The 27 Club: Music's most tragic list highlights the emotional pressure of the spotlight

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One of the most prominent examples of our culture’s deification of fallen musicians is the concept of the 27 Club: a list of musicians, as well as actors, artists and other celebrities, who’ve all died at the age of 27. (Photos: Getty)
One of the most prominent examples of our culture’s deification of fallen musicians is the concept of the 27 Club: a list of musicians, as well as actors, artists and other celebrities, who’ve all died at the age of 27. (Photos: Getty)

Rock ’n’ roll has always been about more than just the music. Since the genre’s conception in the 1950s and its worldwide explosion in the 1960s, rock has been tantamount to creative and sexual liberation, progressive sociopolitical ideology, and most importantly, the celebration of youth. The bands that soundtracked the counterculture movement of the 1960s were spearheading something that was way more significant than just an infatuation with guitar solos and powerful sing-alongs. It was a generational shift in the way people viewed and interacted with the world around them, and the perceived leaders of this new world order were not politicians or scientists or philosophers, but musicians.

Whether it was the seas of screaming teenagers that spawned the word “Beatlemania,” or the nomadic, cult-like herds that followed the Grateful Dead across the country, people began to view their favorite musicians as more than just extraordinary artists, but actual heroes. That idea was also being propagated by the budding field of rock music journalism, which set the stage for the inevitable. When one, or perhaps many, of these figures who represent the imaginations of a generation die — and specifically die young — they become almost like gods. And one of the most prominent examples of our culture’s deification of fallen musicians is the concept of the 27 Club: a list of musicians, as well as actors, artists and other celebrities, who’ve all died at the age of 27.

“Rock journalism was sort of why the 27 Club got started,” says Rob Moura. He’s a music journalist and pop music historian who recently produced a comprehensive podcast series on the 27 Club’s most notable members: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and Robert Johnson. “So much about rock journalism is the forging of legend. Making sense of young death, kind of romanticizing it in a f***ed up way. I think that appeals to so many people, this idea that there’s this person encased in amber.”

When a musician of that caliber dies they stop becoming a person. Rob Moura

That idea plays particularly well with the mythos of rock ’n’ roll as a distinctly youthful form of art. If an artist dies in their prime at the age of 27, then there’s this sense that they’re eternally youthful, at least in the eyes of fans and historians who’ve become obsessed with the 27 Club and the romantic tragedy of a young artist dying.

“When a musician of that caliber dies they stop becoming a person,” Moura says. “You can argue that they stop becoming a person when they get famous enough, but after they die they’re just this monolithic figure. They’re dead, so you can do whatever you want to as far as martyring them or speculating about how they died or how they lived their life because they’re not there to counter any falsehoods or myths.”

It can even impact the way people view the work they produced when they were alive and incite a reappraisal — or manifest more intense praise — of their importance to the world and the culture they were a part of.

“Death can really color how you see someone’s music later down the line,” Moura explains. “You even see it nowadays, every time some high-profile musician dies it’s almost like you’re forced to reckon with what their entire discography was or what their work was, and then you view it from a heightened perspective because they don’t have any opportunity to expound upon it.”

The concept of the 27 Club formed after the quadruple deaths of guitarist Jimi Hendrix, singer Janis Joplin, original Rolling Stones frontman Brian Jones and the Doors vocalist Jim Morrison, who all died at 27 within a two-year period in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, it wasn’t actually until the death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain in 1994 that the “club” went from an underground legend to an immensely popular phenomenon. That’s also when the attributes of the club began to expand and it took on a slightly eerier meaning. Those aforementioned artists had died from heavy drug or alcohol use that was as much a part of the rock lifestyle as the music, but Cobain’s death was different.

Nirvana front Kurt Cobain's death brought greater attention to the 27 Club phenomenon. (Kevin Mazur/WireImage)
Nirvana front Kurt Cobain's death brought greater attention to the 27 Club phenomenon. (Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

“Unlike all of these other artists, his death was purposeful,” Moura says. “It wasn’t death by misadventure, he literally shot himself. It’s interesting because of all of the people on that main list, he’s the only one that felt like a nexus point. Joplin was part of the rock and blues and psychedelic meshing in the late ’60s, and Jimi Hendrix was just one of many guitar players who were starting to expand what psychedelic rock meant. They were members of the counterculture whereas Kurt Cobain was the figurehead.”

