What does it mean when someone whose talent you admire is found guilty of a heinous crime? Earlier today, legendary record producer Phil Spector was found guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting of Lana Clarkson in 2003. When things like this happen, I struggle with if I can distance the person from their talent. For example, even though he was never convicted, I can’t listen to Michael Jackson’s music with the same unbridled pleasure as I did before the pedophilia charges.
More recently, I’ve had to rethink how I feel about Chris Brown after he was charged with assault and making felony threats in conjunction with his alleged beating of girlfriend Rihanna. Of course, he’s hardly had time to become the legend that Jackson and Spector are so deciding to cut Brown out of my life, should it come to that, basically means switching radio stations if one of his songs comes on.
For Spector and Jackson, it’s more complicated. I grew up with Jackson’s music and absolutely love it. Ultimately, for me his weirdness eclipsed his talent. That’s saying a lot since he is preternaturally talented. I marvel that he has sold out 50 arena shows in London starting in July because I can’t believe nearly a million people are willing to give him money. Rightly or wrongly, I feel that even the activities he’s admitted to with little kids cross an uncrossable line. When I was at Billboard, I decided that I couldn’t interview him if the opportunity came up. It didn’t and I don’t foresee it ever being a possibility in the future, but I couldn’t talk to him about music-as enjoyable an interview and as interesting a conversation as that may be-as if there wasn’t a huge elephant in the room.
Spector is a different case for a number of reasons, including that much of his greatest work was done before I was born and his career has been over for decades. His “Wall of Sound” has influenced virtually every artist and producer who came after it; those records are so glorious that they sound like little miracles coming out of the speakers with the music washing every trouble away. Unlike Jackson or Brown, Spector isn’t the face of the music he produced. There are millions of people who love “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” or “River Deep, Mountain High” and never associate them with Spector. But I wonder how I’ll feel next time I hear one of his songs?
There’s been a lot of back and forth about artists as role models. Have Chris Brown and Rihanna “let down” their fans? Brown by allegedly committing such an act and Rihanna for continuing to hang out with him. Leave that kind of debate to relatively innocent folly, like Michael Phelps taking a bong hit. Once you get into murder, domestic abuse and pedophilia, you’re pretty much out of the “role model” classification, as far as I can see. Plus, Spector, unlike Jackson and Brown, didn’t really have a fall from grace- he was always considered crazy, but his talent dwarfed his damage…until now.
Is it possible to separate the sin from the sinner? I don’t know.