In Defence of ‘Dying Old’

A criticism of the music industry.

A conspiracy? A joint pact by superior beings? The illuminati? The infamous ’27 Club’ has prompted many lines of scrutiny and analysis. It is commonly used to identify the growing number of talented musicians that all seem to pass away at the height of their careers at the age of 27, from various causes, but usually due to drug overdoses. A recent documentary 27: Gone Too Soon details the ever-growing list of musicians: Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison of The Doors, who all died at the age of 27 within only a few years of each other in the late sixties and early seventies. This fear was then re-ignited when Kurt Cobain died at the age of 27 in 1994 and when Amy Winehouse died in 2011, also at the same age.

The trope of the ‘tortured genius’ is forever glorified when the media creates lists like the 27 Club. These people all worked within an industry that effectively exploited their sensitivity, squeezing out their best tragic works before they come crashing towards an alcohol/drug/mental illness fuelled death and we all say again: “Yet another hero, tragically taken too soon”. It’s a trend in our society that every rock star wants to ‘live fast and die young’, reaching a tragic peak and fashionably leaving before the inevitable down-turn. They immortalise their music, becoming a martyr of the glamorous lifestyle, a true ‘music god’.

But this is an idea perpetuated by the media. The trend for musicians dying at the height of their success between the ages of 25 and 40 is not a coincidence, it is a damning portrayal of the true darkness of the commercial music industry – of the devastating effects of fame and success, excess, exploitation and emotional vulnerability.  

Why do so many of the best musicians end up being so tortured? It is very hard to say. It could be the difficult pasts that lead musicians to music as a soothing mechanism, an outlet for their trauma. But surely not all musicians had difficult pasts. Could it be argued, then, that those who rise to the top of the industry are the ones that can connect emotionally to the most people? Those who suffer from extremes of emotion often linked to vulnerability and mental illness sometimes have the ability to express themselves far more honestly than those who haven’t experienced those extremes. Perhaps those who become the best rock stars of their generation are the ones who reflect a larger mood. People turn to music to escape their everyday lives, people want music to make them feel something – whether they look for soul-crushing sadness within lyrics of heartbreak and misery that reflect the feelings we often can’t articulate, or to feel powerful as rebellious music gives us the permission to feel free.

This is how it feels to be a consumer of music, though. To be the creator of these beautiful twisted works when your trauma and emotional difficulties become profit is a different story. A recent study found that while 1 in 4 of us suffers from mental illness among the general population, this figure is closer to 3 in 4 among those who work in the music industry where thousands suffer from anxiety and, increasingly, depression. Help Musicians UK was launched as an independent music charity providing help and support to those in the music industry in need of it. In 2016, they commissioned a study called ‘Can music make you sick?’, interviewing and surveying thousands of participants from the music industry in order to produce these figures. Overall, these musicians generalised the issues to be resulting from the poor working conditions within the industry itself, citing difficulties in earning, anti-social working hours, exhaustion, lack of recognition and low self-esteem due to constant criticism as some of the main reasons for struggling. Social media is also a factor, as the need to self-market via these platforms is needed when you are running a business where the product is you. For women, further problems include sexual harassment and abuse in a male-dominated industry that may also be seen as causes for such high levels of mental health issues.

Something is wrong with the music industry. Glorifying the ‘tortured genius’ is glorifying emotional torture; its celebrating a culture where labels exploit individuals for their talent, incentivising them to turn to drugs and alcohol and leading them to premature deaths. In reality, the 27 Club is in fact wider than 27 – it is industry wide.  

[Imogen Hay –@ImogenIslay]

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