Ashlee Simpson, as Joan Jett once said, doesn’t give a damn about her bad reputation. In fact, if her performance last month at the sold-out Event Center in San Jose, Calif., was any indication, the 20-year-old singer is reveling in the fact that she’s become music’s most reviled star. Why else would she suddenly crib notes from rock ’n’ roll’s other black sheep, Courtney Love, by covering Hole’s “Celebrity Skin” on her first headlining tour?
“Oh, make me over/I’m all I wanna be/A walking study/In demonology,” Simpson sang, her voice a dead ringer for Love’s rasping, emotionally ravaged howl, snapping back at the haters who’ve derided, dismissed and demonized her as an untalented teen-pop puppet since her infamous performance on Saturday Night Live in October. “You all know I had a rough year and I’m OK with that,” she said unapologetically after the song. “I know I’ll never be perfect — and I don’t have to be.”
Of course, to say that Simpson’s had a rough year would be putting it lightly.
After her Geffen debut, Autobiography, entered the charts at No. 1 last summer — with help from MTV’s wildly successful Ashlee Simpson Show — the raven-headed singer was set up like a bowling pin. The particularly brutal public knockdown started when she got caught using a backing track to bolster her vocals on SNL. Her booed halftime performance at the Orange Bowl in January only fueled her critics’ ire: Thanks to relentless (and easy) ridicule from the media as well as Web sites and groups like StopAshlee.com and HOPE (aka Horrified Observers of Pedestrian Entertainment), Simpson quickly became pop culture’s biggest punch line since William Hung.
Despite Simpson’s public torment, however, the little girls — as they so often do with pop music — understand. At the San Jose show, hordes of preteens showed their support by donning T-shirts with homemade slogans like “Lip Synching Is Hot” and pogoing their brains out to propulsive, fist-pumping songs like “Surrender” and “LaLa.” Clearly, no matter how people try to shame Simpson, her fans don’t think she should apologize for anything.
Because, really, why should she?
After all, the lip-synching snafu didn’t expose Simpson as a fraud; rather, it highlighted the double standards that often taint the perception of women in music. Where was the outrage when Eminem used a backing track — a common practice in all genres of music — on SNL just one week after Simpson? Why is Simpson ridiculed for her technically imperfect but wholly expressive voice while Conor Oberst and Jack White are applauded for theirs? How come Simpson is dismissed as a rock poser while Justin Timberlake gets props for his forays into R&B?
If anything, the SNL controversy illustrated that when an artist doesn’t fit people’s notions of “real” — and the aforementioned hypocrisies play vital roles in determining such notions — then she better get ready for the backlash. Because, let’s face it, the only people upset by Simpson’s backing-track mishap are those who’d never like a performer like Simpson to begin with. Surely the thousands of fans attending her shows aren’t lying awake at night, mulling over issues of authenticity.
Indeed, by not wasting their tweeny years obsessing over the boring politics of Simpson’s prefab persona, they can fully appreciate Autobiography for the grunge-pop masterpiece it is. Throughout the album, which essentially updates Hole’s Celebrity Skin for the TRL generation, Simpson sounds desperately alive as she rails at her exes and picks at her wounds with a compelling, Love-like audacity. Post-SNL, the songs only got heavier: It’s practically impossible not to read real life into, say, “Love Makes the World Go Round” and the title track, where she hollers,“You think you know me? … What others tell you won’t be true,” as if bravely fending off all the hate directed at her.
Which is exactly why Simpson deserves to take some pride in her reputation: Because she may not be America’s sweetheart, but she’s all she wants to be.
Thursday, March 24, at the Fox Theatre (2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-471-6616) with Pepper’s Ghost and the Click Five. Jimmy Draper is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]