I was painting this morning when a lyric came into my head. It was an older song. One I had not, admittedly, ever really paid that much attention to. It was Halsey‘s ‘Colors‘. And although I had listened to the song probably more than a thousand times, its lyrics had flown straight over my head, their heaviness unnoticed. The words that caught me by surprise were these. “I hope you make it to the day you’re 28 years old.”
Watching Colours Fade
The song, featured on the singer’s breakout album Badlands, focuses on themes of family and addiction. It alludes strongly to Halsey’s brief love affair with The 1975‘s Matt Healey. On the track, Halsey tells the story of their passionate relationship. She describes the experience of watching her muse’s vibrancy slowly leak away, likening it to watching colours fade.
“I hope you make it to the day you’re 28 years old.” At first, these words seem like a space-filler. But they are rich in meaning. At a few points in the pair’s relationship, and during the darkest days of Healey’s heroin addiction, The 1975 frontman is reported to have said he would soon be joining The 27 Club.
Kurt Cobain poses for a promotional photo.
For those scratching their heads, The 27 Club is a group of notorious celebrities who never lived to see their 28th Birthday. Although many sources include just musicians, the so-called ‘curse’ has taken the lives of artists, actors, and even athletes. But of all those The 27 Club claims, musicians seem to pay the heaviest toll. Amongst the club’s most famous members are Amy Winehouse, Mac Miller, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain.
There is a fascination that comes with the beautifully broken. The tragic deaths of men and women in their prime has been romanticized in our culture for thousands upon thousands of years. Shakespeare‘s famous plays featured characters like Romeo and Juliet, who took their own lives rather than conform to the rules of a society that denied their love. (Hamlet’s Ophelia is another notable suicide was Lucretia.)
Shakespeare’s stories were, in turn, based on those of ancient playwrights like Sophocles and Euripides. Characters in our most famous and well-remembered stories often meet grim, tragic, and self-inflicted ends. And apparently? We love it.
Kurt Cobain & The Beautifully Broken
This phenomenon reached a newfound prevalence between 1969 and 1971. During those three years, the musical world lost Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones. This phenomenon, although widely noticed, was not officially given a name until the untimely death of the king of grunge, Kurt Cobain, on April 5th, 1994.
Kurt Cobain, like many previous members of The 27 Club, was a frustrated and sensitive artist. He was troubled with addiction and weighed down by the trappings of fame. His official cause of death was a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the face.
And while Cobain’s clinical depression and heroin use were likely what drove him to take his life, many fans have since theorized that Kurt Cobain, an ardent student of rock history, calculated his death so he could join many of his idols as a member of The 27 Club. This theory was backed by a statement Kurt Cobain’s own mother gave to the press. “I told him,” Wendy Cobain shared after Kurt’s death in 1994, “not to join that stupid club.”
We may not all have been around to see the end of Kurt Cobain. Chances are though, you do remember where you were or what you were doing when the death of Amy Winehouse shocked the world on July 23rd, 2011. Known for her deep contralto vocals, Winehouse burned just as brightly but twice as fast. She too struggled with a drug and alcohol addiction. And, after Winehouse’s death, her most well-known album Back to Black became the UK’s best-selling album of the 21st century.
The 27 Club in The Modern Era
Since Amy Winehouse’s death, there have been countless discussions and investigations into The 27 Club phenomenon. Many, especially in the media, have drawn attention to the mental health problems faced by many musicians, their battles with addiction, and pressures placed upon them by fame. Even so, The 27 Club has been far more widley celebrated than it is scrutinized.
In the past decade, the 27 Club has also been cross-referenced in countless songs, novels, plays, films, social media posts, music magazines, and newspaper articles. There have been many exhibitions and events that have been held in honor of fallen stars. Fans continue to express devotion to these beloved icons.
The cover of Lana Del Rey’s 2012 album ‘Born To Die’.
Lana Del Rey & The 27 Club
The 27 Club has often been referenced in Tweets by other famous celebrities. Lana Del Rey is one example. “I wish I was dead already,” she Tweeted in early 2014. Her post drew a huge response, including an unexpected reply from Kurt Cobain’s daughter Francis Bean Cobain.
