’s Swimming, an album that scores a heavenly battle for peace, the young artist left this world, leaving friends and fans alike to wonder about—and rage against—the senselessness of it all.
It seems only fitting, then, that on Mac’s final album, the closing track would be called “So It Goes.”
On Swimming, a man tormented by demons “that’s as big as my house” (as he says on “2009”) works slowly and surely to live on the other side of rock bottom. As an artist who suffered under the weight of addiction, it was impossible not to root for Mac as he worked toward self-care. While fighting his own battles, he invited listeners into the comfort of his home: “Let’s go back to my crib, we can play some 45s / It’s safer there, I know there’s still a war outside.” Yet, at the end of his battle, Mac still wasn’t hopeful enough to leave on the promising note of “2009,” but felt compelled to relent on his progress and declare, “So it goes.”
Of course, Miller’s experiences were not what Vonnegut underwent in World War II, but each of us must endure the personal wars that may eventually—or too soon—lay claim to our lives. Indeed, in Slaughterhouse-Five, poverty itself is a tragedy to be mourned, and so is Lot’s wife looking back on Sodom and being turned into a pillar of salt. Death does not distinguish between honorable and dishonorable causes: it will take us all. So it goes.
As with the death of any artist at any age, it is now impossible to listen to Mac Miller without interpreting his lyrics through the lens of his death. On “Jet Fuel,” when Miller sings, “Well Imma be here for a while, longer than I did expect to,” I won’t be able to hold tears back when I think about how this statement fell short of reality, how much it must have taken for Mac to get to that point, how close he got to it. So it goes.
In an interview with Craig Jenkins for Vulture, presumably Miller’s last, he revealed that he named his last album on his birthday after producer Jon Brion teased him about asking for “water sounds.” The concept of water plays a subtle but crucial theme on Swimming. After reflecting on his former dream of being a superhero, Mac raps on “Jet Fuel” about the harsher reality that befell him: “Now my head underwater but I ain’t in the shower and I ain’t getting baptized.”
Perhaps Mac needed water sounds because that’s where his head was at throughout the making of the album, and he needed to explore his own depths in order to imagine a way out of them. On album opener “Come Back to Earth,” which Miller told Jenkins he structured the album around, he boldly but humbly proclaims, “And I was drowning, but now I’m swimming / through stressful waters to relief.” I have to believe he would have gotten there, both for his sake and my own.
Last year, my own personal war with anxiety and depression led a therapist to tell me that if I didn’t find healthy ways to respond to my ongoing battle with social anxiety, I was at risk of developing paranoia. When Miller opened Swimming by singing, “I’ll do anything for a way out of my head,” I knew that he was speaking to me directly, not muffled in the way our words are when submerged in water, but clearly, like looking through a glass. I knew he was speaking to me again on “2009” when he told me, “See me and you, we ain’t that different / I struck the fuck out and then I came back swingin’.” I said that shit with my chest, and I always will.
When I learned the news that Mac had passed, I thought it couldn’t be possible. Our conversation had to be longer. We had more to say to each other. But it was true: he was gone, and I was left again to wrestle with the meaning—or meaninglessness—of death. So it goes.
The subtitle for Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death. The narrator of the book responds to a quote from the author Céline about waltzing with death by saying, “No art is possible without a dance with death.” In his lifetime, Mac Miller made art by dancing with death. This dance is a duty-dance because each of us will have no choice but to fall in line with its steps, whether we are ready or not. But in dancing with death, Mac Miller reminded many of us how to live. We can step against its rhythms until it finally overwhelms ours.
In his interview with Jenkins, Mac said that the best way to know him was through his music: “The people that have the best chance of knowing me, that would like to, would just be by listening to my music.” Which means that the conversation isn’t over, not so long as we can press play. It means that death does not get the final word, not so long as the living keep the memory of those who are gone alive.
It means that we’ve got all the time in the world, so for now we’re just chilling.
So it goes.