Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


October 15 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Government’s New Doctor Payments Website Is Worthy of a Recall

Charles Ornstein takes a test drive using the federal government’s new website for drug and device payments and finds it virtually unusable.


October 15 • 12:00 PM

How Cosmetic Companies Get Away With Pseudoscience

Anti-aging creams make absurd claims that they repair DNA damage or use stem-cell treatments. When cosmetics companies and dermatologists partner to maximize profits, who is responsible for protecting the consumer?


October 15 • 10:00 AM

What Big Data Can Tell Us About the Things We Eat

Pizza might be the only thing that can bring men and women together.


October 15 • 9:04 AM

‘Looking’ at Art in the Smartphone Age

Technology is a great way to activate gallery space, but it shouldn’t take it over.


Follow us


How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

A City’s Fingerprints Lie in Its Streets and Alleyways

Researchers propose another way to analyze the character and evolution of cities.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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