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Phil Spector and the damaging myth of male creative genius

Phil Spector in 2008, during a hearing in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
(Nick Ut / Associated Press)

To know him was to loathe him.

At least that’s the impression you get from heeding the accounts of many of those who worked with Phil Spector, the legendary record producer who died Saturday at age 81 while serving a prison sentence for murdering actress Lana Clarkson in 2003.

His conviction for that crime solidified Spector’s reputation as a monster. But for years before that, artists in his orbit — Darlene Love, Leonard Cohen, the Ramones and especially his ex-wife, Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes — spoke of his abuse and his manipulations; others simply hated what he did to their music, including Paul McCartney, who famously re-released the Beatles’ “Let It Be” minus Spector’s trademark embellishments.

And yet, McCartney’s scorn aside, Spector is widely — and rightly — regarded as one of the most consequential figures in pop history: a sonic visionary whose so-called wall of sound greatly expanded the dramatic scope of the three-minute love song.

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Phil Spector flanked by Tina Turner and Ahmet Ertegun at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Awards in NYC, January 1989.
(Ron Galella/WireImage.com)

In a hitmaking career that stretched from the late 1950s, when he scored his first No. 1 with the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” to the early 1990s, when his classic singles got the lavish boxed-set treatment, Spector pushed the emotion in his music further than anybody else had thought possible, piling on voices and instruments in songs like the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” and the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” in an attempt to capture the exquisite agony of young romance.

That he succeeded is obvious to anyone whose pulse quickens upon hearing the iconic drumbeat that opens “Be My Baby.” What do those four thwacks call to mind? Some photo you’ve seen of a bunch of session musicians crammed into Hollywood’s cramped Gold Star Studios — or, even now, your own first brush with love?

Listen hard to Spector’s stuff, though — to the trembling strings, the yelping vocals, the multiple guitars jabbing at an unscratchable itch — and you also hear fear. Spector, who supposedly titled “To Know Him Is to Love Him” after the epitaph on his father’s gravestone, would likely have attributed this to his “Wagnerian” approach; these were tragic-ecstatic love songs that consciously embraced the awful certainty that nothing good ever lasts.

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But what if the terror in Spector’s music — like “violence covered in sugar and candy,” Bruce Springsteen once described it, years after adopting the wall of sound for his own “Born to Run” — was really just documentation of the way he bullied his musicians?

Our reluctance to think of Spector’s music as a kind of torture porn gets at the problem with the moral leeway we allow when we anoint artistic geniuses. The abuse, when it occurs, becomes inseparable from the art; indeed, the art serves to redeem the abuse, often even among the abused.

“He hit me, and it felt like a kiss,” the Crystals sang in a now-infamous single that Spector produced in 1962, and the simile applies beyond the narrator’s toxic relationship: It’s not that she (or we) can’t see what’s going on; it’s that she’s convinced herself that it’s acceptable, and so have we.

Spector came up in an era, of course, when audiences were eager to sweep horrifying behavior, particularly by men, under the rug of creative accomplishment. And things have no doubt changed since then. It was fascinating to watch over the weekend as news organizations grappled with how to frame Spector’s complicated life in headlines and tweets.

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Rolling Stone was criticized on Twitter for saying that Spector’s legacy “was marred by a murder conviction,” while the New York Times tweaked the first line of its obituary, which initially said the producer’s “life was upended” by his prison sentence, after readers objected to language that centered his experience at the expense of the woman he killed. (The Los Angeles Times was no exception — the paper deleted a breaking-news tweet that made no reference to Spector’s conviction.)

But if we’ve gotten better at identifying wrongdoing committed from a position of privilege, it’s hardly the case that we’ve learned to avoid building up that privilege for artists who go on to hurt others — or, more sympathetically, themselves — as a result of it. In Spector’s day, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, who’s called “Be My Baby” the greatest song of all time, crumpled under the weight of being regarded as a genius; half a century later, we’re arguably watching the same thing happen to Kanye West.

When we tell someone, over and over, that their talent sets them so far apart from the rest of us, can we be surprised when they start to act like they believe it?


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