Stairway to hell: life and death in the pop music industry
Art is a cry of distress from those who live out within themselves the destiny of humanity … Inside them turns the movement of the world; only an echo of it leaks out – the work of art Arnold Schoenberg, 1910.
Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, like many gifted artists throughout history, suffered for his art. Popular artists of the modern era have kept this tradition alive. For all the superficial glamour of the pop music world, let us not delude ourselves – today’s popular music scene is brutal.
The “pop-cultural scrap heap”, to borrow journalist Drew Magary’s term, is piled high with the dead or broken bodies of young musicians whose personal and musical aspirations collided with the aspirations of those occupying the commercial edifices erected around them, which turn them into income-generating commodities whose role is to satisfy capricious and ever-changing consumer demands.
Many of those musicians end up feeling suffocated, caged and possessed by their minders, exploiters and fans. And many end up dead.
How big a problem is the pop music industry, really?
The rock scene is a volatile mix of glamour, instant wealth, risk-taking, rebellion and psychological distress accompanied by taken-for-granted assumptions that pop musicians will live dangerously, abuse substances and die early. Journalist Amanda Hooten, writing about RobbieWilliams,identifies the components of the “classic rock’n’roll script” as “sex, drugs, rehab and bitterness”.
摇滚圈子是一个不稳定的混合体，融合了魅力、一夜暴富、冒险、反叛和心理焦虑，以及公众对流行音乐家生活方式理所应当的猜测：生活危险、滥用毒品、英年早逝。在记述Robbie Williams时，记者Amanda Hooten把“传统摇滚剧本”的构成要素界定为“性、毒品、戒毒所、无尽痛苦”。
Blogger Jacob Katel expresses the same sentiments in a more forthright manner:
[d]ead rock stars are a dime a dozen. They usually drink themselves to death, overdose on narcotics, crash cars, or get on faulty aircraft with drunk pilots …
Previous research does not answer the question
Why do so many pop musicians die young?
Few studies have systematically examined the popular musician population to ascertain the extent of the problems codified in the media comments above.
Existing studies are limited in scope. Adrian Barnett, for example, tested the “27 club hypothesis”. Tucker, Faulkner and Horvath only included a narrow sample of the population, that is, musicians who died between 1959 and 1967. A John Moores University study only looked at artists with top rating albums.
现存的研究往往范围有限。举个例子，Adrian Barnett检验了“27俱乐部假说”【译注：指众多才华横溢的流行音乐明星死于27岁这一现象】。Tucker, Faulkner和Horvath的研究只囊括了一个很小的样本——死于1959-1967年之间的音乐家。John Moores大学的一项研究只关注了有热榜专辑的艺术家。
At the other end of the scale, the study reported by Howard Sounes in his book 27 is over-inclusive as it covers not only performing musicians but also songwriters, record producers, managers and promoters.
I’ve undertaken the first population study of performing pop musicians (n=12,665) from all popular genres who died between 1950 and June 2014 of whom 90.6% (11,478 musicians) were male.
Data on age, circumstances and manner of death were accessed from over 200 sources, including The Dead Rock Stars’ Club; Nick Tavelski’s (2010) Knocking on Heaven’s Door: Rock Obituaries, Pop star mortality; R.I.P. Encyclopaedia Metallicum; Voices from the Dark Side for Dead Metal Musicians; Wikipedia’s List of Dead Hip Hop Artists and Hip Hop obituaries;
我从超过200个来源获得关于死亡年龄、原委和方式的数据，其中包括“已逝摇滚明星俱乐部”，Nick Tavelski 2010年的《敲开天堂之门：摇滚明星讣告集》， “金属百科：已逝艺术家”， “来自另一个世界的声音：已逝金属音乐家”，“维基百科已逝嘻哈艺术家列表和嘻哈艺术家讣告”。
I went to rapper death websites, Dead Punk Stars and similar sites for all popular music genres. The genres I covered included African, ballad, bluegrass, blues, Cajun, calypso, Christian pop, conjunto, country, doo-wop, electroclash, folk, funk, Gospel, hard rock, hip hop, honky tonk, indie, jazz, Latin, metal, new wave, polka, pop, psychedelic, punk, punk-electronic, rock rap, reggae, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, ska, soul, swamp, swing, techno, western and world music.
Longevity, suicide, homicide and accidental death rates in pop musicians
I examined four outcomes – longevity and the proportion of deaths by suicide, homicide and non-intentional injury or accident. Longevity was determined by calculating the average age of death for each musician by sex and decade of death. These averages were then compared with population averages by sex and decade for the US population (per 100,000) (see Figure 1, below).
Figure 2 (below) provides a graphical summary of percentages of musicians who died by decade from each of the three causes of death studied; these are juxtaposed with deaths in the US population from the same causes by decade. All comparisons shown in these figures were highly statistically significantly different from the US population.
The pop music scene is toxic and needs rehabilitation
The results of this study are disturbing. Across the seven decades studied, popular musicians’ lifespans were up to 25 years shorter than the comparable US population. Accidental death rates were between five and 10 times greater. Suicide rates were between two and seven times greater; and homicide rates were up to eight times greater than the US population.
This is clear evidence that all is not well in pop music land.
Why is this so? The pop music “scene” fails to provide boundaries and to model and expect acceptable behaviour. It actually does the reverse – it valorises outrageous behaviour and the acting out of aggressive, sexual and destructive impulses that most of us dare only live out in fantasy.
The music industry needs to consider these findings to discover ways of recognising and assisting young musicians in distress. At the very least, those who make their livings from these young people need to learn to recognise early signs of emotional distress, crisis, depression and suicidality and to put some support systems in place to provide the necessary assistance and care.