It happened at the beginning of Ashlee Simpson's second musical performance on "Saturday Night Live." She and her band stood ready to perform the song "Autobiography" when suddenly, mysteriously, her vocal track from her hit song "Pieces of Me" -- which she had already "sung" earlier that evening -- began to play over the loudspeakers. Looking confused and embarrassed, Ashlee did a goofy jig for a few awkward moments, then smiled sheepishly to the audience. Then she slinked offstage. As her band continued to play "Pieces of Me," the guitarist and the bassist exchanged a knowing smirk, and then the show cut to a commercial.
And with one little recording mishap, young Ashlee cashed in whatever counterfeit street cred she and her handlers tried so hard to cultivate.
At the end of the show, Ashlee appeared onstage with host Jude Law to apologize.
Law: Ladies and gentlemen, what can I say? Live TV!
Simpson: Exactly! I feel so bad! My band started playing the wrong song, and I didn't know what to do, so I thought I'd do a hoe-down!
The normally rabid live audience reacted with stilted laughter as Ashlee crammed as many "Oops!" and "What can you do?" gestures as possible into her final few seconds on the air. That hapless little-sister, "Sure, I'm pathetic, but in a cute way!" shtick that made her MTV reality show, "The Ashlee Simpson Show," so popular, won her the devotion of scores of fans, and contributed to selling almost 2 million copies of her debut album, "Autobiography," now wore thin.
Of course, blaming her band and shrugging it all off as an adorable mishap didn't help, and Geffen Records didn't offer much assistance, either, blaming the snafu on a computer glitch, according to an AP report. The company claimed that, instead of pre-taped drums, the computer played a recording of "Pieces of Me." Not a bad excuse -- if they hadn't played a pared-down, raw-sounding vocal track, and not the normal recording.
Like it or not, plenty of pop performers use pre-recorded tracks, and since Simpson's performance on MTV's Music Video Awards in August was roundly criticized as unimpressive and off-key, it's probably not surprising that Ashlee and her handlers would opt to lip-sync. It's also not surprising that Ashlee isn't the best live performer around; after all, she's hardly performed before. MTV captured her first live performance ever at the Knitting Factory in Los Angeles, replete with promotional fraudience swooning enthusiastically for the cameras. Far from the baby steps most performers take from open-mike nights to small venues, Ashlee was thrust, camera-ready, at age 19, into the drooling maw of the public, hardly given half a chance to come into her own as a songwriter, a performer, or a human being, really.
But just as Ashlee's career was formed in the exhaust of an overhyped publicity vehicle and fueled by a choreographed media dogpile, so might her career go down in flames befitting such a carelessly engineered persona. Hours after the "SNL" incident, several Web sites dug up an interview in Lucky Magazine, where Ashlee professed her disdain for pre-recorded vocals.
Lucky: What are your takes on lip-syncing?
Simpson: I'm totally against it and offended by it. I'm going out to let my real talent show, not to just stand there and dance around. Personally, I'd never lip-sync. It's just not me.
Still, no matter how much Ashlee comes under fire for being a fraud -- as if her entire reality show weren't focused on the blatant, unapologetic fabrication of pop celebrity -- Ashlee herself is too young and naive to be held accountable for the countless errors in judgment that have been made in handling her career. While her father/manager Joe Simpson has been described by the New York Times as a tenacious entrepreneur, you have to question the wisdom of a man who, having transformed his eldest daughter, Jessica, from second-string pop star into reality TV guinea pig and pop cultural punch line, would set his sights on squeezing his more sensitive, emotional daughter into the same celebrity mold. No matter how many times we saw Ashlee stomping her feet and insisting on doing things her way on her show -- which mostly boiled down to which shade of chestnut to dye her blond hair -- it was always clear that she was a helpless pawn in someone else's intensely profitable game.
Ultimately, her show was a close-up glimpse of Pop Star Day Care. Ashlee was shepherded around town, meeting with the hit songwriters the label hired that week, showing up at her first crowded gig looking petrified, being coached by her sister on how to handle the attention. Maybe, given her sister's trajectory, it seemed perfectly natural to Ashlee and her father that she should launch her career while cameras followed her every move. But who convinced her that it was a good idea to lip-sync?
In a recent New York Times profile of Joe Simpson, Geffen president Jordan Schur offers some insight into the unmaking of Ashlee Simpson "[W]hen I was arguing with Ashlee and I was firing her producers, and she was crying, 'Dad I'm so upset, do something,' any other manager -- forget father -- would have jumped in," reported Schur. "Joe sat there and didn't open his mouth. He said, 'Listen to Jordan.'"
So what happens to Ashlee now? Given the degree to which most artists are invented by label executives and handlers, given the fact that we've seen this process in slow motion on shows like Ashlee's and Jessica's and "The Making of the Band," why would anyone object to getting a small peek behind the curtain?
Because the public is fickle. Just as her invention as a pop diva captured its imagination, ensuring that her album debuted at No. 1 while her sloppily crafted pop-star self was still half-formed, so will they turn on her for being the fabricated, marketed, propped-up self that they knew she was from the start.
But the real victim is Ashlee, who day in and day out races from one event to the next trying desperately to play her part as an alternative rocker who's actually just a regular, mainstream teenager, as a savvy businesswoman who really doesn't seem to have much say in her career at all, and as a seasoned performer who's actually inexperienced and ill-prepared. As ridiculous as Ashlee might look up there, shrugging and smiling apologetically, it's the puppet master holding her strings who really deserves to be strung up.