On Wednesday, Ashlee Simpson's Autobiography tour ends in Dallas and, coincidentally, so will her career. For many Americans, the end will be welcome. But for the thousands of people gullible enough to fall for her (including me), the farewell is bittersweet. Let me explain.
According to common wisdom, Ashlee's career began thanks to a season-long infomercial on MTV for her debut album. Sure, eight weeks of nonstop promotion could sell even a Weird Al record, but it isn't enough to give a career legs. Just ask P. Diddy and his flop of a group, Da Band. Instead, something far more calculated developed beneath the radar. Crafted by Ashlee--and, more important, her father and many handlers--it was so genius not even her lack of talent could ruin it: They created an "Ashlee versus Jessica" pop world.
In its namesake star, The Ashlee Simpson Show already had a cute, charismatic protagonist--attractive and privileged by all means--but MTV made the ingenious decision to cast her as an underdog. She started as a blond-haired bubblegum princess, like fellow teen mini-mogul Hilary Duff, but episode after episode she convinced viewers she wanted to piss all over the cutesy routine. Punk outfits, hair dyed black and fights with label reps showed a little sister stepping out of Jessica's shadow and fighting the machine. Her show was the exact opposite of Newlyweds--a rebellious, by-the-bootstraps yin to Jessica's ditzy, got-it-made yang, and kids everywhere fell for it.
For a while, so did I. Yeah, I know there are smarter, more interesting female musicians out there, but for an unemployed, unattached man in his early 20s, Ashlee's TV persona was the perfect mix of vulnerability and, well, hotness. In the series' first weeks, I mentioned my crush, with great reluctance, to a male friend.
"Thank God!" he said. "I thought I was the only one!"
But Ashlee wasn't just an attractive girl. Otherwise, America could've ignored her in favor of the next Maxim. Her charismatic, even charming struggle to put out her debut album convinced us she was a rebel. She wanted to change the face of pop music.
Of course, in the back of my mind, I knew Ashlee's show and CD were anything but revelatory. The bigwigs handed the girl a record deal on a silver platter, and Autobiography is nothing more than a Wal-Mart version of Hole's Celebrity Skin. Throughout Ashlee's first season, vocal trouble dogged her, and most concert footage was dubbed with Pro-Tools versions of her songs. All signs pointed to trouble, but no matter. The con was on, and Autobiography went platinum.
In October, Ashlee had her famous live-TV meltdown on Saturday Night Live, made worse by lying her ass off in following weeks. After blaming her band for "playing the wrong song" (which I assume is industry slang for "wrong button on the tape deck"), she dredged up the idiotic acid reflux excuse. Hey, Axl Rose canceled concerts for less.
Things only got worse when she turned off the backing tape. Ashlee's Rose Bowl appearance in January resulted in the worst singing a major stadium has seen since Roseanne Barr's "Star Spangled Banner." So how come it took another three months to declare the end of her career?
Because Ashlee was still young America's default choice for "national nonconformist," and such failures only reinforced her status. While tens of thousands flocked to Internet sites like stopashlee.com, filled with protests begging Geffen to end Ashlee's contract and banish her for life, kids kept spinning her CD and waiting for her TV show's second season, in which she'd finally answer her critics. Once again, the underdog would have a battle--this time against the press, the football fans and the angry Internet geeks. Once again, she'd come out a huge winner, right?
Well, not really. The show waited three episodes to confront the SNL gaffe. So for two weeks, curious fans got to watch Ashlee aimlessly wander around, move into a new house, hang out with friends and enjoy her fame. The SNL aftermath was glossed over (and giggled about) so quickly you could've missed her Irish jig if you'd blinked.
And that's when her career really began to unravel. Her core audience saw (amazingly, for the first time) that Ashlee Simpson was a fraud. "Wait a second," the kids said. "Where's the tough response? Where's our anti-Jessica?" Their nonconformist was gone, replaced by a scared and fame-hungry 20-year-old who could no longer be fixed with editing and engaging story arcs. Sophomore slumps are a bitch for anyone, but it's much worse on reality TV.
And so, on Wednesday, the remaining fans will flock to Nokia Theatre to watch Ashlee fight her tone-deafness one last time. Afterward, she'll take a break to either record a new CD or hang out and giggle with more friends in L.A. By the time she returns, her fans will have moved on, finally realizing she was never much of a rebel to begin with. Hey, her life will go on: She's still attractive; she's still marketable. But her career as America's favorite little-sibling rebel, fueled by illusion and fantasy bought by her teenage fans (and a few gullible 20-something writers), is over. Ashlee, we bid you farewell.
Kind of puts a lump in my throat. Oh, wait. It's just puke reflux.
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