Should The 27 Club Be a Thing?

25 Jul 2011

This weekend, Amy Winehouse joined the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain in the tragic 27 Club. Her passing was unfortunate and inspired countless musings on the curse of being 27 and a rock star. Is there a curse? Is there even a pattern? Virtually every mainstream news outlet only offered up lines like this (from WaPo):

And then there was the “27” — rock-and-roll’s most dangerous number.

Dangerous, yes. Most dangerous? A few science blogs have looked at the reason we latch on to the coincidence of these deaths, but there’s virtually nothing on the arithmetic comparing 27 to other ages.

Here’s a breakdown (by age) of the deaths of pop musicians:

The process: I took every performance artist associated with the top 100 songs of each year since 1958, plus the top 30 of each since 1950. Just over 2700 names surfaced, of which 1920 have publicly available birthdays.

Conclusion: Even though the distribution of mortality isn’t normal, 27 doesn’t stick out at all. The 45 Club is even more prolific and includes Freddie Mercury, Nat King Cole, Marvin Gaye, Ricky Nelson, and Vicky Sue Robinson.

But the six that died at 27 were all very well known… perhaps their fame offsets the low count:

The process: I used the size of each artist’s Wikipedia bio as a rough estimate of their popularity. It’s messy, but not entirely inaccurate.

Conclusion: The 27 Club starts looking pretty unique. But, by every definition of outlier and accounting for kurtosis risk, the tragedy is still not a statistically significant blip.

This, combined with the fact that many of these artists may now be more famous because they died young or at 27, implies The 27 Club may be little more confirmation bias of something we want to believe. Tragic in any case.

As a bonus, here are the biggest Wikipedia articles (used in the second chart about) of deceased pop music artists. Interestingly, six of the top 30 were 27:

Artist Date of Death Age at Death Size of Bio (bytes)
1 Michael Jackson June 25, 2009 50 678205
2 Larry Norman February 24, 2008 60 567654
3 Elvis Presley August 16, 1977 42 489759
4 George Harrison November 29, 2001 58 473953
5 Perry Como May 12, 2001 89 459965
6 John Lennon December 8, 1980 40 430026
7 Jimi Hendrix September 18, 1970 27 347781
8 Amy Winehouse July 23, 2011 27 340050
9 Frank Sinatra May 14, 1998 82 334649
10 Brian Jones July 3, 1969 27 274835
11 Freddie Mercury November 24, 1991 45 267406
12 Billy Preston June 6, 2006 59 261701
13 Linda McCartney April 17, 1998 56 242898
14 Marvin Gaye April 1, 1984 45 235208
15 James Brown December 25, 2006 73 235144
16 Nicky Hopkins September 6, 1994 50 233422
17 2Pac September 13, 1996 25 232234
18 Aaliyah August 25, 2001 22 228570
19 Jo Stafford July 16, 2008 90 221186
20 Dusty Springfield March 2, 1999 59 216142
21 Notorious B.I.G. March 9, 1997 24 213507
22 Johnny Cash September 12, 2003 73 212470
23 Kurt Cobain April 5, 1994 27 195379
24 Jim Jones November 18, 1978 47 190806
25 Ray Charles June 10, 2004 73 185208
26 Bing Crosby October 14, 1977 74 182754
27 Frankie Laine February 6, 2007 93 182509
28 Jim Morrison July 3, 1971 27 181778
29 Janis Joplin October 4, 1970 27 176099
30 Louis Armstrong July 6, 1971 71 174824

 

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