My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.
My Year in Lists: Interlude is an intermittent addendum to the feature that takes a step back from the quest to examine music from other perspectives
It has often been said that the best thing a musician can do for their career is to die young, which for a human being may seem like terrible advice. As a species, we tend to try to put off our inevitable demise for as long as possible. We do this by exercising, eating healthy, not locking ourselves in cages with starving mountain lions and the like. For an artist, though, the standards have always been a bit different. As a culture, we are obsessed with the idea of death (at least as much as we're obsessed with the idea of avoiding it), and something about an artist dying young is appealing to us. The obvious reason for this, as I see it, is that if an artist dies while they are young, they are presumably dying before they lose their luster or make any major missteps. The main "advantage" to dying young (and I hesitate to call it that, but will for the moment for lack of a better term to describe how it is widely viewed) is that you are almost certainly still in your peak years, or still on your way up. Either way, this will lead to great posthumous press. You will either be sold as someone cut down in their prime or a great potential that will now never be fulfilled.
We are also culturally obsessed with finding connections where there may be none. America loves nothing more than a hint of the supernatural somehow permeating our lives, and it often becomes a coping mechanism for us in times of loss. When something tragic or horrendous happens, it was "meant to be" or "fated to occur," even if as a rule the person speaking tends to believe in free will. It seems to me that for a lot of people in this country, the limits of free will terminate at the first sign that something might be out of our control.
These two interlinked phenomena, our cultural notion that dying young is a good career move for artists and our obsession with the idea that some greater meaning lies behind the random chaos that otherwise surrounds us, join together to create one of the most curious phenomena in popular music: The 27 Club. For those who have never heard of it, The 27 Club is the title for the idea that more influential rock musicians die at 27 than at any other age. On its face, this notion is absurd, and yet it is given credibility by too many people for us to not at least briefly consider its merits. This Interlude will not be an argument for a large conspiracy or a cosmic reason behind The 27 Club. Instead, I want to ask the question I always tend to ask when looking at completely crazy things that nevertheless pervade our cultural consciousness: What does this say about us?
On July 23rd, Amy Winehouse died at the age of 27 (acolytes of The Club would prefer that I specialize, so to be more exact, she died at 27 years, 312 days old). Prior to her death, Winehouse had created two excellent albums in 2003's Frank and its stellar follow-up Back to Black. The latter was the best selling album in the United Kingdom for the entire last decade. Yet, as Winehouse detailed in her unapologetically straightforward song "Rehab," she struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, having used (or allegedly used) heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, crack, ketamine, and Valium. The conventional wisdom surrounding Winehouse's death (which was in fact even echoed by her mother) was that it was "only a matter of time" before she killed herself due to substance abuse.
Winehouse's death has lead to a lot of callous and cruel media coverage, with a lot of outlets claiming basically that she "got what she deserved," but what is most interesting is the amount of coverage dedicated to the fact that she died at 27. For years, Winehouse has been a tabloid draw for her many personal problems, yet the focus of far too many of her obituaries has been on the fact that she managed to hold out just long enough to be a member of the club without living too long to miss out on that extra bit of fame. I'd like to call it a societal tragedy that so many people were fascinated with the slow, excruciating deterioration of one of the great musical talents of the last decade. I'd like to say that we, as a culture, ignored perhaps the most public cry for help in our modern era, but I'm not sure that's true. What, after all, were we to do exactly? Winehouse made clear, in her most famous moment that she didn't want our help. Perhaps the best I can offer is a bit of outrage that so many people seemed to take such perverse joy in watching her downfall.Winehouse is hardly alone in that phenomenon, and of course she is only the most recent member of The 27 Club. When she died, she joined Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Dave Alexander, D. Boon and dozens of others, including the early death that started it all, blues singer Robert Johnson who kicked the bucket and started the legend in 1938.
Sure, it's a lot of musicians, and a lot of famous ones. In fact, statistically, more musicians die at 27 than at any other age. Somehow, though, I doubt this is a case of Voodoo magic, cosmic conspiracy or shocking coincidence. I think there are clear reasons why rock stars die young, and I think I can make an argument for why 27 is the most likely (and fitting) age.Rock stars die young for one simple reason: they live like rock stars. This is because we want our rock stars to live the lives we can't. We want them to be a complete departure from the normal, responsible lives we lead. Part of the conception of the "cool rock star," which I have previously argued was partially created and perhaps best exemplified by Led Zeppelin, is that they are not mere mortals; they are Gods who walk the Earth and nothing, neither laws nor substances can truly touch them. We are obsessed with the idea of living legends, and we are forced to mold them from mortal men, for better or (usually) worse.
Part of being a God is, obviously, being immortal. The other part of being a God, though, is being eternally young. No one pictures their ideal rock star as an old man still struggling to make it. No one thinks of The Rolling Stones at the Super Bowl and says, "That is my perfect conception of cool. That is a rock and roll legend!" No, if you think of The Stones as legends, its only in the past tense; most people would probably rather forget they are still a band that makes music because they're inherently cooler when we think of them as young, rebellious rockers who could get away with anything than when we wonder if Mick Jagger is wearing Depends.As a culture, then, we find it more convenient if our rock stars show up on the scene, rock our socks off, and then exit stage left before we have a chance to get bored or to recognize them as mere mortals. But that isn't why so many musicians die at 27, at least not in my mind (it may, however, partially account for Cobain's death. He is known to have mentioned on several occasions his desire to join the club). No, so many musicians die at that age because they are putting Rock Star level chemicals in their bodies, when it turns out that making great music doesn't make you impervious to heroin (at least not usually). We ask these people to party hard, partially because we wish we could and partially so we can judge them for it if we ever worry that they are becoming cooler than us. Amy Winehouse is again a perfect example. She shot to superstardom on the strength of a song about how she was going to willfully be irresponsible in terms of her substance abuse, and yet people judged her for doing just what we found her so fascinating for doing. Music fans want to have their moral cake and eat it too, and this leads to a lot of rock stars dying young.
If you look at a list of people who are considered members of The 27 Club (there's a handy one here), by far the largest number died from overdoses or circumstances related to overdosing. The second largest number died in car crashes, which also shouldn't be surprising because a touring musician drives more than anyone else. But the reason we have sought out this statistic and latched onto it as a shocking phenomenon lies a shade deeper, I think. There's an argument to be made that 27 is the ideal age to die. It's a few years before real adulthood kicks in at 30, but its long enough after college (or after the completion of the maturation process) that you've had a taste of adulthood. No one expects you to take too much responsibility for your actions in your twenties, so checking out before reality kicks in is probably a culturally appealing prospect, at least in the abstract.
Is dying young a good career move for a musician? Yes and no. On the one hand, if you die at 27, you'll probably sell a shit ton of posthumous records, join a legendary line-up that includes some all time greats and live forever in the collective consciousness as the perfect image of youthful exuberance and Rock Star immortality. On the other hand, you'll be dead, so good luck enjoying any of those ostensible perks. Death will always be tied to rock and roll, because at its heart, music is about living life to its fullest, living it hard and living it fast. And though some of us might not like to think about it, there are consequences for the way we like our rock stars to live.Read more My Year in Lists here