Courtesy MCA RecordsOn a May night in 1849, the English actor William Charles MacReadywent up against American actor (and hometown favorite) Edwin Forrest in dueling New York City productions of Macbeth; by the time the Seventh Regiment of the National Guard had been called in to quell the rioting, 23 people were dead. Sixty-four years later, only the hints of civil disturbance—screaming audience members and threats of fisticuffs in the lobby—marred the debut of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. When Bob Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, the outraged crowd restricted itself to verbal abuse. Even as western civilization slowly sheds its civility, our audiences seem to be growing more docile. In the 21st Century, performances of Wagner in Israel merely spark "debate."
And yet there is Ashlee Simpson. In just four months, this fresh-faced ingnue has managed to accomplish what generations of Karen Finleys and Marilyn Mansons could not: she enrages. October's mishap on Saturday Night Live and January's booing at the FedEx Orange Bowl have cemented her rank in a rarified league. An online petition addressed to Geffen/DGC Records and JT Simpson Entertainment (her management) demands that Ashlee "stop recording, touring, modeling and performing. We do not wish to see her again." As of this writing, 275,407 people have signed, more than three times the population of her hometown of Richardson, Texas.
Simpson is 20. Her compressed career time line should give pause to anyone old enough to drink. At age 11 (in 1996!), Ashlee was accepted into the prestigious American Ballet's summer course. At 14 (in 1999!), she left Texas to travel as a backup singer for sister Jessica. Three years ago, she landed a role on The WB's 7th Heaven. And it was way back in those innocent days of July 2004 that her debut LP hit No. 1 on the music charts, only September when the record was certified triple platinum. Referencing the short inner life of a hard-working but sheltered teenager, the album's title—Autobiography—has the whiff of a swindle. When, a month later, Ashlee flubbed a song on Saturday Night Live, shuffled a nervous jig and ran offstage, the moment seemed perfectly timed.
In management spin, the SNL fiasco was a blip. Management in this case is Joe Simpson, father of Ashlee and Jessica, which seems to be part of the predicament. As a former Baptist youth minister and psychologist, Joe is a new breed of creepy man-villain—with his frizzy blond flattop, he resembles a mustache-less version of Florida's Michael Schiavo. Mr. Simpson manages both his daughters' careers. He manages the career of Ashlee's occasional boyfriend, singer Ryan Cabrera. He is an executive producer of both daughters' reality TV shows. He is the kind of man who will forbid a lesbian scene in Ashlee's upcoming film, Wannabee, and then crack wise about Jessica's "double D's" in GQmagazine ("You can't cover those suckers up!").
Family dynamics should be inadmissible evidence. Unfortunately, this is also part of the jam Ashlee finds herself in. Having on hand a convenient tool of mass media, Ms. Simpson started the second season of The Ashlee Simpson Show last month with a unique defense tactic: the retelling of the SNL farce from her standpoint. The sinister logic of eroding privacy brought spectators further and further inward until, finally, the viewer followed a camera-scope down the rabbit hole of Ashlee's larynx so we could see for ourselves the slow-motion ravages of the gastroesophageal-reflux disease blamed for the whole mess.
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Americans don't like to be manipulated, at least not so blatantly. Nepotism runs counter to the principles this nation was founded on. But a large part of the abuse directed Ashlee's way seems, well, abusive—the work of mulleted yahoos and girl-haters. Leafing through the online petition is like being given access to a quarter-million men's-room stalls (signature No. 191,655: "Your sister sucks . . . but you swallow!!").
Is her music really that bad? Three million listeners don't seem to think so. There is nothing in Ms. Simpson's recordings to mark them as significantly worse than her peers'. She may borrow some breathy light rock from Avril Lavigne or Jill Sobule, but she's certainly not biting her sister's style. To anyone with a nodding acquaintance with "indie" music, her Orange Bowl delivery—screechy, unpolished, pointlessly feisty—would have been a plausible night's distraction in a different, smaller context.
There is a grimness to targeting someone already tangled in the gears of management and scheming parents, someone caught up in a colossal ugliness she wasn't old enough to avoid. Does anyone seriously believe the waist-high anarchy sign on the Orange Bowl stage was anything but the handiwork of some anonymous asshole marketing flunky? Why isn't this person being punished? Ashlee's plight, after all, is the stuff of nightmares made real: to be booed by 70,000 people, to freeze in front of 20 million pairs of eyes. No matter what you think of her or her music, there's no denying she's suffered humiliations on an order of scale most of the human race can only imagine. It's enough to make anyone reach for a Prevacid.
ASHLEE SIMPSON WITH PEPPER'S GHOST AND CLICK 5 AT THE GROVE OF ANAHEIM, 2200 E. KATELLA AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 712-2700; WWW.THEGROVEOFANAHEIM.COM. WED., 8 P.M. $38. ALL AGES.