Jessica Simpson was doomed to embody the dumb blonde archetype with these immortal words from her early 2000s Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica show: “Is this chicken, what I have, or is this fish? I know it’s tuna, but it says chicken by the sea.” To the bemused merriment of millions, the ersatz pop singer and burgeoning reality TV star was a kooky dumdum who parlayed her Farrah Fawcett-like beauty into an improbable celebrity. Curled up on an off-white couch and swaddled in a blanket, the impossibly photogenic singer couldn’t help but have the incident become her defining moment.
The show itself was an MTV celebrity program that chronicled the life and career of Simpson and her then-husband, Nick Lachey (singer with boyband 98 Degrees). For three seasons, cameras followed Simpson as her profile grew considerably due to the show’s popularity. It would do what her records failed to do: make her a household name.
As a marketing tool and a way to reignite a stalled career, Newlyweds was a stroke of genius. After all, MTV has already rejuvenated a dimming celebrity with another hit reality show, 2002’s wildly successful The Osbournes. It centered on Black Sabbath legend Ozzy Osbourne and his family, eventually making stars out of Osbourne’s wife (Sharon) and kids (Jack and Kelly). The Osbournes was one of the biggest hits for MTV, as it saw the networking abandoning its original format of showing music videos in favor of presenting gaudy reality shows and contests.
Although The Real World was a pioneering hit for the genre a decade prior, The Osbournes created a new genre—the celebrity reality show. The format was pretty straightforward: find a celebrity whose profile has dimmed considerably, rope in their family, and follow these people around with a camera. Inevitably, all kinds of hilarity would ensue.
With Newlyweds, Simpson and Lachey came off as a very appealing couple, their charm lying in the fact that they were relatable despite their celebrity and wealth. Unfortunately, when the show first started, the pair didn’t instantly graduate to superstar status. Therefore, the life they depicted was superficially brushed by fame and fortune, but not so overwhelming that it felt alienating or impossible. As culture critic Nathan Rabin astutely pointed out in his review of Paula Abdul’s brief sojourn into reality TV, “Hey Paula is covertly about that horrible in-between space between being really, really rich and famous . . . and being unbelievably mega-super rich and famous.”
Simpson and Lachey were seemingly destined for has-been status, which could explain why they agreed to sign up to do a show like Newlyweds in the first place. The resultant program highlighted a life of wealth and privilege, but not the kind of ultra-glammy lifestyle that we would see from Madonna or Mariah Carey. Newlyweds zeroed in on what it meant to be famous in 2003 but not be household names.
More specifically, it emphasized what it meant to be figuring out how to stay famous in 2003 when your primary source of fame (in their case, pop music) was no longer providing you with superstardom. The couple became accessible because they were quite normal rather than particularly witty or remarkable. Sure, the two went on nice holidays, but they padded around in a McMansion, and their entourage was primarily made up of relatives. They weren’t really living a “baller” lifestyle.
The show’s 2003 premiere coincided with the release of Simpson’s third studio LP, In This Skin, which landed in the top 10 on the Billboard charts but only managed to sell about half a million copies. Still, it was enough to go gold. Unfortunately, the first single, “Sweetest Sin”, was released a month earlier and didn’t do much on the radio. Thus, the album was on its way to becoming a middling disappointment in line with the sleepy sales of her 2001 sophomore album, Irresistible.
In contrast, her debut album, 1999’s Sweet Kisses, sold over four million copies worldwide and featured the top ten hit, “I Wanna Love You Forever”. Though never a major commercial giant, Simpson had forged a solid career as a teen pop singer in the wake of the tremendous successes of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. She started out riding the teen-pop wave of the late 1990s (which Lachey also benefitted from).
But that early promise seemed to have dissipated into a “just fine” career and a seeming inevitable destination into B-listdom. Luckily, Newlyweds changed that, making Simpson into a superstar. The folks at her label cannily re-released In This Skin with some extra tracks (including her cover of Robbie Williams’ “Angels”), and it went on to sell over five million copies worldwide, spawning a handful of top 20 hits.
Of course, reality TV fame is fleeting, and both Newlyweds and Simpson’s marriage to Lachey ended around the same time. In 2006, in an attempt to establish herself as a recording artist first (and celebrity second), she enlisted the help of some major pop producers to create a shiny new album that would help her emerge from the hokey trappings of reality television. It was an important moment for the singer because she presented a project to a public largely unaware of her singing. More than any LP in her discography, A Public Affair is a very carefully and at times cynically plotted album that worked overtime to reestablish Simpson’s persona as removed from the stigma of reality television.
A significant part of her public persona that needed shedding was the dumb blonde image. Though gregarious and good-natured, the archetype was also limiting and damaging, particularly because those close to Simpson said she was far from a dumb blonde. (Her wildly successful forays into billion-dollar entrepreneurship should attest to that.) It also limited the interest in her work outside of making a jolly joke of herself, and therefore A Public Affair had a lot of baggage that ultimately would sink the album.
A pop album cannot thrive in the context of great angst or strain, especially the kind of airy pop that Simpson was making. Unlike her peers, she wasn’t moving into harder, more esoteric club or queer culture. Though possessing a strong and powerful voice, Simpson always seemed a step behind Britney Spears. The latter—despite her vocal limitations—managed to assemble an oeuvre of some fantastic dance records, mainly because she and her army of songwriters and producers would look to club culture when churning out her pop hits. (This blueprint was swiped handily from the great one herself, Madonna.) Even though A Public Affair seemed to tick all the pop boxes of 2006, it just missed its intended goal of making Simpson a legitimate recording artist.
