A GOOD deal of derision greeted the BBC News website headline (fairly swiftly amended) that initially declared: “Talented but flawed producer Phil Spector dies aged 81”.

Plenty of people claimed that this was a bit like saying, “Talented but flawed doctor Harold Shipman”. One sees their point. Shooting someone in the head – which is what Spector did to the actress Lana Clarkson in 2003, for which he was convicted and sentenced to 19 years to life in 2009 – isn’t a minor “flaw”. Given that Spector was still in jail for this brutal crime when he died, it’s easy to think that “Murderer and former record producer” would have been a better way round of framing the description.

Yet when the drug-addled novelist William Burroughs died in 1997, nobody complained that the description “author of The Naked Lunch” received more attention than the fact that, in 1951, he had killed his wife by shooting her in the head. And one need have no sympathy for Spector – by all accounts a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work, with a record of threatening and brutal behaviour, particularly towards women – to think that there would be a problem with any headline trying to sum him up.

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“Talented”, for example, is a ridiculous understatement of Spector’s importance as a record producer, according to most assessments of popular music. Even if you don’t rate catchy chart songs as high art, there is very little dispute about the fact that Spector was a titan of that form, or about the impact that his “wall of sound” had on pop.

Obituaries, about which I know a bit, are not eulogies: getting one is not a posthumous compliment. Good ones mention the failings of the subject, if they were significant. But they tend not to feature those famous only because of a crime: Idi Amin, murderer though he was, got covered because of his political role. By contrast, Dennis Nilsen’s crimes were his only notable feature.


What we now know about his behaviour towards his ex-wife, the singer Ronnie Spector, might have led – as, in fact, it has – to questions about whether his bullying in the studio was justified by the results he achieved. There has in fact also been (quite rightly) some reappraisal of whether his reputation unfairly overshadowed the talent of those with whom he worked.

But none of that would have altered the fact that the story would have centred on Spector as a giant of the music industry, and his role in creating some of the greatest popular records of the second half of the 20th century.

We don’t expect artists and celebrities necessarily to be pleasant people. Indeed, there’s overwhelming evidence that we put up with them being appalling people far too readily.

Because of a new biography of her, there were articles over the weekend about what a ghastly person the crime novelist Patricia Highsmith was. There was a recent, rather shamefaced apology on behalf of her fellow writer and fellow anti-semite, Roald Dahl, from his estate. These revelations may make us think badly of them as people, but on the whole they don’t affect our view of their work.

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In his essay Benefit of Clergy, George Orwell, who disapproved of both Salvador Dalí personally and his “repellent and diseased” work, grappled with whether such moral judgments invalidate the status of the art produced, and on the whole concluded that they don’t. The prevailing attitude today is, by and large, the other way around: “cancel culture” tends to take the view that there is something unclean about work produced by those who have been found guilty of anything they regard as a crime.

In the case of Spector, or Gary Glitter, or Ike Turner, or Oscar Pistorius, those are actual and serious crimes. (Though he wasn’t convicted, most people would put OJ Simpson in the same bracket.) In other cases, it is the crime of being politically unsound: a lot of people seem keen to ruin the careers of JK Rowling and Laurence Fox.

It’s an inconsistent form of cancellation, though, even if you ignore the tiresome axe-grinding directed at celebrities who have made the mistake of being Tories, or Blairites, or boomers, or in some other way completely unacceptable.

If one looks only at cases where there are real offences and real harm, we seem still to be applying our condemnation selectively. That selectivity seems not so much to do with the gravity of the offence but, in most cases, the quality of the work produced by the culprit.

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You probably can’t remember the last time anybody played a record by the sex offenders Gary Glitter or Jonathan King on the radio. No great loss, since we can all happily live without Leader of the Gang and Everyone’s Gone to the Moon. In the case of Jimmy Savile, we don’t even need to erase his work, since it’s impossible to imagine why anyone ever valued it, or even work out quite what it was.

But despite plenty of evidence of Michael Jackson’s proclivities, you still quite often hear his records. One can only conclude that the chief difference is that his stuff is too good to get rid of.

Divorcing the failing of an artist from the merits of his or her work was, previously, the normal practice. The painter Caravaggio and the composer Gesualdo were both murderers; the playwright Christopher Marlowe may only have committed manslaughter. It never seems to have occurred to anyone that this undermined the quality of their work.

But there are signs this is changing, especially in connection with the #MeToo movement. The actor Kevin Spacey is one of the few instances I can think of where someone genuinely great seems to have been painted out of existence, rather than temporarily dropped; whether a similar fate lies in store for, say, Johnny Depp, who has been asked to stand down from at least one role may provide some indication about the strength of this tendency.

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