Cobain’s death changed the way people conceived of the club. Not only was he the foremost face of the distinctly gloomy and pained genre of grunge music, but he was a visibly tortured soul throughout the last few years of his life. He was very publicly struggling with addiction and mental health issues, and his death immortalized him as more than just a rock legend of his era, but an eternally misunderstood and mentally ill celebrity icon for future generations to observe.

Throughout his research, Moura learned that all of the members of the 27 Club were tortured souls in one way or another, that information just wasn’t as public as it was in the ’90s, let alone in the 2000s, when Amy Winehouse’s widely publicized downfall and eventual 2011 death brought the club back into the public consciousness once again. Although autopsy reports and historical records about the fast lives these young musicians carried out in their final years can tell us how they met their tragic ends, a better way to understand their deaths is to consider why.

Jay Nittoli is a psychotherapist who’s spent 40 years working with patients from preschool age to adulthood, and he approaches the fateful deaths of the 27 Club from a developmental perspective. He cites Erik Erikson’s eight psychosocial stages of human development (which encompass birth to old age) and identifies two stages that likely contributed to the dangerous lifestyle choices that Hendrix, Joplin and others partook in. The first is “identity versus role confusion,” which happens from ages 12-18 and is when people ask themselves: “Who am I? What do I want to do with my life? What’s my role? Do I have goals?” That stage has to be resolved in order to move onto the next stage, and Nittoli theorizes that some of those musicians who got famous when they were very young, and in an industry that doesn’t necessarily offer them emotional support, weren’t ready to encounter “intimacy versus isolation” in their twenties.

“Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison couldn’t have predicted what kind of fame they were gonna have and what went along with that,” Nittoli says. “And so even if they thought they had a good identity, now they’re given an identity that they may have asked for and they may have not asked for. My question is: How solid was their identity in contrast to the identity that was given to them? Their professional identity that they may have created or may have been created for them.”

That idea of being given an identity that they may not have asked for, or that they actually came to resent, is most obvious in relation to Cobain and Winehouse, who both notoriously hated being extremely famous. And without the proper support systems in place, that disillusionment with where you are in life — coupled with drug or alcohol addictions — can create an extremely scary mindset.

Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison couldn’t have predicted what kind of fame they were gonna have and what went along with that. Jay Nittoli

“Think about how terrifying that could be when what you intended to do as art became product, and then you became product,” Nittoli says. “Who are you pleasing? Yourself? Your management? Record companies? Fans? And who are you connected with? Who’s grounding you?”

Learn more about Winehouse’s tattoos by exploring the art in 3D.

Amy Winehouse's tattoos reelz
Amy Winehouse's tattoos reelz

In the case of Winehouse, she was quite literally pleasing her label. By the time she became a worldwide icon for her 2006 album Back to Black, she didn’t want to identify with the soul sound of that record anymore, she wanted to be a jazz singer. However, the contract she had signed with her label meant that she had to tour on previously released songs, which made her miserable. On top of that, she also was in the throes of a nasty drug addiction that she wasn’t able to seek proper help for, and the paparazzi press of the internet age was following her every move.

Amy Winehouse's publicized downfall and eventual 2011 death brought the 27 Club back into the public consciousness again. (Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
Amy Winehouse's publicized downfall and eventual 2011 death brought the 27 Club back into the public consciousness again. (Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

“She’s the most visible member of the 27 Club in the 21st century,” says Moura. “Which is important because by the dawn of the 21st century, the internet was around, the media was starting to explode as a driving force. Twenty-four-hour news cycles were starting to become a thing. At that point, people who were celebrities who had troubled lifestyles similar to Winehouse’s would be covered extensively in the media.”

This is where Nittoli refers back to “intimacy versus isolation.” Winehouse didn’t have a support system or a genuinely healthy process for coping with her disillusionment with the industry and her struggles in the celebrity spotlight. Instead, she had a husband who was enabling her drug addiction and an industry that wanted to exploit her for her music and dictate the terms of her creativity. Nittoli breaks down how immensely isolating those circumstances, or the circumstances for anyone at her level of fame at such a young age, can be.

