We’re All Alright?
Phil Harvey Spector, “Heathens”, and the Horror of Pop
The year my brother Richard discovered rock and roll, his Christmas gifts shared a theme: one uncle bought him a giant red Visual Dictionary of Rock and Roll; another bought him a set of AC/DC boxers. At the time a wide-eyed ten-year-old, I watched my brother the way he watched videos of Hendrix wailing out “The Star-Spangled Banner” in ’69: with reverence and a burning desire to imitate. Since the boxers weren’t exactly accessible, I turned instead to the dictionary, seeking a chance to learn what Richard loved. The book read like a guide to the constellations; each star named occupied his or her proper place in the firmament of rock music.
On the back of the book, written in glossy white type, read a quote from U2’s frontman Bono: “Pop music tells you everything is OK. Rock music tells you everything is not OK, but you can change it.” Bono’s words were an exclamation point at the end of the book’s thesis, that rock and roll was objectively the smartest, most human genre out there. Ten-year-old me swallowed the dictionary like gospel truth.
I hadn’t thought of Bono’s words or the dictionary for years when, a few days ago, upon the realization that the only food I had in my pantry was a box of pasta and a butternut squash, I drove to the grocery store, pop radio puttering in the background. As I daydreamed of Trader Joes’ dark chocolate peanut butter cups, Twenty One Pilots’ song “Heathens” came on, calling me to attention. I’d heard the song before, but I hadn’t noticed its lyrics: “You’re loving on the psychopath sitting next to you/You’re loving on the murderer sitting next to you/You’ll think, how’d I get here sitting next to you?” Far from claiming that everything was OK, Tyler Joseph, the duo’s lead singer, doesn’t even offer a chance for things to change. Instead, “Heathens,” currently sitting pretty at number two on the Billboard Hot 100, declares the not-OK-ness of things as fact.
If what audiences of pop music want, as Bono’s words imply, is an invitation to escape into a better, brighter, bubblegum-pink reality, how did a song called “Heathens” make it to the top of the charts at all? Certainly, the song’s position on the soundtrack for August’s box office record-breaker, Suicide Squad, has not hurt the duo in breaking a few records themselves lately. The week of September 3 saw Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun join Elvis and the Beatles in the rare pantheon of music artists who have had two songs at the same time in the Billboard’s Top Five. But “Heathens”’ success, in my view, has more to it than blockbuster affiliation.
We love “Heathens” for the same reason we love The Shining, Stephen King, even Netflix’s latest wunderkind, Stranger Things: because there is nothing more thrilling than the skin-crawling realization that a monster may be lurking close at hand, “sitting next to you.” Even more thrilling, more compelling, is what Twenty One Pilots invites their audience to consider when they sing, “it looks like you might be one of us.” The thrill of it all, the horror that the song asks us to face, is the monster inside.
One has to look no further than the godfather of pop music production for “Heathens” to ring true. Philip Harvey Spector, born in the Bronx in 1939 to a first-generation immigrant Jewish family, was an innovative record producer whose self-styled “Wagnerian” approach to music production saw the invention of the “Wall of Sound”. Instead of relying on a standard four- or five-piece band to carry the weight of his songs, Spector layered guitar over guitar, drum over drum, to create a rich sonic experience that melded the instrumentation into one grandiose sound. If the bricks of his Wall were standard rock instruments stacked on top of each other, his mortar of choice were the orchestral instruments he employed, the woodwinds and the brass.
Starting in the late 50s, Spector’s operatic sound swept the pop world. With “To Know Him is to Love Him,” his band The Teddy Bears claimed the seventh ever number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100, in December of ’58. Girl groups became his specialty; under his direction, acts like The Crystals and The Ronettes enjoyed great success, with singles like “And Then He Kissed Me” and “Baby, I Love You,” respectively. Spector’s list of collaborators — Ike & Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, even the Beatles — reads like a mini Hall of Fame. His influence is still palpable; as recently as 2004, 46 years after his first hit single, Rolling Stone placed Spector on their list of the “Greatest Artists of All Time,” and in 2008, the Washington Times named him the second greatest record producer of all time. Amy Winehouse was often known to sample “To Know Him is to Love Him,” and countless bands, pop and otherwise, produced today are much indebted to Spector’s pioneering soundscape style — MS MR, The Japanese House, even Bon Iver, to name a few.
Yet, in the midst of all his creative fervor, despite (or perhaps because of) his wild success, a monster lurked inside of Spector. On February 3, 2003, Lana Clarkson, an actress and model, was found dead in Spector’s mansion, shot in the mouth, her teeth scattered across the floor. In 2009, after two years of legal proceedings, Spector was sentenced to 19 years to life in prison, and is currently 12 years away from eligibility for parole, his name now followed by one more definition: murderer.
In retrospect, the monster in Spector didn’t appear entirely out of nowhere; like any horror story, there were clues all along, waiting. Multiple rumors purport Spector’s propensity for pulling guns on people, specifically the artists he worked with in the 70s and 80s. Again, the list reads like a Hall of Fame: John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Debbie Harry (of Blondie), The Ramones, and his wife at the time, Ronnie Spector. Though some of these instances are in dispute — Marky Ramone claims that all Spector did was carry the gun with him into recording sessions — Spector by all accounts lived close to the edge of destruction for years before he took Clarkson’s life, and with it, his own. And yet Spector’s story still takes us aback, still thrills us — how can someone so creative, so innovative, be capable of such destruction?
Pop music today has embraced the thin line that Spector, one of its first pioneers, tread for so long, the line between creation and destruction. Check the Billboard Hot 100 for evidence: Mike Posner’s lonely “I Took a Pill in Ibiza,” The Weeknd’s “Prisoner” (a collaboration with the queen of self-destruction, Lana Del Rey), and another Suicide Squad track, “Sucker for Pain,” by Lil Wayne, et al., all stand with “Heathens” in proclaiming that everything’s not just OK. Even the Chainsmokers’ hit, “Closer,” where Halsey literally sings that she’s “okay,” colors her claim with a drinking problem. And the charts aren’t the only place to go to see pop music’s embrace of humanity’s dark side; tabloids and Twitter feuds reveal as much about the celebrities they feature as they do about their audiences’ (myself included) desire to eat it all up.
Perhaps at the time Bono claimed pop music’s basic thesis is the OK-ness of everything, he was right. The music Spector himself produced often portrayed the world as sun-dappled and rarefied. But pop music today refuses to be so simple, so easy. Chalk it up to post-modern angst or a culture long-jaded to the psychedelic optimism of the sixties, but pop music today doesn’t shy away from the darkness inside. Instead, pop has embraced the uniquely human, age-old tension between light and dark, our hope for good and the horror of what we might do if we, like Spector, snap.