[13 May 2008]
Consider loving to hate as the new U.S. national pastime. It’s not a stretch. Scan the front page of any newspaper or magazine’s features, the nightly news’ lead story, or your favorite news blog’s latest rant. Chances are they’re reporting on something they disdain (e.g. murder, incest, hypocrisy, Hillary Clinton, Jeremiah Wright) and they keep doing so over and over because we’ll consume it over and over. These, however, are generally noteworthy stories of substance and social value that have always warranted scrutiny and attention.
But in this new millennium our love to hate is exponential. The endless reel of disdainful public personas and embarrassingly revealing details of cocky, unraveling, unworthy, or just plain ugly celebrities titillates us. Our demand for objects to hate is insatiable and because of it we’ve indirectly launched the burgeoning careers of Perez Hilton, Gawker, and countless other gossip mills. Writer Chuck Palahniuk sums up these desires best: “When we don’t know who to hate, we hate ourselves.” And there’s too much fodder than to resort to that.
In the world of celebreality pop music there is perhaps no more significant target than one, Ms. Ashlee Simpson. Daughter of Joe, sister of Jessica, Ashlee’s existence was conceived and established in the public realm (she didn’t really exist before reality television, despite recognizable ballet talent and enrollment at the School of American Ballet at age 11.) So when her endowed celebrity spawned a major record deal and a singing career we were eager to pounce at her stardom’s obvious fabrication. We have proof! We TiVo’d it! And when that career produced its first platinum album, 2004’s Autobiography—her second, I Am Me, would come late in 2005—we weren’t discouraged. She wasn’t as pretty or curvaceous as her likable ditsy sister and couldn’t compete with her vocally (two octave alto range). She had equally despicable boyfriends and her self-described “quirkiness” never charmed us.
And then she dropped the bomb: episode 568 of Saturday Night Live. In her infamous second performance her drummer accidentally cued the wrong vocal guide track, a song she had already performed, causing her to hoe down instead of sing. Many would have preferred a deer in headlights look saying, “You’ve caught me. The game is up.”
Simpson unabashedly defended herself and the acid-reflux that necessitated the vocal aid, but the haters reveled in the situation’s resonating Schadenfreude. Her poorly received Orange Bowl performance added fuel to the fire and PetitionOnline.com’s petition for Ms. Simpson to quit producing music became one of its most active. The public couldn’t of been happier.
But in fall 2006, at age 21, Ms. Simpson was as resilient as she was saccharine. Determined not to be dismissed as just another lip-syncing punch line like Milli Vanillli, she played the demanding role of Roxie Hart in the West End’s production of Chicago to rave reviews. She also decided to challenge herself by working with new producers—by new, she means the most in demand hitmakers that she knew, “wouldn’t let me sound stupid”: in other words Timbaland and Chad Hugo of The Neptunes. The result is her new album, Bittersweet World, which aims to extend her defiant streak, but falls somewhat short.
The album is arranged almost like a female pop music buffet: there’s a bit of everything but no distinct focus or flavor. The best tracks are the lead single “Outta My Head (Ay Ya Ya)”, which is the designated Gwen Stefani shout-pop-rock track, and “Boys”, the clubby Kylie Minogue track, as produced by Timbaland and Chad Hugo respectively. The latter has the most effective hook on the album and over the bubbling synth pop beat—that sounds like distorted accordions—Simpson has a sweet vocal command, though with obvious effects-help.
Though Simpson has carried herself brazenly through her young career, she’s more permeable than she seems. On “Outta My Head”, “What I’ve Become”, and “No Time for Tears” she addresses the haters and preaches the Golden Rule but then goes on to talk some trash on “Rule Breaker”, shouting “Better keep ya mouth shut / If you want ya teeth.” It’s not as threatening when you also sing, “I just wanna color outside the lines.”
“Ragdoll” is Simpson’s (and Timbaland’s) take on electro-dance-rock, and is thus the album’s Madonna track. It has the second catchiest hook and finds Simpson in a comfortable median between a viscous singing voice and the shout pop of the other tracks. Not to ignore the falling Princess of Pop, “Hot Stuff” is the Britney Spears track. Simpson’s serpentine vocals, elongated vowels, and breathy club taunts make it a direct descendant of “Toxic”, as does the overall minor tone.
The final ballad “Never Dream Alone” is a somber departure from the otherwise party tone. A touching song, Simpson’s voice is breathy and evanescent in the style that producers insist drips with emotion. After glowing reviews as Roxie Hart its a shame Simpson doesn’t deliver a similarly spectacular sound.
Predictably, adhering to the tacit rules of pop (succinctness, all star production, glossy sound and packaging with twist of street styling) has not produced any surprises but has instead cemented her position in the realm. However, the appeal of her club tracks may deter some who love to hate.