Everyone knows about the 27 club — the early deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and Jim Morrison have become such legend that anyone who plays guitar is worried about reaching their late 20s. But is there any truth to the claim that most musicians die at 27?
A recent study shows there's not. But a cursed age does in fact exist: Musicians have a notably higher statistical chance of dying at the curious age of 56.
The deadly myth was put to the test this year by Dianna Kenny, professor of psychology and music at the University of Sydney. She looked at performing pop musicians of all popular genres who died between 1950 and June 2014, and then compared the causes and rates of death for them to the equivalent US population. Her findings were shocking.
Most startling was that Kenny found musicians’ lifespans were up to 25 years shorter than nonmusicians. Additionally, accidental death rates were up to 10 times higher, suicide rates were up to seven times greater and the chance of homicide was eight times more likely. In short, it's a dangerous field.
And although this research identifies an increased risk of death in pop musicians during their younger decades, her findings oddly showed age 56 is the year they're most likely to die. In fact, 2.2% of musicians died at that age, compared with 0.85% of the general population. And Kenny found that 27-year-old musicians only had a 1.3% death rate, meaning they're almost twice as likely to kick the bucket at 56 than they are at 27. So, 39-year-old M.I.A. maybe doesn't have to worry so much about living fast and dying young.
The causes of death for musicians stand out, too. While the rest of us are more likely to die from heart disease, there is truth to the stereotype of a rock 'n' roll lifestyle. Drug and alcohol overdoses are more common among musicians than in the general population, no matter their age. A study of 1,500 people discovered that rock stars, in fact, had the lowest chance of dying younger than nonmusician peers.
But no death should be worshipped. That's exactly what the myth of the 27 club does — it exults the sad fact that difficult lives take a toll. And however glamorized the stories of Buddy Holiday's airplane crash or Amy Winehouse's failed attempts at rehabilitation, the majority of musicians die in a quieter manner. Like Johnny Ramone, Chris LeDoux and Mimi Fariña — who all died of cancer at age 56 — musicians can be as afraid of middle age as the rest of us. Welcome to the club.