That’s a real shame because when one isolates some of the album’s better moments, there is the promise for a solid, summery pop record that could have had legs. For instance, despite being highly derivative, the LP’s hit track title is a joyous roller-disco number. Produced by pop maestro Lester Mendez, the song doesn’t even try to deny its place as a total rip-off of Madonna’s “Holiday”. It also shamelessly cribs Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, but honestly, so what? It’s highly diverting and fun, and Simpson sounds like she’s enjoying the hell out of singing the song.
Despite Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis’ presence on the album, the Janet Jackson knock-off “If You Were Mine” is an uncanny homage to Jackson’s classic “When I Think of You” (which was helmed by Sam Watters, Louis Biancaniello, and Greg Kurstin instead of the legendary Minneapolis duo). Plus, Simpson’s obsession with ’80s pop reaches its peak with an inoffensive cover of Dead or Alive’s biggest hit, “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)”. Is her version as good as the original? Nope, as she lacks Pete Burns’ flamboyant vocals and campy persona. Instead, she sings it as a straightforward dance-pop song. That said, these unoriginal moments work fine because they merely reinforce the impression that Simpson is just like one of us—so just like us that she listens to ’80s pop music and sings along with it.
When Jam & Lewis show up on A Public Affair, they steer away from their usual groundbreaking synth-pop funk work and instead flirt a bit with Simpson’s vaguely country tones. (Naturally, she would embrace country-pop with her next studio effort, 2008’s Do You Know.) As expected, the songs are lush and nicely produced, such as with the goofy country-funk of “Push Your Tush”, a gaudy exception. They work with their client’s main strength: pretty, unaffected vocals. On the enhanced edition, we also get Simpson’s hit cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’”, which is silly and corny but works even if it shouldn’t.
The album’s other single, “I Belong to Me”, was written by ridiculously prolific songwriter Diane Warren (who’s responsible for some of the grandest and most showboating pop ballads of the 1990s). Here, Simpson channels her inner Celine Dion, purring and emoting over the glossy R&B-lite production (courtesy of urban-pop outfit Stargate). Interestingly enough, the requisite glass-shattering high note that accompanies most Warren compositions doesn’t happen. As the song contently shuffles, we get the sense that there will be a bridge, a crescendo, or something else that would necessitate Simpson’s giant vocal belt, but it doesn’t happen. Instead, she remains relatively subdued and restrained.
A Public Affair did okay on the charts, eventually going gold, but it essentially ended Simpson’s pop music career. She indulged in her country aspirations by getting a Faith Hill-esque musical makeover with 2008’s Do You Know, but that one did even worse than A Public Affair. A second Christmas record followed a couple of years later—on an indie label—but at this point in her career, she was no longer intent on nurturing her music career since her work as a professional celebrity and pop entrepreneur took over. Instead, her legacy is tied up in the pop culture’s veneration of beautiful blonde pop songbirds, even though her reality TV persona overtook and overshadowed her music career.
Instead of being recognized as a singer, she’s far better known as a tabloid fixture. In retrospect, her vast and pioneering success as a reality TV personality defined her career. She operated as a template for reality TV mainstays like Heidi Montag, Kim Zolciak, Tamar Braxton, and Kim Kardashian. As a result, she became an avatar for white-privileged American life within a genre beginning to dominate television. Today, the reality TV celebrity is ubiquitous, and it has taken on movie star proportions. Still, back in 2003, when television was going through seismic shifts in trends and programming, there wasn’t really a model for the reality TV celebrity.
Simpson had the unfortunate notoriety of ranking beneath Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera as a lower-rung blonde bombshell teen pop queen. She fought in a crowded field of Spears wannabes that included Willa Ford and Mandy Moore. Like Mamie Van Doren to Spears’ Marilyn Monroe, Simpson was forever overshadowed. As a result, she was underrated. What Newlyweds did was allow Simpson to recreate herself and rejuvenate her career.
Sadly, that new career also meant that her music would be forever lost in the loud cacophony of her newly acquired fame, this time as a personality versus a recording artist. When she tried to shift gears once her reality show ended, it became apparent that the public much preferred Simpson as a TV personality than as a pop singer. Because so much of the edited and curated Newlyweds sold the premise of Simpson as the ditz with questionable talent, it permeated her public persona, even spilling over to her non-reality TV-related projects.
The public version of Jessica Simpson in 2021 is very different from the public version that released A Public Affair 15 years ago. Today, Simpson has earned gravitas and plaudits for her bracing candor about coming of age as a young woman in the public eye (complete with personal struggles with addiction, as well as her sharp business acumen). She has successfully moved away from the jokey, dumb blonde persona, yet, consequentially, she has also moved away from her pop star past. In 2020, Simpson released her memoir, Open Book. To accompany her tome, she also released the Open Book EP that contained six new songs. The last LP she released, however, was Happy Christmas back in 2010.
It appears as if she’s publicly come to some peace about having peaked as a pop singer, and A Public Affair would prove to be the fitting end to that chapter in her career.