Menus Subscribe Search
Amy Winehouse (PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

Amy Winehouse (PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

Solo Rock Stars Die Young

• December 19, 2012 • 3:30 PM

Amy Winehouse (PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research links premature deaths of pop stars with childhood traumas, and suggests being part of a band may help protect them against self-destructive behavior.

Do you dream of being a rock star? Do you hope to live a long life?

If so, you’d better start prioritizing—or, at the very least, join a band. Because from Elvis Presley to Amy Winehouse, solo pop superstars are disproportionately likely to die young (although not necessarily at age 27).

That’s one finding of a study just published in the British journal BMJ Open, which takes a close look at mortality among rock and pop icons of the past half-century. And just like the rest of us, it finds, famous musicians are more likely to die from substance abuse if they had troubled childhoods.

A team of researchers led by Mark Bellis, director of the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University, looked at the mortality rates and childhood experiences of 1,489 rock and pop stars who gained fame between 1956 and 2006. Comparisons were made across the decades, and between European and American musicians.

Confirming earlier studies, the researchers report famous musicians are more likely than their fans to prematurely enter rock and roll heaven. Specifically, they found the gap in life expectancy between pop stars and the public widened consistently until 25 years after the musicians first became famous.

After that, for reasons that aren’t clear, mortality rates for European stars gradually revert back to those of the general population, while the gap remains wide for American stars. (Are reunion tours bad for your health?)

The researchers found solo performers were about twice as likely to die earlier than expected (that is, earlier than the average for their demographic category) as members of a band. Among North American solo stars, nearly 23 percent died before their time, compared to just over 10 percent of band members. Among Europeans, the figures were 9.8 percent for solo stars and 5.4 percent for members of a band.

This could reflect that solo stars tend to be more famous than band members and thus face a different set of pressures and temptations. Or, the researchers speculate, the support of fellow musicians could be a “protective factor” against certain self-destructive behaviors.

That said, the study strongly suggests those behaviors are rooted in experiences that occurred far before a musician achieved fame—or perhaps even before they picked up an instrument.

Using biographical sources, Bellis and his colleagues determined whether each star had suffered one of more “adverse childhood experiences,” including physical abuse, sexual abuse, or living with a mentally ill, suicidal or chronically ill person. They then matched these results with the cause of death of the 132 rock and pop stars who died over this 50-year period.

They found over 47 percent of those who died from chemical misadventure or other “risk-related causes” such as suicide or violence had suffered some form of childhood adversity. The figure was only 25 percent for those who died of other causes.

“Consideration of childhood experiences brings into question whether even limitless resources in adulthood can undo the impact of adverse childhoods,” the researchers note. Money and fame can give people easy access to the high-risk lifestyle that childhood traumas predisposed them to gravitate towards. That can literally be a lethal combination.

This finding is particularly disturbing given how many young people think of these musicians as role models, and/or dream of being pop stars. Amateur talent shows such The X Factor, which has its season finale this week, consistently receive some of the highest ratings on television.

“A better understanding of the underlying causes of risk-taking in performers may help deglamorize such behavior,” the researchers conclude, “and reduce its appeal to fans and would-be rock and pop stars.”

Indeed, it would mark a major cultural shift if the heavy-partying lifestyle of pop stars was seen not as an enviable perk of fame, but rather as a sign that these talented but troubled people are, in many cases, destructively coping with some deep childhood wounds.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.