The not-so-glamorous world of pop musicians
Few of us would include pop music in a list of stressful occupations, or consider musical workplaces sources of occupational stress or worse, psychological trauma and early death.
Nonetheless, my research on pop musicians has shown that a significant minority of musicians can be so traumatized by the demands of their occupation that they do indeed experience symptoms of traumatic stress. Many turn to substances to assist their coping efforts. Others engage in parasuicidal and suicidal behaviours, including extreme risk-taking and profound lack of self-care that often result in early death, either intentional or accidental.
If we look closely at these musicians’ biographies, the lyrics of their songs, and eerie comments that portend death, we are able to discern the vulnerabilities that predicted their early release from this mortal coil. For example, Janis Joplin’s father, Seth, Jim Morrison’s mother, Clara, Jimi Hendrix’s father, Al, and mother, Lucille, were all alcoholic. Kurt Cobain’s family contained five members who had died by suicide – he became the sixth. The parents of Jimi, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse divorced when they were each nine years old. Sid Vicious died at his mother’s hand – she bought him his fatal dose of heroin. This lethal mix of early family dysfunction combined with the subsequent pressures of life in the spotlight of the rapacious pop music industry may account for the excess early mortality of pop musicians compared with age- and sex-matched people from the general population.
Jimi’s life inexorably descended into a “purple haze.” He wrote: “Don’t know if I’m coming up or down. Am I happy or in misery?” He became disillusioned and depressed that his audience wasn’t responding to his new music; he had been booed off the stage during a concert in Germany; he told a journalist in Denmark that he sacrificed part of his soul on stage every night and that he did not expect to live past 28 because he had “nothing more to give musically…”
Jimi’s expectations were realized – died at 27; so did Janis Joplin, just two weeks after Jimi. She had been crowned “First Lady” and “Queen” of Rock and Roll for boldly fronting all-male rock bands and mesmerising audiences with her blues. Janis told her fans that she “ain’t got no reason to livin’…, can’t find no cause to die”- she became trapped in the nether land of drugs, sex, touring, recording, and boredom. She was “a little girl blue” who grew into “a woman left lonely.” Janis had “…dem ol’ kozmic blues…” She overdosed six times in 1969. She wrote a will three days before her ever so lonely death in room 105, Landmark motel, Hollywood, California on October 4th, 1970.
Kurt Cobain, who also died at 27, had left a drug rehabilitation facility only a few days before his death. He took a lethal heroin overdose before inflicting a shotgun wound to his head. In his suicide note, he described himself as “a sad little, sensitive, unappreciative, Pisces, Jesus man.” He asked himself, “Why don’t you just enjoy [performing]? I don’t know! ….but since the age of seven, I’ve become hateful towards all humans in general.” Kurt’s songs were full of desperation, from which the only relief could be briefly found in drug-induced oblivion – “My heart is broke, but I have some glue, Help me inhale and mend it with you.”
Amy Winehouse had been given a dire warning by her physician on the day she died that she was at imminent risk of death from alcohol poisoning if she persisted with her binge-drinking. This is exactly what she did – she drank herself to death. She believed that if she did not “always keep a bottle near” her creative spark would dim and she would have nothing left to say. “They tried to make [her] go to rehab but [she] said, ‘no, no, no.’” The brutal self-knowledge that she sang about in “You know I’m no good” was a pain too great to bear. She “cheated [her]self, Like [she] knew [she] would.”
Kurt Cobain summed up the collective despair of these young musicians when he wrote in his suicide note: “I don’t have the passion anymore … it’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
Perhaps there really is truth in the journalistic anecdotes that pop musicians live hard and die young. In the pop music world, it is understood, almost as a given, that there will be sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, risk-taking and early death. An article on the pop singer, Robbie Williams, began with this sentence:
When Justin Bieber turned 18, Margary (2012) sketched out his possible futures:
Sadly, the “pop-cultural scrap heap” is piled high with the dead or broken bodies of young musicians whose personal and musical aspirations collided with the vulnerabilities they brought with them into the pop music industry – that commercial juggernaut that becomes an albatross around their necks, dehumanizing, commodifying and eventually suffocating them. An anonymous biographer left the following insightful comment on the npr music website (2004):
Judee Sill, who died at 35 of a cocaine and codeine overdose, also possessed these dual qualities of deep insecurity spawned by dysfunctional parenting from an alcoholic mother and sexual abuse by her step-father and a prodigious talent as a singer-songwriter that sadly went largely unrewarded during her short life, although she was hailed by Rolling Stone and Newsweek as “one of the most promising new singers” upon the release of her first album.
