The Spector at the feast: The media's coverage of Phil Spector’s death is the latest example of abusive, murdering men getting an easy ride
Remember that murderer who ran very fast? Or the sexual assaulter with the 'haunted' castle? The media can always make excuses for monstrous men.
Read to the end for a newsletter recommendation
Murderer and serial abuser of women Phil Spector died yesterday. He was 81. He also made some music once.
Long before Spector murdered the actress Lana Clarkson he had a long history of abusing and exploiting women. In particular, he subjected his ex-wife Ronnie Spector to a sustained campaign of psychological and physical torment for years.
Phil Spector surrounded the house with barbed wire and guard dogs, confiscated Ronnie’s shoes to prevent her from leaving and forced her to have a lifesize dummy of him beside her when she was allowed to go out driving alone. He frequently pulled a gun on her — behaviour he repeated in the studio with various bands — and threatened to kill her if she refused to surrender custody of their children.
When they divorced in 1974, Ronnie forfeited her future royalties, strong-armed into it by Spector who threatened to have her assassinated if she didn’t. She got $25,000, monthly alimony of $2,500 for five years, and… a used car.
Spector’s cruelty was as dramatic as it was despicable. On one occasion he installed a gold coffin with a glass top in the basement. He showed it to Ronnie and promised her that if she ever left, he would kill her and display her corpse in the casket.
Phil Spector is dead. Ronnie Spector at 77, prevails.
But for media organisations reporting Phil Spector’s death, his legacy as a music producer knocked his crimes into second place — they made Lana Clarkson, killed at just 40, a speed bump.
Framing the story for Twitter, BBC News wrote: “Phil Spector — the music producer who transformed pop music with his ‘wall of sound’ — dies aged 81 while serving a sentence for murder.” When a person commits murder, that should be the top line of their obituary.
I’m not a fool; of course, I can see the genius and majesty of Be My Baby, a song so transcendent that Brian Wilson got his engineer to turn the chorus into a tape loop as he desperately tried to understand how it worked, but every note written or produced by Spector pales in comparison to the abuse and, ultimately, murder he perpetrated.
Rolling Stone’s ‘take’ was even more egregious. Using a picture of Spector in his sixties pomp, they spoke of “enduring songs whose legacy was marred by a murder conviction.” Lana Clarkson legacy was ended by Spector.
Phil Spector, the monumentally influential music producer whose “Wall of Sound” style revolutionized the way rock music was recorded in the early 1960s, died Saturday at the age of 81. Spector’s life was tumultuous and ultimately tragic; as groundbreaking as his studio accomplishments were, those achievements were all but overshadowed by his 2009 conviction for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson.
It’s worth repeating that Lana Clarkson was just 40 when she died. An actress who had worked in film — she had small parts in Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Scarface, as well as more substantial roles in a series of films for Roger Corman — as well as commercials and TV, Clarkson was working on a standup act when she was murdered. We don’t know what her legacy could have been because she was allowed the chance to have 41 more years to build one as Phil Spector got.
If Spector’s life was tragic — and I don’t believe that’s remotely the right word — it was a tragedy he authored. He was an abuser for years. He waved guns in people’s faces for years, exerting his power over women and anyone else he believed was not as important as him. His accomplishments — the songs and albums that endure — were collaborative; his crimes were committed by him alone.
Where Rolling Stone’s obituary deigns to discuss his abuse of Ronnie, it frames things as a he said/she said situation, writing that Ronnie “depicted” Phil as “an abusive husband prone to eccentric if not outright insane behaviour” as if there aren’t many, many other witnesses to what he did or a woman who didn’t live to tell her story. At least they include Ronnie Spector’s own words from a 2016 interview:
“He took singing away from me and it was devastating because I had no idea that I would never record. I had no idea I would never perform again, which was my life. I was in shock with that because here’s a person who wrote your records and produced them… And then you’re never gonna sing again… I never knew ‘What goes around, comes around,’ until he went to prison. Then I knew what it meant. Because I was in prison in the mansion and I couldn’t even get out. For seven years, I didn’t go anywhere.”
Later in the piece, Rolling Stone introduces its brief discussion of the murder of Lana Clarkson by segueing from talking about lawsuits over royalties to say, “But the superproducer’s most-lifechanging legal battle was yet to come.” It was rather more ‘lifechanging’ for Lana Clarkson.
The Daily Mail reported it as “Phil Spector dead at 81: Jailed Wall of Sound producer dies of COVID” — Clarkson, the woman he killed relegated to a side issue. One of its Arts critics, Christopher Stevens, offers up a piece about how monstrous Spector was, but not before a headline that foregrounds his ‘genius’ and ‘iconic’ status. His opening line reads, “Phil Spector created the greatest pop music ever recorded.”
NME and Billboard did marginally better with ‘Phil Spector: genius producer and convicted murderer with a toxic legacy’ and ‘Phil Spector, Music Producer and Convicted Murderer, Dies at 81’ respectively.
You could see Spector as an isolated case; after all, he was enormously famous before he committed his most grotesque crime. But the media often foregrounds men’s successes even when they have been found guilty of murder, especially the murder of women. It is misogyny running through coverage like a message in a piece of particularly malevolent Brighton Rock.
In October last year, the BBC pulled the trailer for a documentary on Oscar Pistorious, the murderer who also used to run very fast, because it failed to name Reeva Steenkamp, the woman he killed. Just last week, The Daily Mail published a double-page spread about the ‘curse’ of Glamis Castle, framing the conviction of the current Earl, Simon Bowes-Lyon, for sexually assaulting a woman in that light. Men don’t have to be famous or rich to get that treatment either. There are numerous examples of newspaper reports that describe a “devoted family man” before talking about how he murdered his wife and children.
What the excuse-making and myth-burnishing illustrates is that the newspapers and wider media value these men more than the women they abuse and kill. Phil Spector made the greatest Christmas album of all time so the whole murder thing is mildly inconvenient. “Can’t we love the art while criticising the artist?”, they cry. Yes, you can but we might wonder why you’re so desperate to adore the art of out and out monsters when there is so much out there that wasn’t made by murderers and abusers.
Phil Spector was a murderer and abuser. Everything else is just trivia.
Like this ‘letter? Try this one…
Tufayel Ahmed is a great journalist and I wholeheartedly support his much-needed campaign to #DiversifyTheNewsroom. In the latest edition of his newsletter, he writes about being ganged up on by White colleagues in the newsroom:
In a newsroom I once worked in, I was constantly harangued by my all-White colleagues. Subordinates, disgruntled that—shock—they would be managed and edited in a newsroom(?), gleefully seized and complained to management about innocuous mistakes (God forbid I once brain-farted and called the wrong person home secretary in passing, not even in copy), made what should have been simple interactions tense and hostile, and sought any opportunity to undermine or denigrate me, including “leaking” what was essentially a flimsy story about me to an industry publication. In the vaunted history of journalists holding people to account, Woodward and Bernstein they were not…