“The death of young musicians isn’t something to romanticise,” Francis hit back in a fiery comment. “I’ll never know my father because he died young. It becomes a desirable feat because people like you think it’s ‘cool. Well, it’s f****ing not. Embrace life, because you only get one life.”
Why are Kurt Cobain and The 27 Club Glamourized?
Why then is this phenomenon so romanticized? One answer is that the root of our interest in The 27 Club and the tragic end of artists like Kurt Cobain is the human species’ obsession with death. As Euripides once said, “Death is a debt we all must pay.” Death is our deepest and greatest fear. It instantly commands our attention.
The death of a star? Even more so. Celebrities are people we strongly admire. We hold candles to them. They are mirrors to ourselves, physical manifestations of our greatest hopes and dreams. They are the embodiment of inspiration. When we lose them, we lose a part of ourselves.
To us, these stars can sometimes seem like gods. (Are they not worshipped in a similar way?) When we see them die it is a massive reminder of our own inevitable mortality. And while we fear losing our own life, there is a dark allure to such events. The thought of ending on a high note and in one’s prime is a seductive fantasy.
Academic Studies on The 27 Club
“Wait,” you may ask, “have people ever done any serious studies on this?” Yes, yes they have. Following the death of Kurt Cobain, there has been an ongoing academic investigation into why artists die young. In 2011 The British Medical Journal released a study examining why the age of 27 was lethal for many stars.
Surprisingly, the study found there was no peak in the risk of death around age 27. This said the risk of death for the majority of famous musicians in their 20s and 30s was, in fact, two times higher than the general population of the UK. The study concluded that The 27 club is unlikely to be a real phenomenon though fame may increase the risk of death among musicians.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science has conducted a similar study. Here The AAAS examined the common reasons assumed to be the causes of The 27 Club phenomenon. Chief amongst these reasons was the fact many rock and hip hop artists become more famous in their early 20s. As a result their risk-taking with drugs, alcohol or reckless behavior steadily increases. Then, four or five years later, it peaks. Another reason that was acknowledged from this sample was that musicians that know about The 27 Club consciously and unconsciously behave more dangerously at that age.
27 is a Myth, Not an Average
To find out if this was true The AAAS took a large but clearly defined sampling of artists to study. They chose to define a “famous musician” as a solo artist or any member of a band that hit record on the UK charts between July 1956 (when the charts began) and November 2007. The artist had to have died at the age of 27 after having a number one hit. The AAAS sample included 1,046 musicians, 71 of which died during the study period.
This study again concluded that musicians were more likely to die in their 20s and 30s than the general population. The age of 27, however, bore no relevance whatsoever. Several other authoritative studies confirm these findings.
Kurt Cobain’s idol David Bowie lived to age 69.
The Real Reason for the Death of Kurt Cobain
Just as people are, by nature, afraid of death so too are they are superstitious. And while science does not support the existence of any universal connection between each member of The 27 Club many popular myths and misconceptions prevail. Astrologers suggest these deaths fit into a particular pattern of lunar returns. A wilder theory contends each sold their soul to the Devil in exchange for fame.
A more probable answer is that by inheriting power through fame and wealth, each was exposed to many unhealthy temptations. The human experience, the ancient philosopher Plato argued, is a constant struggle between desire and rationality. Artists, who often seek freedom and draw their inspiration from life’s emotional extremes, are not well known for their self-control.
Kurt Cobain Paid The Price of Fame
Fame compounds this. Not many people, after all, say “no” to an icon. Not knowing when to stop, a community around an artist believes they can do no wrong. Combined with copious amounts of disposable income and readily available drugs, this can create an extremely toxic environment.
I believe this is what happened to Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, and Janis Joplin. All three were powerful people subjected to difficult environments while struggling with painful mental illnesses. On the day Kurt Cobain’s body was found, The Seattle Post reported that the star was extremely high on heroin when he pulled the trigger. He was also suffering from depression. It really hurts to say that tragic events like these support this heartbreaking theory. (I am so, so sorry Kurt.)
