Standing on the legendary Saturday Night Live stage, Ashlee Simpson had a moment that marked the beginning of her downfall. She could only stand frozen as the cameras rolled, capturing her reaction from hearing the wrong music begin and her own voice playing over the speakers. She looked around in an awkward panic, and did what no one was expecting: she broke out into a country-style jig before moving offstage and away from the cameras.
From that moment on, Simpson’s name lived on in the infamy of this very public ordeal.
Simpson eventually faded from the limelight, her rise and fall occurring before what could be argued as the the golden age of reality TV, and before the ubiquitousness of social media became a necessity for celebrity status.
Now Simpson returns to the public eye, 14 years after the premiere of MTV’s monster reality hit The Ashlee Simpson Show and her equally massive debut album “Autobiography,” with her new reality series, Ashlee+Evan, airing on E!. It follows Simpson and her second husband, actor Evan Ross (son of Diana Ross and brother of Tracee Ellis Ross) as they balance family, careers and Simpson’s comeback foray into music.
Simpson has addressed her own history in the spotlight and personal relationship with celebrity as of late. Her reaction to the ordeal that came after the SNL incident and her return to reality TV and music touch on the ways that we center public figures and how our perspective shifts. What does it mean to be a celebrity reassessing their standing in the public when their rise to fame happened before the particular scrutiny of social media? And how does this relate back to Simpson, whose success hinges on addressing a public slip up that would have launched the career of her peers today?
To fully understand what this comeback means, it’s important to look back on Simpson’s history. Her early claim to fame was in being a celebrity little sister. She danced backup for her sister, then B-list pop star (and now fashion mogul) Jessica Simpson, and had a small role on the series 7th Heaven. Then Jessica catapulted into the pop culture zeitgeist with her MTV reality series Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, which followed her and then husband Nick Lachey as they navigated marriage and what would become her trademark ditziness. The success of Newlyweds opened the door for Simpson’s own reality series chronicling her love life, desire to strike out on her own outside Jessica’s shadow, and the making of Autobiography.
Largely thanks to the popularity of The Ashlee Simpson Show, “Autobiography” became the highest selling album by a female artist that year, going on to sell five million copies worldwide. The album’s lead single, “Pieces of Me,” peaked at no. 5 on the Billboard charts.
However, that success came crashing down after that 2004 performance on SNL culminated in a lip-synching scandal and the embarrassing jig becoming fodder for national ridicule, drastically diminishing the then 24-year-old’s popularity. Though she would go on to release two other albums (2005’s I Am Me and 2008’s Bittersweet World) and perform on Broadway (as Roxie Hart in Chicago), she never reached the same level of pop cultural phenom again. It’s funny to think that in 2004, lip-synching on TV and doing a silly, embarrassing dance could ruin a career, when for celebrities today that could be what launches a career in entertainment. Simpson eventually stepped away from the public sphere altogether to raise her children, Bronx Mowgli (her son with first husband, Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz) and Jagger Snow (her daughter with Ross).
The announcement of Simpson’s return to the public eye in Ashlee+Evan came as a surprise for many, who hadn’t really heard from the singer since 2004. The biggest hurdle that Simpson faces is social criticism, especially from such a long hiatus. She’s addressed the SNL snafu that ruined her career with the perspective of time, calling it “the most humbling experience of [her] life.” And as of late, Simpson has enjoyed a nostalgic cultural resurgence, with karaoke bars and pop nights filled with passionate renditions of “Pieces of Me” sung with drunken fervor. Instagram pages dedicated to early ‘00s nostalgia post her throwbacks next to the likes of Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, and the stars of Laguna Beach. She’s a cult icon for the Instagram generation, who were all perhaps high schoolers or college age when she had her moment, and can now welcome her comeback. If they’ll have her.
Ashlee+Evan paints the image of Simpson and Ross, as a couple and individual artists, and how they’re affected by celebrity. As the child of a cultural icon, Ross has always been surrounded by fame and feels the pressure of being a legacy child. Simpson, on the other hand, had a relatively normal childhood until Jessica’s career became the Simpson family’s focus. The difference in how Simpson and Ross experience celebrity speaks to how they approach it, and in particular, how Simpson takes her own “resurgence” in the public eye. She’s excited to be working on new projects but also seems at ease taking time off to raise her family away from the public gaze.
A large part of her fanbase seems to have enjoyed her work privately, as a guilty pleasure. Perhaps because female pop celebrity isn’t taken seriously, we’re meant to see these singers, at least during Simpson’s height of popularity, as fluff entertainment and not much else. Though there are singers that challenge that idea today to use their platforms to spotlight important issues. But at the height of Simpson’s popularity, this was not the case.
In many ways, Simpson’s rise, fall and reemergence have to do with the ways that we view the status of celebrity pre- and post-social media. Thinking of her attempt at a comeback, it’s interesting to think of whether or not Simpson would be able to gain the same levels of popularity that she once had, with then-adolescent girls that found music that touched them, but could only find enjoyment in secret because of cultural perception of pop singers. Today, scandal and controversy are at many public figures’ origin stories, and for better or worse, how more and more are finding their way to obtain the title of celebrity. Even Simpson herself is shifting to using the incident that marked her a public pariah as a marketing tactic, to breathe new life into her career in the U.S. If we are to reexamine how we define “celebrity” in our culture, it begins with looking at the ways that tragedy (or in this case, televised snafus) are utilized to be packaged, marketed, and sensationalized to launch careers.
Considering this, Ashlee+Evan is off to a fascinating new beginning, as it creates a humanizing portrayal of the couple and those in their lives. But for Simpson, it’s airing is important because it highlights the need to reevaluate our idea of celebrity. Those in the public eye should be allowed to evolve and grow beyond the images that they have portrayed to us for so long — and for Simpson, that means something new beyond an angsty pop-punk singer pushing against a very public spiral after one of the biggest scandals of the year, and finding herself after motherhood, marriage, and a new stage in life.
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