Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica

Jessica Simpson’s ears are itchy. At least, she thinks they are. Isn’t that what you say when you think that someone is talking about you?

“No honey, you mean ‘burning,'” husband Nick Lachey corrects, in what has now become a standard exchange between the recently married couple. “If your ears itch, that means you have a rash. If they’re burning, that means that someone is talking about you.”

Despite her confusion over semantics, Jessica has every reason to feel as though she is on the proverbial tip of the nation’s tongue. Since its August 19th premiere, her reality television show, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, has drawn an average of 2.4 million viewers a week, the majority of which fall within the highly coveted 12-to-34-year-old age bracket. That’s a feat that even Bravo’s surprise summer hit Queer Eye for the Straight Guy can’t match.

Originally conceived as a teenybopper version of The Osbournes — MTV’s debut foray into the dysfunctional lives of famous families — Newlyweds chronicles B-level pop stars Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey’s first year of marriage. At first glance, the show appears to be nothing more than a virtual press release: Nick and Jessica were both scheduled to drop make-’em-or-break-’em albums during the show’s brief first season, and Lachey’s first single, “This I Swear,” buffers commercial breaks. Sneak peeks at upcoming videos and confrontations with “the label” sometimes make Nick and Jessica feel more like an episode of Behind the Music than a “realistic” portrayal of a young couple’s first year of marriage.

But, like Jessica’s mysterious ear rash, her show has quickly developed a life of its own. Despite the dubious motives behind its conception, Newlyweds has become required viewing for pop culture aficionados across America, and Simpson the current poster child for the stereotypical dumb blonde. Be honest: who hasn’t read at least one reference to Jessica’s confusion over her lunch? (In an early episode, the pop star perplexes for a moment over the bowl she’s eating from, before asking her husband: “Is this tuna, what I have, or is this fish? I know it’s tuna, but it says, ‘Chicken of the Sea.'”)

But is the show’s success really so surprising? After all, the title characters were first introduced to the world via pop music — a paradoxical genre that bestows coolness only upon those who reject it. To admit to even recreational listening, never mind enjoyment of, Nick and Jessica’s (or, let’s face it, Britney or Mandy’s) music is tantamount to social suicide — which may account for Newlyweds‘ popularity. It’s okay to watch, as long as you mock. And it’s nearly impossible not to, as Nick and Jessica squabble over the mundane details of daily life. At once, the show confirms both the audience’s darkest and most self-righteous fears: celebrities really do have more money than God. And, in general, you are smarter, and more deserving, than most of them.

Logic dictates that Nick and Jessica’s careers might suffer from the negative press their televised union has attracted. Not so. MTV has just announced that Newlyweds will return for a second season in 2004 (although the hook remains to be seen, since the couple will no longer be newly married.) Simpson’s third CD, In This Skin — released just after the show’s premiere — debuted at No. 10 on Billboard’s Top 200 Album List. The only apparent wrinkle comes from Universal, which has decided to push the release of Soulo, Lachey’s first album since breaking with boy band 98 Degrees, back until mid-November, presumably to distance it from the show’s hoopla.

Universal’s decision may be cogent one. Although Simpson’s album debuted higher than expected, weekly sales have not been able to keep In This Skin among even Billboard’s Top 50. And while it’s unlikely that Simpson’s ratings plummet is strongly related to her portrayal on Newlyweds — neither Nick or Jessica ever rode the crest of the pop music tidal wave, even when the country was at its most hospitable to the genre — Lachey’s label appears to be taking no chances. Still, if there is a connection between Jessica’s perceived dizziness and her album’s downward spiral, Nick is likely to fair better, as he does on the show itself. Quite literally portrayed as Jessica’s better half, Nick is frequently quoted as being on a quest to help his much-younger bride (he’s almost 30, she just turned 23) with her transition from adolescence to adulthood. On screen, Nick’s patience and self-awareness, coupled with his strong work ethic, position him as a more serious artist. That can only help his burgeoning solo career.

The real losers here are teenage girls — the target market for Nick and Jessica’s recordings — who now have a living visual of their idols that goes beyond the static images in teenybopper fan magazines. Newlyweds hardly promotes progressive gender politics: through editing, Jessica is depicted as lazy, spoiled, and whiny. No doubt, she is all of these things, as most of us are, at some points in our lives. But here her actions are presented as the norm of female behavior — and by consuming her music, young fans unwittingly align themselves with her MTV caricature. It’s unlikely that the show will result in record increased sales for either Jessica or her husband — it just exposes an established, much maligned, fan base (female pop fans) to even more sanctioned public ridicule.

And at least part of the audience’s reaction to Jessica’s on-screen persona is based on gross misogyny. We know from Tiger Beat and Teen People that Jessica remained a virgin until she was married; in fact, her abstinence was probably more famous than her music. More than one (male) viewer believes that Nick might have chosen another bride if Jessica hadn’t waited four years to put out. And I’m sure just as many have wondered if the couple’s sex life is enjoyable enough for Nick to put up with her complaining and naiveté. It’s a question that is practically posed by the cameras, as edits vacillate between the piles of Jessica’s dirty clothes and her giggles while upstairs in their bedroom.

But what can you expect from a genre, and a network, that is so heavily invested in maintaining strict gender roles? Two entire episodes of Newlyweds are devoted to Jessica’s jealousy as her new husband auditions sexy dancers, attends parties at the Playboy mansion, and acts as a judge for a stripping competition at a local bar. Her reaction is presented as hyperbole — why should a young wife care if her husband’s daily activities frequently put him in contact with scantily clad women? After all, boys will be boys. But when it comes time to shoot her video for “The Sweetest Sin,” (a thinly veiled reference to sex) it is her husband, and not a nameless bunch of hunky young men, who portray the object of Jessica’s affection.

Undoubtedly, Newlyweds will continue to titillate as the series goes into its second season. And Ms. Simpson’s ears will likely continue to itch.