Hip Hop’s 20s Club
Although we can sit and reflect on artists that we have lost, a more modern and tragic variant of The 27 Club myth is beginning to take hold. Without a shadow of a doubt, music is a young person’s business and new artists are emerging every year. Currently, it is larger than life personality of hip hop which captures the popular imagination. And several of the genre’s brightest stars never came close to making 27.
Widely celebrated rapper XXXTentacion was shot dead in 2018 age 20. Pittsburgh rapper Jimmy Wopo was killed in a drive-by shooting that very same day age 21. Juice WRLD topped the charts after a fatal overdose at 21. Lil Peep passed away in 2017 age 21. The sentiment of Halsey’s ‘Colors’ lyric, “Everything is blue, his pills, his hands, his jeans,” also rings true in hip hop’s 20s Club.
The Tragedy of Addiction
The difference? The hip-hop community appears to be adjusting its sails. Many fans are being put off drugs after witnessing the imagery and glamorization of substance abuse. “The younger kids don’t do as much,” producer Nedarb Nagrom, Lil Peep’s roommate for three years, shared in one recent interview, “because they see all the sh*t that happened in the last few years.”
Rappers are beginning to be more mindful of the imagery they are communicating to fans. Some are even speaking out about their battles with substance abuse. People such as Travis Scott and Lucki have talked publicly about prescription drug addiction in the hope it will help fans. Even Lil Xan, an artist who takes his stage name from a popular opioid, has spoken about changing his name in light of the issue.
What’s Wrong with Going Grey?
Perceptions are changing. Today many iconic artists are aging with grace. Acts like Bob Dylan and Elton John are performing well into old age. Many in the musical community are coming to terms which the fact we cannot stop our body clock and that aging is a natural thing all humans experience.
Harry Styles, who has acted as an advocate for a lot of social change lately, is one artist who has expressed that he sees a certain beauty in growing old. “Who ultimately do you want to be at the end of the day?” Styles asked in one interview while discussing former Beatle Paul McCartney. “You don’t want to be the guy who died, you don’t want to be the guy who’s whacked out on drugs. [I] want, to be the guy who’s 70 and playing for three hours because he can and he wants to and everyone’s loving it and he’s having fun.”
I am extremely glad that there is another attitude that challenges the hero-worship of the 27 Club. Especially with all these old rockers and pop stars going into their 80s. They should be celebrated, not feared.
Everything is Blue
There’s a constant debate about whether it is a good thing to learn the original meaning of a song. Like paintings, we can all draw out our own meaning from them. I think it is.
When we do dig deeper into a song, it can become far more important to us. Now, as I am typing these words, ‘Colors’ seems like an ode to each member of The 27 Club and all other artists that died tragically young. The song also shows the trauma and scarring these deaths leave on those closest to the artist. Learning the deeper meaning of ‘Colors’ has definitely changed my perception of several artists forever. These were vibrant souls taken far too soon, leaving parents and even children behind. No piece of that should be glamorized.
As we have seen, music fans are dramatically impacted by the death of highly influential young artists and the legacy they leave behind. “Everything is in fact blue when they are gone.” Regardless of what causes the fascination, I hope that the constant romanticization of Kurt Cobain and others within The 27 Club is not influencing young people to grab a badge.
Let’s hope that The 27 Club’s iconic members are romanticized and celebrated for their work in life rather than the tragic air that that came with their untimely deaths. I hope that we remember that celebrities are not gods. They are humans who make mistakes just like we do. They struggle with mental health just like we do. For all of my favorite artists still living, I truly do hope they make it to the day they’re 28 years old, and further still (Paul McCartney style).
Final Thoughts on Kurt Cobain & The 27 Club
I think the most important lesson that can be taken from the tales of The 27 Club is that we often set extreme goals and then expected ourselves to achieve them early in life. When we, inevitably, don’t reach these goals we are extremely tough on ourselves. We aspire to create social change like Kurt Cobain or achieve the musical perfection of Amy Winehouse, we stop enjoying our everyday lives. I think the true joys of life come from contentment and the understanding that we are constantly a work in progress, and that we are human. There is, after all, no greater success than living a long and happy life.