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What Is Behind Our Culture's Morbid Obsession With Dead Musicians?

Films like <i>Amy</i>, <i>Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck</i> and now <em>Janis: Little Girl Blue</em> have reignited our fascination. But why?

With the recent crop of 27 club documentaries- Amy Berg’s Janis: Little Girl Blue, Asif Kapadia’s Amy, and Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck— a strong yet morbid fascination with this group of musicians has resurfaced. Infamous within popular folklore, the club consists of famous artists who all died at the age of 27, mostly due to drug and alcohol abuse. Many conspiracy theories exists- did the illuminati kill them all? Or maybe it was the FBI? Apart from this mostly frivolous tabloid rumors, the group holds a major place in public intrigue. The most recent inductee was songstress Amy Winehouse, who passed away in 2011.

The public’s newly renewed fascination with the club is curious, and raises a few questions- why now? And, more importantly, why are we so fascinated with the 27 club in the first place?

The most obvious point is the groundbreaking nature of the artists. For example, the three musicians mentioned above were all musical revolutionaries in their own way. Janis Joplin, first as the frontwoman of Big Brother and the Holding Company, and later the Kozmic Blues Band, was the first prominent female figure in rock and roll. She is largely credited with paving the way for women in the genre, as well as rejecting gender roles with her boisterous personality and wild performances. Kurt Cobain, lead singer and guitarist of Nirvana, was grunge’s first star. He was the epicenter of the movement, and his band was the first to introduce the new genre to mainstream America. Most recently, Amy Winehouse revolutionized autobiographical songwriting and brought jazz and soul back into the musical mainstream. Far from conforming to our typical idea of a celebrity, they questioned societal boundaries, whether it be gender roles or the very meaning of what a celebrity should be. These legacies would undoubtedly still be intact if the artists were still alive today; but would we be as interested in them?

The archetype of the “tortured genius” is almost as old as music itself. Ever since Van Gogh’s removed his own ear, the self-destructive creative has become a point of public intrigue.This is most blatantly seen through substance abuse. The glamorization of drugs in popular culture is no secret- maybe seeing these stars living “on the edge” is fascinating to us because it is exactly what we can’t do. As we live in the sometimes monotonous world of predictability, witnessing someone in potentially lethal positions offers a thrilling sense of catharsis.

No matter how deep into conspiracy theories you are, the myth and legend surrounding the deaths themselves are inevitably fascinating. Beyond our innate curiosity about the other side, questionable circumstances surround the passings of many of the members- most recently, Kurt Cobain, but many others as well. As Chuck Klosterman frequently states, “Dying is the coolest thing a musician can do.” Their untimely deaths are another point of intrigue: because they didn’t live to see a thirtieth birthday, they can (obviously) no longer communicate with those still consuming their art. This leads to listeners projecting their own ideas or their own turmoil onto the stars, hoisting them up onto pedestals. Their musical works instantly become profound to us, solidifying their place in pop culture legend.

Our current media culture seems to be a kind of voyeurism- an intense interest in seeing what goes on behind closed doors, or seeing someone commit a private act in the public sphere. Because of ever-present reality television, we’ve normalized being able to watch every part of a celebrity’s life, no matter how personal or private. Does our interest in the 27 club say more about us than it does the musicians within it? The recent popularity of these (admittedly stunning) documentaries is an attempt at dissolving the public’s guilt for the pleasure taken in observing the artists’ downfall. They function as an ode of respect the artists were not given in waking life, demystifying their legend- they show not the wild, turbulent public lives the audience thinks was their reality, but the kind, creative people they actually were.