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On the premature popping-off of pop stars

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I recently spent a several months in the 1960s.

Of course, about 40 years ago I spent a whole decade in the 1960s, but since I was a pre-teen the whole time I definitely fall into the “if you can remember the ’60s, you weren’t really there” demographic.

However, I recently revisited the ’60s twice while writing a couple of biographies for a series called American Rebels, put out by the U.S. educational publisher Enslow.

The first, already published, is Jimi Hendrix: Kiss the Sky. The second, due out soon, is Janis Joplin: Take Another Little Piece of My Heart.

Jimi and Janis were born within weeks of each other (Hendrix on November 26, 1942, Joplin on January 19, 1943). They died within weeks of each other, too, at the age of 27, Hendrix on September 18, 1970, and Joplin on October 4, 1970.

Their deaths sent shock waves through the music community…but the fact is, they’re hardly the only pop stars to die young. Rock stars dying at an early age are practically a cliché.

That’s because it’s true, researchers at Liverpool John Moores University have just demonstrated with a new study, entitled “Elvis to Eminem: quantifying the price of fame through early mortality of European and North American rock and pop stars.”

The researchers’ starting point was the “All-Time Top 1000 Albums,” identified in 2000 by an international poll of more than 200,000 fans, experts and critics. Solo performers or group members from albums on the list who came from Europe or North America were deemed pop stars for the purposes of the study, giving the researchers 1,064 rock, punk, rap, R&B, electronic and new-age musicians to work with.

Individuals were deemed to have become stars at the age they were when an album (or single, if they never had a hit album) of theirs made it onto one of the major Top 40 (or, for U.S. singles, Hot 100) lists in the U.S. or U.K.

Finally, for each pop star, the researchers calculated the total number of years they survived after becoming famous, then compared it to the star’s expected survival based on general populations.

In all, 100 of the stars died between 1956 and 2005. The average age of death was 42 for North American stars and just 35 for European stars, compared to a normal life expectancy of about 78 in the U.S. and 79 in Britain.

Statistically, the stars were twice as likely to die early as the rest of the populations, and even more likely to do so within five years of becoming famous.

Interestingly, if they could hang on for 25 years, European pop stars returned to the same levels of life expectancy as the general population (that’s where the Rolling Stones come in, I guess), but American pop stars continued to experience higher-than-average death rates.

And the most common cause? Hardly a surprise: long-term drug or alcohol problems (hello–or, rather, goodbye–Jimi and Janis) accounted for more than one in four of the deaths.

Why study this? I’ll let the authors explain:

“While policy has directed considerable attention to the health of the most deprived, relatively little work has addressed the health of the rich and famous.”

OK, taken out of context I admit that quote sounds a little silly. But there’s a serious side to this, say the authors: pop stars not only endanger their own lives with their risky behavior, they influence the behavior of young people. One in 10 children in the U.K., the researchers point out, aspires to become a pop star.

“The music business would do well to take the health risks of substance abuse and risk-taking behaviours more seriously,” say the authors.

And no doubt they’re right. But then again, the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin within weeks of each other in 1970 were supposed to shock the industry into taking substance abuse and risk-taking behaviours more seriously, too.

Jimi died 37 years ago this month, but as this study makes clear, the lifestyle typified by “sex, drugs and rock-and-roll” hasn’t really changed.

Somehow, I suspect its appeal is immune to pleas from public health officials.

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