He explains: “If you have a confidant and you have somebody that you're intimately connected with — somebody that you can cry to, somebody that you can tell that you’re afraid, somebody that you can say, ‘I don’t know how long I can do this. I want to quit’ — and they love you unconditionally for who you are, then I think you can withstand that a little easier. But if you’re doing it completely alone, you don’t know who to trust. You don’t know who has your back.”

“People say they have your back, but everybody wants a piece of you,” Nittoli adds. “People want to be around you because you’re famous; people want to be around you because they want to say they were around you because they want to get into the business, or whatever it is. A coping skill would be to be able to have insight and to be able to identify and express emotions, negative emotions, in a clear and direct way so that you don’t have to be in your head or you don’t have to run from it.”

Without a human figure to fill that role, a drug or a drink can be an easy and effective substitute, albeit a dangerous one. “It works, it’s immediate, and you can depend on it,” Nittoli says. “And that was one of the things that probably did matter the most, was that they couldn’t depend on a lot of people — maybe bandmates, but that only went so far — but they could depend on the bottle or heroin or pills or whatever it was to be there and kind of be their ally.”

People say they have your back, but everybody wants a piece of you. Jay Nittoli

All of those theories are rooted in psychological science; the idea that 27 is some sort of mystical age in which people are more prone to death is not. “I just think it’s one of those weird coincidences,” Nittoli says. There was even a 2011 scientific study that disproved the notion that 27 is a statistically significant age for celebrity deaths. Furthermore, since Winehouse, the majority of young musician deaths in the 2010s with the cultural weight of Cobain, Joplin or Hendrix have happened well before 27.

As hip-hop has completely supplanted rock as the driving genre of youth culture, some of its most titanic figures have tragically died from drug overdoses for violence related to their wealth in their early twenties. Lil Peep and Juice WRLD died at 21, XXXtentacion and Pop Smoke at 20 and Mac Miller — who was practically a veteran by comparison, but got famous in his teens — at 26.

“The internet has made it easier to get famous younger, making and releasing your own music and building a following at younger ages,” says Jack Riedy, a music journalist for publications like Complex, Vibe and Chicago Reader. “We don’t really think of Juice WRLD or Mac Miller as ‘child stars,’ but they were for a significant part of their careers.”

They may not be members of the 27 Club, but they still experienced very similar — if not more intense — forms of heightened fame at such young ages, and were predisposed to the same types of issues once they stepped into the spotlight without having a solid grasp on their personal lives. Riedy believes that in order to prevent these deaths going forward, the music industry should actually learn from its history of premature deaths and institute structures that can aid musicians who are struggling.

As long as the music industry profits from legend, there’s always going to be something like the 27 Club. Rob Moura

“Labels should also provide their signees with mental health resources and other counseling as needed,” he says. “And they should ensure there are responsible people on their team who are concerned about the artists as human beings and not just revenue streams.”

Sadly, Nittoli isn’t hopeful. “I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he says. “Because people with a lot less talent and social skills and ego strength can become famous just by virtue of putting their ass on Instagram.”

Lisa Marie Presley, with her children Riley and Benjamin Keough, at the 75th birthday celebration for Elvis Presley on Jan 8, 2010. Benjamin died at the age of 27 in July. (Nikki Boertman/Reuters)
Lisa Marie Presley, with her children Riley and Benjamin Keough, at the 75th birthday celebration for Elvis Presley on Jan 8, 2010. Benjamin died at the age of 27 in July. (Nikki Boertman/Reuters)

Even though people from outside of the industry like Elvis Presley’s grandson Benjamin Keough, who died at 27 in July 2020, Moura thinks that the 27 Club will continue to live on as long as the music industry, and perhaps the entertainment industry overall, continues to profit from what it has since the 1960s. Back when the myth-making of rock ’n’ roll created a climate in which artists are more supernatural forces than just talented regular people, and their deaths are infinitely fascinating to people who want to project their own romantic fantasies about eternal youth onto them.

“As long as the music industry profits from legend, there’s always going to be something like the 27 Club,” he says.