Isn’t it tragic when a bit of murder mars a man’s career? Rolling Stone certainly seems to think so. “Phil Spector, the famed ‘wall of sound’ producer and architect of some of pop music’s most enduring songs, whose legacy was marred by a murder conviction, has died …” it tweeted on Sunday.
As news of Spector’s death from coronavirus complications broke, Rolling Stone wasn’t alone in seemingly prioritising the producer’s legacy over the life of Lana Clarkson, the 40-year-old woman he was convicted of shooting dead in 2003. The BBC, for example, initially tweeted: “Talented but flawed Producer Phil Spector dies aged 81.” (It then deleted the tweet.) Flawed? Are you kidding? Being messy is a flaw; being a murderer is something else entirely.
Still, at least the BBC mentioned Spector’s fatal “flaw”. CNN tweeted: “Grammy-winning music producer Phil Spector dies of natural causes,” before deleting and revising the headline. Reuters’ tweet mentioned Spector’s murder conviction, but made it seem like an inconvenient afterthought: “Influential rock producer Phil Spector, who changed pop music and was convicted of killing actress Lana Clarkson, died at the age of 81.”
Tweets and headlines don’t lend themselves to nuance; even with the best intentions, they can easily sound flippant or facile. However, the examples above aren’t just illustrations of poor phrasing. They’re a reflection of how a man’s “genius” is often viewed as more important than a woman’s humanity. Numerous studies show that the idea of genius is gendered; one 2015 study found 90% of Americans believe geniuses tend to be men. And male genius is romanticised, used to excuse all manner of bad behaviour. We don’t hold geniuses to the same standards we hold mere mortals. They’re always “complicated” or “tortured”; they’re never just “bad”.
I’m not disputing Spector’s work had an important impact on pop culture. However, the question we should all be asking ourselves is what part of his legacy matters most: the music or the murder? Does his career matter more than the life, and ambitions, he cut short? Perhaps we should use Spector’s death as an opportunity to inspect our own biases.
• Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist