University of Sydney researcher Dianna Theadora Kenny recently wrote an article titled “Music to die for: how genre affects popular musicians’ life expectancy,” about her research into early mortality and causes of death among popular US musicians by genre, complete with head-banging charts.*
The first chart, according to Kenny, “plots genres over time (oldest to youngest genres), showing the average age of death of popular musicians by genre and gender against life expectancy (LE) for US males and females born in the same year.” (The chart subtitle says “genre and sex” not “genre and gender,” but women mysteriously disappear from the analysis anyway, as we’ll see with the second chart.)
At first glance, it seems like newer genres of music actually increase average life expectancy for everyone except the musicians themselves, for whom the genres have the opposite effect. I’m not sure whether you need to listen to these genres or whether the very existence of, say, rap and hip hop automatically extend your lifespan. I’m also a little uncomfortable with the idea that most of us are basically musical vampires draining the life out of musicians to extend our own.
Fortunately, after rereading the article and the comments, I discovered that the life expectancy lines aren’t flat, as we might expect, because they represent the life expectancy of a person born in the average year of birth for each genre. So we’re not vampires (at least, not according to this chart). The increase in life expectancy we see from left to right on this chart simply reflects the progression of time represented by the genres, although not by actual units of time. I think you have to play the chart backwards to get that information.
Clear labels would have helped make this chart a little more comprehensible, but ultimately, a line chart is simply the wrong instrument for what she’s trying to express. It implies meaning in the left to right progression of the lines when her point is to make individual comparisons within each genre, the life expectancy of the musicians versus that of the general population. Her data are a series of solos that the line chart treats as harmonies in the same song. The results are predictably cacophonous.
Even with a bar chart, however, the comparison with generic life expectancy doesn’t really tell us much. The life expectancy data are not age adjusted, which would have helped minimize things like infant mortality rates that affect the average life expectancy of the general population but aren’t relevant to what we might expect from popular musicians who are not actually infants.
More specific comparisons to relevant subsets of the population would have been more useful in examining whether musical genre is correlated in any substantial way with early mortality, much less whether it affects life expectancy, as the article title claims. Comparing the musicians to those with similar socioeconomic backgrounds, for example, would be more meaningful, as would comparing musicians to those in the same genre who were popular but who stopped performing (at all or at the same rate).
Ultimately, though, the biggest flaw with the comparison among genres is that the popular musicians in newer genres are going to be younger overall, so any deaths in this group are going to be deaths at a relatively young age simply because the bulk of the population is still young. Kenny notes this in her article, but she doesn’t believe this fully explains the differences among genres in age of death. She then goes on to present a section on causes of death, which seems to suggest that these are additional explanations for the early mortality in newer genres. She provides this chart, which apparently (from the text that follows) focuses only on men, although she doesn’t explain why.
In this chart, musicians in the newer genres are much more likely to die from unnatural causes: accidents, suicide, and homicide. But again, if you are looking at deaths among a young population, you’re not going to find as many deaths by natural causes, so the deaths you find are likely to be by unnatural causes. No genre-specific speculation needed.
If, for example, we compared the cause of death among people who played with the original metal-tipped lawn jarts when they were kids and people who played with My Little Pony toys when they were kids, we would no doubt find a higher number of deaths from unnatural causes among the latter because much of that population would be too young to have died from natural causes. Are My Little Pony dolls more dangerous than lawn jarts? Do they affect life expectancy? (OK, so Applejack probably does. I’ll grant that. But Pinkie Pie? Twilight Sparkle?).
I hate to think of the tragedy that lies ahead for Brony rap metal musicians.
Finally, if you look at the table, you can see how the stats might change based on where the researcher decides to place a particular musician. How many of the metal musicians who committed suicide could have been categorized under rock just as validly? And what do you do with the artists who work in multiple genres or the fusions? Where do the country folk artists go? The jazz blues musicians? The electronic hip hop? Rap metal? Pop rock? If genres are themselves so fluid and difficult to pin down, how is it possible to pin down a correlation of any significance between a genre and mortality?
I actually don’t think it’s far fetched that popular musicians might be at higher risk of death by unnatural causes, especially those who are touring a lot and exposed to an endless stream of drugs and alcohol. The bands, other musicians, and roadies on a tour might experience similar risks. Kenny mentions a study that found adverse childhood experiences to be a common factor in mortality among famous pop and rock musicians, which I think points to the ultimate issue here. Of all the many factors in a musician’s background and experiences that could play a role in early mortality, music genre seems to be one of the least likely suspects, and this research seems to support that more than anything.
On the other hand, maybe the surgeon general really should put a cancer warning on accordions.
*Anthemic air guitar solo to @Samuel_Erkison for bringing this article to my attention.