Joining the 27 Club

The Death of Amy Winehouse: Why Do Artists Die Young?

It is a story as old as any: a creative genius laid low by the fruits of their own talent. More than anyone else, the death of Amy Winehouse, an undeniable musical talent who reinvigorated a genre and won fame perhaps far earlier than she should have, has been compared to that of Kurt Cobain. Maybe because their recognizable species of all-consuming, hopelessly artistic personalities seem to be growing more and more rare in these materialistic days.

Like Winehouse, Cobain was a groundbreaking musician with a wholly original sound that inspired legions of fans and hordes of imitators. Also like Winehouse, he struggled with depression and substance abuse, in his case heroine addiction. His death by suicide, shocking as it was, was greeted with the same sense of acceptance and inevitability as Winehouse’s (her most famous song, Rehab, becoming one of the most unfortunately perfect of coincidences). It was Kurt Cobain who famously opined “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Of course, many artists have done both. But those who burn out in so spectacular a fashion seem to offer a message additional to that which they might have expressed in their works. If only we knew what it was.

Early death seems an undeniable risk for the artist, and something of a posthumous point of pride, tangible proof that they were in fact The Real Thing. Their end, whose prelude was likely painfully and scrupulously documented by the media and gossip circles, supplies the public with plenty to learn from and talk about.

The list goes on and on. The child genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who wrote his first symphony at age 5, succumbed to illness at 35, in part because he had pushed himself too hard while composing one of his darkest and most celebrated pieces, his funeral Requiem. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin were all cut down in their prime by the ‘60’s culture of reckless drug use and hedonism that their very art celebrated. Heath Ledger gave himself completely to an unluckily unhealthy acting role that ended up subsuming his true personality. Tupac Shakur became perhaps the most famous victim of a musical genre’s dangerous undercurrents, within which he was far from a passive participator. His music constantly anticipated his own death, and though there may be many different opinions on the positive or negative aspects of Tupac’s influence on hip hop, there is no denying that his life, and his death, could serve as a lesson, if a cautionary one.

Despite their endless differences and diversities, everyone in the illustrious 27 (and-Under-and-Over) Club has one thing in common: they sacrificed their lives to their art. In some cases, by executing a death that was somehow so perfect and fitting that it might as well have been described in their very lyrics, they left behind an even greater gift for those who survived them: their lives themselves became works of art, and ones which the rest of us just can’t stop poring over.

Maybe if they’d gotten out sooner, given up their passions and set art aside, they would have more likely lived to tell the tale. Take Artur Rimbaud, the 19th Century French poet, enfant terrible and the original literary badass. His adolescent to early twenties life was as tumultuous and chaotic as those his poetry would seem to describe, chock full of drugs, sordid affairs, notoriously public scandals, and every imaginable kind of reckless self-endangerment. Indeed, had he not given up writing at the age of 21, it seems quite possible that he wouldn’t have made it much longer than that. But instead, he set the pen aside, and fled his native France for Africa, where he reportedly spent the next 15 to 16 years as a gunrunner, slave trader, and farmer, among many other things. Any writing he may have done in that time period has not survived. But at least he himself did (though, if by giving up writing he was attempting to silence the ceaseless commentary and speculation, he clearly failed miserably).

Relative to the concept of a “good death,” perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to say that artists who go out in this manner die what could quite possibly be the best of deaths. Tragic though they may seem, if only at the thought of how much more these geniuses might have accomplished, these people have shown the rest of us that they have lived their life on their own terms, and that, to them, death is less awful than an unsatisfactory life. Sad as Amy Winehouse’s passing was, it was ultimately hers to make. Rest in peace.

[This article originally appeared on SevenPonds, and may not be reproduced without permission. Thank you.]

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