Before the Media Tore Her to Pieces, Ashlee Simpson Made a Great Pop Album
Detail from the cover of Ashlee Simpson's debut album, Autobiography, released July 2004
If you were conscious of music in the early ’00s and found yourself in the vicinity of a radio, you heard Ashlee Simpson over and over and over again. The singer’s breakout hit, 2004’s “Pieces of Me,” was practically unavoidable during its multiweek domination of the charts.
As a pop song, “Pieces of Me” is impossibly perfect. It also defies convention, somewhat. In his book 31 Songs, author Nick Hornby, citing Dave Eggers, suggests that we listen to songs repeatedly in an unconscious effort to unpack their secrets. The puzzling structure of “Pieces of Me” is its ultimate hook: The song’s most recognizable segment (“On a Monday, I am waiting …”) resides in the verse, and each subsequent section — there are technically two pre-choruses — builds in sonic mass until all instrumentation abruptly recedes, save drums, a gently arpeggiated electric guitar and Simpson’s vocals.
This structure makes “Pieces of Me” feel like an urgent ascent to a catharsis that never properly arrives. When Simpson finally gets to the song’s refrain (“All the pieces, pieces, pieces of me”), her band seemingly evaporates and her vocals shed their multitracked luster, hinting at a genuine vulnerability beneath the song's saccharine and synthetic surface.
Now, of course, hardly anyone remembers "Pieces of Me." Instead, what most people remember about Ashlee Simpson's brief burst of pop stardom is a lip-synching disaster that occurred on Saturday Night Live, during the promo junket for her debut album, Autobiography, for which “Pieces of Me” was the lead single. Simpson was set to perform the album’s title track for her second song on the episode, but prerecorded vocals from “Pieces of Me” were mistakenly played instead — an event that supposedly unveiled Simpson as a manufactured, pop-star-of-the-week fraud.
Joe Simpson, the artist’s father and manager at the time, attempted damage control, alleging that the decision to have Simpson lip-synch was made to protect her singing voice, which had been under strain due to acid reflux. But it was too late; the incident confirmed the media bias that Ashlee Simpson was completely prefabricated and merely riding the coattails of older sister Jessica’s success.
Some of those criticisms are at least partially valid. Simpson’s meteoric rise to fame was, undoubtedly, attributable to her family name and the VIP access that came with it (Autobiography was, in many ways, the soundtrack to MTV’s The Ashlee Simpson Show, a reality-TV aperture into the budding celebrity’s more-than-semi-charmed life, which chronicled the development of her career). But the blunter dismissals of Autobiography are an insult to Simpson’s artistic autonomy (much like blunt dismissals of The Monkees’ work are an insult to theirs). Simpson is listed as a co-writer on all 12 of Autobiography’s tracks, which would seem to prove that she was more than just a puppet being manipulated by a cabal of industry silhouettes.
Of course, vanity songwriting credits are common in pop songwriting ("Change a word, get a third" is an industry inside joke), but the lyrics on Autobiography seem too clumsy and too specific to Simpson to be wholly inauthentic. In the album’s title track — which is reminiscent of a Pinkerton-era Weezer song, particularly in the pre-chorus — she sings lines lifted straight out of the e-pages of a tween’s LiveJournal: “Got stains on my T-shirt and I’m the biggest flirt/Right now I’m solo but that will be changing eventually/Got bruises on my heart and sometimes I get dark/If you want my autobiography, baby just ask me.” “Shadow” alludes to the Simpson sisters’ muted rivalry: “She was beautiful/She had everything and more/And my escape was hiding out and running for the door.” While the bulk of “Shadow” feels mostly like “outcast” attitudinizing, Simpson displays uncharacteristic maturity toward the end of the song, acknowledging that her familial spats are inconsequential and inherently juvenile: “Mother, sister, father, sister, mother/Everything’s cool now/Oh, my life is good/I’ve got more than anyone should.”
An especially negative review of Autobiography published by Slant in 2004 declared that Simpson "spits — or dribbles, to be more accurate — lyrics like ‘Sometimes I get dark’ and ‘I like it better when it hurts,’ but provides no proof of that anywhere on the album’s 12 cuts, all of which she co-wrote.” This is sort of like taking Lesley Gore to task for not being able to prove she ever cried at her own party. The concepts of authenticity and lyrical integrity are relatively recent additions to pop music criticism, and they ultimately feel antithetical to the genre as a whole. The best pop songs with the most universal appeal are drawn from personal experience but mottled with hyperbole, falsehoods and imaginary characters. At its most honest, pop music is creative nonfiction, not high-stakes journalism, and the moment we start expecting artists to annotate their expression with autobiographical detail — even on an album called Autobiography — is the moment we start seeing a lot more boring art.
It goes without saying that the media is unduly vicious in its coverage of celebrities. Our justification when we do this is that we’re “punching up” — but unless it involves a Mel Gibson–caliber scandal, there’s little valor in this type of reporting, especially when it only results in stifling a young artist’s personal and creative growth. This is best exemplified by the fate of Amy Winehouse, a musician whose gifts we took for granted and whose life was cut short, at least in part, by merciless tabloid scrutiny.
Simpson is nowhere close to being in the same league as Winehouse, and she’s still alive (and still tremendously wealthy). But after the follow-up to Autobiography — 2005’s lackluster I Am Me — Simpson more or less withdrew from the world of pop music, probably due in part to the media’s obsession with embarrassing her. She returned briefly in 2008 with the even more lackluster Bittersweet World and again in 2012 with the patently horrible single “Bat for a Heart,” a botched pure-pop reinvention that had more in common with contemporary pop stars like Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus than her initial Pat Benatar and pop-punk influences.
But as far as media casualties go, Simpson came out relatively unscathed. She’s happily remarried with two kids, and likely reflects on her brief, tortuous stint as one of America’s biggest stars with the same reconciliatory nonchalance exhibited in “Shadow”: “Everything’s cool now, my life is good.” She's even planning to release more music in 2017 in the form of a collaborative album with her husband, Evan Ross, son of Diana.
Even if Simpson’s career as a pop icon did end prematurely, she at least left us Autobiography — a terrific record that’s overdue for critical reappraisal.
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