The Science of the 27 Club
Somewhere in the world is a very old, very beat up white electric guitar, a model called a Supro Ozark. It's untraceable, having undoubtedly gone through a shady pawn shop sale or two, so nobody knows its original history. But if it could be proven, it would turn out to be probably the most valuable guitar in the world: it is the first electric guitar owned by a 17-year-old Jimi Hendrix, and stolen from him backstage at one of his very first gigs. Why would it be so valuable; would it be because Hendrix is at the top of every list of history's greatest guitarists? That's a big part of it, but the other part is because Hendrix died so very young; he was already the highest paid performer in the world, headlining Woodstock, the most famous rock festival in history. Only one year later, Jimi Hendrix joined that most exclusive of clubs: the 27 Club, comprised of so many of the greatest rock musicians, all of whom enigmatically died at the age of 27. Today're going to look at The 27 Club, and see if science can explain why this is such a popular age for rock stars to die.
The 27 Club is generally defined by its most famous members: Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and Brian Jones. It might appear that the more famous a young pop musician is, the greater the danger of dying at this most ominous age.
At a glance, one can easily see that it makes a certain amount of sense. Rock stars often get their start pretty young; they explode into great fame and wealth before they're old enough to have the sense to know what to do with it; they engage in risky behavior, and they wind up dead from some drug overdose or suicide or other lifestyle-driven misfortune. Those lucky enough to survive that turbulent early period gain a bit of wisdom once they make it into their thirties and beyond, and so it's not hard to accept that there might be a peak of the bell curve in young rock star deaths right around the mid to late twenties. At a high level anyway, it makes logical sense.
But is it true?
The idea of a 27 Club has been treated like a real scientific hypothesis and has been put to the test in actual observational studies, and we can summarize their findings. First let's look at the larger picture, and for this we can take the data from one study that looked at over 12,500 performing pop musicians for whom their age at death is known, and who died between 1950 and 2014. Plotting all of their deaths on a chart where the horizontal axis is their age at death, we see that they do form into a nice bell curve, which peaks just below the age of around 60. Now compare it to the US population at large, with an average age at death of over 77. This is startling fact #1: Being a performing pop musician decreases your expected lifespan by nearly 20 years.
The bell curve is not a perfect one, either. Although it trails off on the high side in the nice familiar curve, on the low it does not. The curve has a distinctive hump — a shoulder, if you will — around the low 30s. Pop musicians in their early 40s are the ones who seem to have learned their lessons best, and it's only from there on up that we see a relatively normal looking distribution. But let's look at the very youngest end of the curve. Once a pop musician hits their teens, that curve of death jumps sharply up, and only maintains about even once they hit the age of 30. It would seem that the 20s are, indeed, a risky period for this group.
But is there a peak in this data at 27? Sorry to say but there is not. It's about the same as 25 and it's noticeably lower than both 28 and 30. Musicians in this group only had a 1.3% chance of dying at 27, while the largest number died at the age of 56, with a 2.2% chance. So why don't we glorify The 56 Club? It has its share of VIP members: Eddie Rabbit, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Ramone. Certainly one can argue that it's more tragic when someone dies so much younger, but is tragedy really the reason we talk about The 27 Club? Or could it be that there's a ghoulish fascination with young deaths? Because when you have conversations or read articles about it, they do tend to have more of an urban legend feel to them, than they do of sadness. It's an interesting question, and warrants personal contemplation.
It's no coincidence that Kurt Cobain's page on FindADeath.com is among the longer ones on the site, which compiles all available documents and photographs and stories pertaining to famous people's deaths. Other long ones include River Phoenix and James Dean. Pictures of their death certificates, stories and photos from the people who found them, all kinds of morbid memorabilia, can all be found there. Why? Is it because they were our greatest stars? Laurence Olivier doesn't have a page on that website at all, nor does Aretha Franklin — apparently there's insufficient interest in celebrities, no matter how talented they were, if they died naturally at an old age. The 27 Club is not about young musicians or famous musicians or dead musicians — it's about all three; and the fact that you have to have died very young to be included is why it's a pop culture thing. It is created by and defined by morbid fascination with young deaths.
And — this is Skeptoid, so this shouldn't surprise you — there is science behind this! It is actually normal and expected for people to have a fascination with novel deaths, as well as other stimuli. It's called optimal stimulation theory, and it posits that each of us has a certain level of stimulation that we need. According to our own individual levels of need, we engage in stimulus seeking behavior, and plenty of papers have been written on the topic. Healthy people sometimes get bored, and seeking out conventional distractions is something we'd all do. But taking it a bit further, people who suffer from feelings of powerlessness or alienation tend to both need and seek out higher levels of stimulation, and take an interest in novel deaths.
In one experiment conducted nearly half a century ago, students at San Jose State University were given three standardized tests — the Pearson Boredom Scale, the Dean Alienation Scale, the Sensation-Seeking Scale, and then another test developed especially for the study, the Death and Violence Interest Questionnaire. The questions were all mixed together and randomized. The significant result to come out of the data was that a combination of high boredom and high alienation together, was necessary to result in a high interest in novel deaths. To quote from the paper:
It's almost eerie how closely this matches the stereotypical portrayal of one interested in deaths — that of the bored, alienated loner, living in his parents' basement, and pulling the wings off flies.
So with at least one explanation for why the 27 Club exists despite it not being statistically significant, are we left with any mystery at all? Not really. Although the list of rock stars who died at 27 is shorter than some of the other lists right near it on the age spectrum, there are definitely more superstars on the 27 list. But really, by definition, some age has to have the most superstars. That's the very nature of random data. The rest of the superstars who died in their 20s are scattered in other years: Buddy Holly, Selena, Tupak Shakur, Otis Redding, Sid Vicious, The Big Bopper — it might be just as noteworthy to die at an age other than 27. But it's also important to point out that if you want the biggest of the big names, almost all of them died later in life. Hendrix and Joplin and Cobain were big, but they weren't John Lennon, Little Richard, David Bowie, Prince, Eddie Van Halen, Aretha Franklin. But I'm just going to stop right there for fear of triggering a debate over making lists of who's great.
And so while it turns out there's nothing interesting about the idea of a 27 Club, it still brings an important takeaway — a very important takeaway. It is that pop musicians have a much higher risk of death during their younger decades than they would if they weren't musicians. This is something that every agent, manager, family member, friend, and bandmate should be aware of. Nearly all of the famous deaths in The 27 Club, The 28 Club, and all the other clubs were preventable. There is very little value in studying the reasons behind these clubs if not ultimately to keep more people from joining them. Young musicians and pop stars are a high risk group, and it's the promise of awareness and support and intervention from those closest to them that is the only potential positive outcome from this episode. As researcher Dianna Kenny wrote:
Please don't ever look at The 27 Club as a fun spooky mystery — it's really just a minor coincidence in random data, data of the most heartbreaking and dire kind.
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