Darby Crash had a similarly traumatic childhood – his mother was mentally ill and abusive of her young son. He was inexorably propelled to suicide by heroin overdose at 22, following his older brother, who had committed suicide in the same way when Darby was 11.
One of the saddest tales of pop music woe must surely be the death by carbon monoxide poisoning of 16-year-old Yonlu, whose “pain became world-sized” and whose Suicide Song set this world of pain to music (“I’m sad ‘cause I am alone in this world…now my suicide is lit by the sunset”).
As compelling, confronting and depressing as these stories are, anecdotes cannot necessarily be generalized as representative of a particular demographic. So we ask, what do the numbers say?
In the largest ever studies on pop musicians to date (Kenny, 2014a, 2014b, 2015,2016), I assessed the age and year of death by sex, music genre membership, and cause of death for more than 13,000 pop musicians who died between 1950 and 2014. I compared the results for pop musicians against decade, age- and sex- matched people from the general US population.
This is what I discovered:
1. The median age of death for pop musicians is 56 years, compared with 80 for the general US population.
2. Mortality rates for pop musicians were twice as high as mortality in the general US population when averaged over the whole age range.
3. Musicians had significantly higher rates of death by suicide, homicide, accident and liver-related (e.g., alcohol-related) causes.
4. Female pop musicians suffered the same fate at the same rates as male pop musicians. It appears that the inherent risk factors in the pop music world cast their ‘evil’ spell equally over male and female pop musicians. Equality of early death and increased morbidity were surely not what the feminist movement had in mind when lobbying for equal rights and opportunity for women in the workforce.
5. The different patterns of morbidity and mortality among pop musicians from different musical genres suggest that music genre is a lifestyle, not just a type of music. The most striking exemplars of this claim are hip hop and rap musicians, whose drug- and crime-related lifestyle is associated with higher rates of death by homicide; and metal musicians, who had the highest suicide rate. Heavy metal has been included in a group of music genres labelled “problem music” because of its strong association with psychological vulnerability, suicidality, social deviance, increased substance abuse, and impulsivity, vandalism, and delinquency in metal musicians.
Pop musicians as an occupational group are highly vulnerable to the vagaries of their workplaces and their inherent personal vulnerabilities. My research has confirmed journalistic anecdotes and the results of smaller studies that there is indeed an overall excess mortality from non-natural causes at younger ages in pop musicians. Behind these numbers lies a world of trauma and grief that is only barely hinted at in the short biographies presented here.
Hooten, H. (2014). Better Man. SMH-Good Weekend, April, 19-20, p. 10, 12.
Kenny, D.T. (October, 2014a). Stairway to hell. TheConversation.com, Oct 26, 2014.
Kenny, D.T. (November, 2014b). The 27 Club is a myth: 56 is the bum note for musicians. TheConversation.com
Kenny, D.T. (March, 2015). Music to die for: how genre affects popular musicians’ life … Music to die for: How genre affects popular musicians’ life expectancy. TheConversation.com
Kenny, D.T. & Asher, A. (2016). Life expectancy and cause of death in pop musicians: Is the pop musician lifestyle the road to ruin? Medical Problems of Performing Artists, published online 8 March 2016.
Margary, D. (2012). Man Up, Bieber. GQ Entertainment
nprmusic (August 29, 2004). Dinah Washington: A queen in turmoil. npr.org
Dianna Kenny is hoogleraar psychologie én muziek aan de Universiteit van Sydney in Australië. Speciaal voor Blind schreef zij een stuk over haar onderzoek naar de keerzijde van het leven van popmuzikanten. Over dit onderwerp publiceerde ze in maart 2016 het artikel ‘Life Expectancy and Cause of Death in Popular Musicians’ in het blad Medical Problems of Performing Artists.