Don’t trust that meme: Prince’s death at 57 was no music industry average

After the tragic and untimely death of Prince, an internet meme took flight claiming that the singer died ‘at the average age of death for American pop stars’. This is not really true and, insofar as it contains a germ of truth, it is not useful.

The origin of the claim can be traced back to an article from 2014 in which an Australian professor of psychology and music compared the ages at which pop stars died in each decade from 1950 onwards and compared them to the average age of death of the general population. As the graph below shows, there is a big gap, albeit one that has been closing over time.

graph

There is a fundamental problem with this methodology which renders the results meaningless. Pop stars usually start their careers at a young age and pop music didn’t exist until the 1950s. The oldest of the bunch was arguably Bill Haley who rocked around the clock in 1955 at the grand old age of 30. He was born in 1925, a year before Chuck Berry, seven years before Little Richard and ten years before Elvis Presley.

Haley died in 1981 at the age of 55 and Elvis died four years earlier at the age of 42, but Chuck Berry and Little Richard are still rocking at the age of 89 and 83 respectively. We won’t know what the life expectancy of a 1950s pop star is until they are all dead and it will be many years before we know the average age of death of a 1960s, 1970s or 1980s pop star.

You can take any decade and compare the age at which pop stars die and compare it to that of the general population, but it doesn’t tell you anything meaningful. The general population can be born at any time whereas no pop star was born before 1925. It is quite possible that a pop star will live until the age of 100 but it is a mathematical impossibility for them to have already done so.

It appears that the definition of pop music used in the 2014 article is broader than mere rock and roll because the average age of a pop star’s death in the 1950s is shown as a little over 50 years. Presumably, then, we are including practitioners of ragtime, big band and other forms of music who were born as early as the 19th century. But whatever genre we look at, the point still holds. The sheer number of pop stars has risen exponentially in the last 50 years. All the punk rockers, rappers and grunge artists who have passed away have died relatively young, but this could hardly be otherwise given how recently these genres were created. It will be a long time before geriatric boy bands pass away and we begin to see the full picture.

There is, then, a basic sampling bias at work which guarantees that the group being studied will have a lower life expectancy than the general population. There are lots of reasons why drug-taking rockers and gun-toting rappers are more likely to die young, and it would be silly to pretend that there is no difference in life expectancy, but this is not the way to measure it.

A better way would be to compare people who were born in the same year, but you could only do that once they were all dead. Prince was born in 1958 and died at the age of 57. Barring an outbreak of bubonic plague or an unusually methodical serial killer, it is most unlikely that the average age of death for musicians born in 1958 will turn out to be 57. Other pop stars born in 1958 include Ice-T, Madonna, Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Neil Finn (Crowded House), Nikki Sixx (Motley Crue), Toyah, Simon Le Bon, Joan Jett, Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden), Nik Kershaw, Belinda Carlisle, Paul Weller, Bill Berry (REM), Mark King (Level 42), Michael Jackson and Andy Gibb (Bee Gees). Of these, only Jackson and Gibb are not still with us. In fact, nearly all of the celebrities born in 1958 are still alive.

Sadly, Prince did not have a good innings even by the standards of the music industry.


  • chrissnowdon

    I should add that there is another bias that would have the opposite pull to that described above. You have to live to a certain age before you can be a pop star whereas the general population can die at any time. Pop stars cannot die at the age of one, for example, but the general population can. This is known as Immortal Time Bias.