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Chasing Amy Winehouse: The Cult of the 27 Club and Why It's Good for Music

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This month will mark the first anniversary of the death of Amy Winehouse, a pop-music princess who accomplished that rare feat of achieving mass commercial appeal without sinking to the lowest common denominator. Sacrificing neither rawness nor honesty, the terminally troubled songstress managed to make waves in an overly pitch-corrected industry that denounces rawness and despises honesty. When she passed away of alcohol poisoning at the age of 27, she deprived the world of a truly gifted pop phenom. At the same time, Winehouse also gained entry into that infamous group of dead music icons known as the 27 Club.

The 27 Club, whose members are linked by both incurable self-destructiveness and the tender age at which they met their demise, includes some of rock's biggest names: Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain, among others. Robert Johnson, the pioneering bluesman who died under mysterious circumstances in 1938, is sometimes referenced as the club's founding member. By the summer of 1971, with Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison all having died of drug-related causes within 10 months of each other, the club was officially up and running. However, its notoriety remained mostly dormant until 1994, when latecomer Cobain committed suicide at the age of 27. By the time Winehouse earned her membership card, on July 23 of last year, mythology surrounding the 27 Club had already been well established. Books, movies, plays, and countless websites have all referenced the club in some way, shape, or form.

Of course, as any semi-coherent rock aficionado will tell you, the 27 Club is not a club at all. At best, it's an assortment of loosely connected dead people. Serious music fans, in fact, will typically balk at the mere mention of the club, and rightfully so. After all, this is the kind of prosaic folklore that reduces rock's greatest achievements to a smoldering pile of pop provincialism. But before you pass too harsh a judgment on those of us who find the cult of the 27 Club strangely intriguing, remember that the bowels of low culture have fashioned far more insipid guilty pleasures. (Case in point: someone, somewhere is watching Bethenny Ever After at this very moment.) What's more, our desire to derive meaning from the gruesome coincidences that unify this group of ill-fated music stars is not as misguided as you might think. In fact, it's rooted in a common psychological phenomenon known as apophenia, which is basically a fancy word to describe our tendency to look for meaningful information in random data.

Apophenia was originally associated with psychosis, but it has since become a blanket term for what is essentially a basic human need: the need to recognize patterns. The phenomenon is understandable, considering the evolutionary advantage it once provided. Throughout the eons, pattern recognition has allowed our species to make out the subtle differences between millions of human faces, thereby providing a distinct benefit to those intrepid hunter-gatherers who navigated prehistoric social networks. Given the intense pattern-recognizing proclivity built into our brains, it's not exactly surprising that the modern world is so jam-packed with coincidence-dependent concepts like the 27 Club -- to say nothing of astrology, conspiracy theories, organized religion, and the philosophy of PBS guru Wayne Dyer.

In other words, while the chronological age of a dead music icon may have no real objective significance, it still matters when a music star happens to die at 27 -- as Winehouse did nearly a year ago -- if only because we have such an innate desire to ascribe significance to such an event. Plus, let's be honest: a world with astrology, conspiracy theories, organized religion, and the 27 Club is just a more interesting world. You can believe in these constructs or not, but you can't deny that they spark some great debates at parties (while at the same time making us all feel justified for steering clear of Capricorns). The fact that Winehouse died at 27, as opposed to 28 or 29, means her legacy will always be held up against those that have written the narrative for modern music. Was she more energetic than Janis? More pioneering than Jimi? More influential than Kurt? If the answers to these questions seemed obvious at the time of her death, they are less so now that she has entered the conversation. The point is, as long as there are Internet comment threads, keg parties, and kids smoking weed behind the bleachers, the great rock 'n' roll debate will continue, and Amy will always be a part of it.

It would be easy to paint the 27 Club as a well-intentioned tool for the inconsolable -- a coping mechanism that helps grieving fans mourn the loss of cherished music personalities. But such a description would not only be a cop-out, it would do a disservice to the club members whose lives were so tragically cut short. Those of us who did not personally know Amy Winehouse did not grieve for her in the same way that her father, Mitch, grieved (and continues to grieve). Most of us heard the news of her death, felt bad, posted an "RIP Amy" status update on Facebook, and went about our daily routines. But while we may not have shed real tears for this troubled young woman who was taken too soon, we almost certainly thought about her music, her legacy, her place in rock 'n' roll history. And her age.