The 27 Club - The Truth or An Urban Legend?
Trigger Warning (!) Mentions of Death, Suicide, Substance Abuse, Mental Illnesses
“It’s better to burn out than to fade away” - Neil Young
Soon after scrawling these words out on a piece of paper and putting it in a flower pot, Kurt Cobain shot himself in the face and died, on 5th April 1994.
What is the 27 Club?
The 27 Club is a notional list of talented, influencing and promising rock stars who died at the young age of 27, in somewhat mysterious circumstances, mostly due to substance abuse, but not limited to.
The term became widely known after the passing of Kurt Cobain, the frontman of Nirvana. Fans and enthusiasts connected his age to that of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison (The Doors), Janis Joplin & Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones).
While the club has been majorly connected to musicians, it has expanded to include artists and young actors too, such as Anton Yelchin & Michel Basquiat.
But what exactly led them to the drug-fuelled lifestyle that caused their demise? & how true is it?
The Beginning of the End
The 27 Club is believed to have begun with the death of one of the greatest guitar players of all time, Robert Johnson.
He recorded less than 50 songs, and was covered by other popular artists as he rose to fame. Some artists who died before him, later came to be recognized as part of the club too, such as Louis Chauvin & Rupert Brooke, but only once the club gained traction. Still, Robert Johnson is thought of as the beginning of the club, who died from an ill combination of strychnine poisoning and pneumonia.
The Big Question- Truth or an Urban Legend
Cue the drumroll please, *insert dramatic pause*- It’s a myth!
Statistical research shows more musicians died at the age of 56 and 28, than at 27. Moreover, investigations into the club by Eric Segalstad & Martin Wolkewitz concluded that the age of 27 doesn’t bestow any greater risk of death in popular musicians than other ages. (National Library of Medicine)
Nonetheless, there have been a plethora of references to the club by the music industry which supports their belief in it, and by extension most of their supporters and fans.
Pop Culture references
John Craigie’s song, ‘28’ from his 2009 album ‘Montana Tale’, was written from the perspective of the club members, and contemplates their respective mortality and what would they do differently “if I (they) could only make it to 28”
Watsky’s rap song, ‘All You Can Do’ with the lyric “I tried to join the 27 Club, they kicked me out” and further includes references to Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and a few others.
Adore Delano’s ‘27 Club’ from her 2017 studio album ‘Whatever’ with the repetition of “All of the legends die at 27”. Delano was aged 27 at the time of release.
Lastly, Juice WRLD’s ‘Legends’, released in 2018, with the lyrics “What’s the 27 Club? We ain’t making it past 21”, as the song was a tribute to artists who passed during their 20s.
The Lifestyle- Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll
Establishing the 27 Club is a myth is just the beginning- Why is that, Hollywood romanticizes the trauma of artists to the point where they inadvertently feel they are not themselves without their illnesses?
Taking a look closely, we see a pattern emerging in the deaths of all of these popular artists. Their mental health was deteriorating, courtesy the privacy-snatching media and many such factors, demanding more & more from every artist as they scaled up.
All the pressures to portray their ideal selves to the public led them to find an escape; drugs & alcohol.
A Psychologist’s Take on Musicians’ Mental Health- Joe Barnby
Early 2019, digital distribution platform Record Union shared results of a survey conducted with more than 1500 musicians and artists. The report found that more than 73% of independent performers and creators suffered from symptoms of mental illnesses, and anxiety & depression were the most common.
The neuroscience researcher explains how one can have poor mental health without having mental illness, but the worse mental health one has, the higher risk of developing a lasting illness. According to him, there are 3 consistent reasons for musicians to face such challenges- financial instability, pressure to perform and resonate with their audience and a culture of self-medication and substance abuse.
With more celebrities openly talking about the subject and their experience with the same, including Adele, Billie Eilish, Shawn Mendes and Ed Sheeran, it’s become easier for many others to talk about it. The power of destigmatization may very well be the change the industry needs.
While busting the myth of the 27 Club is only the beginning, it becomes equally important to respect artists facing mental health issues, and support them through it. Hollywood needs a perspective change, and the stigma around publicity of such subjects pushes promising and talented creators to their edge.
Co-Curated by Akshadha Gupta & Krish Gupta
Spotify for Artists
National Library of Medicine