Mr. Personality

A personality expert talks character and destiny.

Why do All Rock Stars Die at 27?

Sex, drugs -- death -- and rock.

Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Cobain, Howell, and now Winehouse -- it seems that the only way to make it really big in rock and roll is to die at the age of 27, especially now that rock and roll is dead anyway. So was this Amy's last attempt to live like a rock star in the post-rock X-factor/America's got talent era of wash down steriliased elevator pop? I don't know what Amy died of, but at least poetically, one is tempted to suggest that she could not cope with the lack of creative depth of the music industry (which is apparently dead, too) and, perhaps above all, the lack of talent of her contemporaries. But what made her totally different from her contemporaries was that she really was a troubled soul fighting the inner demons of creativity, as opposed to an ephemeral brand at the disposal of twitter and OK! magazine. There was always a different layer of depth to Amy, one not found in Rihanna, Adele, or Lady Gaga -- that layer is called authenticity, and Amy paid a high price for being authentic (the others are just original, but originality is a lot healthier than authenticity because your life is not at stake).

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Anyway, back to the original question. I will not pretend to provide a scientific answer but science is about identifying patterns first and explaining them next. So, how can we explain this pattern of famous rock stars living just until they are 27? Are there any salient life events in adult development that could conflict with the needs or goals of talented artists, especially in rock and roll? Can we draw any parallels in the biographies of these music icons, and can personality theory help us understand these unusual events?

Psychopathology tells us that all forms of mental illness are characterised by disruptive symptoms: uncontrollable, anxiety-evoking, annoying patterns of thought, behaviour or affect that impair our capacity to love and work (this is true from Freud to the latest version of the DSM). That is why addictions -- which are covered extensively by other, more knowledgeable bloggers here -- are included in psychopathology manuals. To be addicted to something is to damage your interpersonal relations and career aspirations, whatever that "addiction" may be (psychological, physical, legal, illegal, etc). We know that Hendrix, Howell, Cobain, Joplin, and Winehouse -- as well as 90% of rock stars up to the 90s, but probably just 30% of rock stars after the 00s - all had problems with drugs, and that they had even bigger problems when they stopped taking them. Amy was seemingly clean now, but drinking a lot. Like the others, Amy was self-medicating and was probably manic-depressive. As most of you will know, bipolar disorder is the "preferred" diagnosis of eminent artists or exceptionally creative people.

Personality theory tells us that our personality does not change very much after the age of 30; but that there are some general developmental changes in most people's personality, even after that age. As we grow older, we become more emotionally stable, more conscientious, more agreeable, and less open to new experiences. So, it seems, then, that getting old is a major threat to our creative enterprises, especially if you are a rock star. Most people become more conforming, more adjusted, more boring, less creative. The battle that the Hendrixs, Winehouses, or Morrisons of this world may have faught - through their personality and art - was, on one hand, a battle against society (they were rebellious souls who wanted to inject some freedom and change into a world they disliked, despite being incredibly successful in the eyes of others and by most objective criteria for success); on the other hand they may have been battling against their own self-transformation. In fact, in becoming successful, they may have become a victim of the very system they were attempting to change. The realisation that they were being "consumed" by others -- a bit as if the Che Guevara had lived sufficiently long to see all those middle-class and rich kids wearing his t-shirts (D&G of course) -- may have been too much to take.

Now Amy will become an even bigger brand, and even an icon. However, it is hard to imagine that she would have cared about this. This is what makes Amy different from most of her contemporary celebrities, who seem likely to fake, and even cause, their own death, just in order to be more famous. I think Andy Warhol killed rock and roll when he invented Pop -- Amy was an anachronistic rock child; her talent was the main cause of her success but also of her downfall. In an era of creative mediocrity (think David Guetta or the Black Eye Peas), her public and the media seem to forgive her everything and turned her into a brand despite her unacceptable behaviour. They left her with no escape; not in this world. And this is what the other "27" rock stars have in common with her: they failed because they were too successful.

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Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D., is a Professor of Business Psychology at UCL and NYU. He studies online dating, entrepreneurship, and consumer preferences. more...

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