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27 Club Myth

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Statisticians test whether famous musicians are really more likely to die at age 27. 


Transcript

Debunking the “27 Club." I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, and now Amy Winehouse…all famous musicians who died at the age of 27. But is the so-called “27 Club” a real phenomenon or just a coincidence?

To find out, Queensland University of Technology statistician Adrian Barnett and his colleagues analyzed the lifespan of every musician who had a #1 hit on the UK album charts between 1956 and 2007.

Barnett:
We did find a very small blip in risk at age 27, but there were also very similar blips at age 25 and 32, so if you’re going to believe in the 27 Club, then you need to believe in the 25 and 32 Club as well.

He adds that overall, famous musicians in their 20s and 30s were two to three times more likely to die than others of the same age. He says fame and lifestyle caused the spikes, not an unlucky number. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society. 


Making Sense of the Research

When singer Amy Winehouse died in July, 2011, at the age of 27, pop-culture hounds added her to a list called the “27 Club,” a running tab of famous musicians who died at that age. The most famous members are mentioned in the radio report; others include pioneering blues guitarist Robert Johnson (in 1938), original Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones (1969), and Lost Boyz rapper Freaky Tah (1999). The list gets longer depending on your definition of “famous” and even “musician” (Jean-Michel Basquiat, known mainly as a visual artist, is sometimes included because he was also in a band).

But of course, the 27 Club isn't a random sample. The term began being used around the deaths of Jones, Joplin, Morrison (lead singer of The Doors), and Hendrix, who were all at or near the height of their popularity when they died, and who all died within a two-year period (bookended by Jones on July 3, 1969 and Morrison on July 3, 1971). The coincidental age of their deaths created a mystique around the number 27, and over the years pop culture mavens have looked back in history for other examples, and called attention to other musicians who have died at 27 since, especially Winehouse and Nirvana's Kurt Cobain.

So is 27 really an unlucky number for musicians? In his paper, Barnett acknowledges that there are a couple possible reasons why deaths at 27 might be more common. One is that rock musicians tend to become famous in their early twenties, and their risk-taking (with drugs, alcohol, or reckless behavior) steadily increases from there and peaks four to five years later. Another is that musicians who know about the “27 Club” consciously or unconsciously behave more dangerously at that age, and even may be drawn to commit suicide then (as Kurt Cobain did in 1994). However, the alternate hypothesis is that there's nothing special about 27 other than the fact that people pay attention to the number, and cherry-pick examples that support the notion of a mystical club.

To find out which was true, Barnett first had to create a large but clearly defined sample to study. He could have done this in any number of ways. In his case, though, he chose to define a “famous musician” as a solo artist or any member of a band that had a #1 hit on the UK charts between July 28, 1956 (when the UK charts began), and November 18, 2007. According to Barnett's rules, to be a member of the 27 Club, a musician had to have died at age 27 after having a #1 hit (a crude measure of fame). 

He then used sophisticated statistical techniques to analyze his sample, which included 1,046 musicians, 71 of whom died during the study period. (The group included seven Muppets, like Kermit the Frog; in these cases, the actor playing the Muppet was considered the musician.) Although he found that musicians were indeed much more likely to die in their 20s and 30s than the general population, the risk at 27 wasn't significantly higher than other young ages. In other words, it looks like the 27 Club exists only in people's minds.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is the “27 Club"? What were some possible explanations for it?
  2. How did Barnett examine the issue scientifically? How is this different from the way pop-culture writers might approach it?
  3. Why is it worth examining things like this from a scientific standpoint?

You may want to check out the December 30, 2011, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: Predicting drug side-effects before they can harm patients, a blood test for antidepressant effectiveness, a possible unlucky number for famous musicians, collecting and hoarding, and why babies favor vigilante justice.

For reference, the original scientific paper in the British Medical Journal is available for free online.

Other Science Updates that explore popular myths include Talkative Men and JFK Analysis.


Going Further


For Educators

For reference, the original scientific paper in the British Medical Journal is available for free online.

Other Science Update lessons that explore popular myths include Talkative Men and JFK Analysis.

Students can learn about real factors that influence death rates in the Science NetLinks lesson The Demographics of Mortality.


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