The recent, much-hyped lip-sync travails of Ashlee Simpson and Lindsay Lohan, both caught belting away with their mouths closed, and then, again, Ashlee's possibly worse recent mishap (when she was caught with her mouth wide open at the Orange Bowl and a truly horrendous sound came out), prompt a basic question: Who cares so much about the actual vocal talents of a couple of teen queens?
The resounding, unavoidable answer: A whole lot of people. And they care for a whole lot of different reasons. There are the disillusioned fans who feel betrayed and the more loyal fans who rush to the defense of their beleaguered idols. ("Everybody lip-syncs!") There are the people who heap scorn on those same fans for having been "duped" by these "frauds," and suggest that the hapless tweens seek out some "real" music (usually Wilco). And there are the people, thousands upon thousands of them, who eagerly watch the embarrassing clips and soak up the delicious schadenfreude of it all.
All of those responses are, to varying degrees, silly, but none of them is as hard to take as the combination of self-righteousness, condescension and misplaced activist zeal displayed by those who feel that just laughing and moving on aren't good enough. Take H.O.P.E. (Horrified Observers of Pedestrian Entertainment), which has gone so far as to set up an Ashlee Simpson CD Exchange, "offering the good people of America who have been duped into buying Ashlee Simpson's CD" an opportunity to trade it in for "one of higher entertainment quality," by artists like Elvis Costello, Neil Hamburger and Mr. Bungle. (The group's Web site also includes this gem: "When one looks at the actual sales figures, Ashlee Simpson's triple platinum-selling debut album sold to -- at best -- 1 percent of the population. No matter how much the publicists spin it, the fact is that 99% of the population is not particularly interested in Ashlee.") These people need a sense of humor, a sense of perspective and, perhaps most important, a better name.
They should also check out Simpson's CD, which isn't half bad. Can she sing? Of course not! But only a fool would listen to her (or Britney, Lindsay, Hilary, etc.) for vocal prowess. We're talking about glossy Top-40 pop music, at a time in its history when nearly all recorded vocals are so thoroughly sonically airbrushed and autotuned as to bear almost no relation to the original performance. A bad singer just means more work for the engineer (and, mercifully, fewer of the obnoxious melismatic flourishes compulsively used by "good" singers like Christina Aguilera; Ashlee's big sis, Jessica Simpson; and assorted "American Idol" contestants).
It's hard to feel as if it's worth spending too much time defending Simpson and Lohan, who have handled their respective fiascoes so gracelessly and arrogantly -- Lohan by publicly vowing never to lip-sync and then denying that she had even after she was caught; Simpson, classy as always, by blaming it on her drummer and then on acid reflux. But it's also hard to feel as if they've done anything all that bad or shameful, or that the furor of the response they've received is in any way commensurate with the gravity of their crimes.
In the end, the whole thing strikes me as very much like -- but even more trivial than -- baseball's recent doping scandals. It seems clear that a significant percentage of top athletes use performance-enhancing drugs, just as it's obvious that most pop stars lip-sync, or at the very least use prerecorded vocals to bolster their live performances. But whenever an athlete or musician is caught in the act, he or she is met with reactions of shock, outrage and betrayal.
Even if this were all that important, even if it were a major artistic travesty worthy of our attention and outrage, it seems to me that the focus of that outrage is being seriously misplaced. Ashlee, Britney, Christina, etc. are not artists, they are just faces being used to sell these products, these songs. The products can be good (Ashlee's "Pieces of Me," Christina's "Beautiful") or even great (Britney's "Toxic"), but the "artists" have very little to do with how they turn out. Any scorn or appreciation you feel for them should rightfully be distributed among the teams of producers, songwriters and managers who have steered these women to stardom. Whether you love or hate Linda Perry, Joe Simpson and production team the Matrix, don't waste any adoration or loathing on Ashlee or Britney.
Why do people care so much? Jealousy might seem like too easy an answer, but in this case I think it's the right one. We want our celebrities to be famous for a reason, to be especially beautiful, especially talented, especially special, and it rankles when they're not. That's why Ashlee Simpson and Paris Hilton, two unattractive, untalented women who happen to have become very, very famous, are so widely loathed.
It is, of course, absurd to think that fame is based on merit any more often than it is based on ambition, connections and dumb luck. But it would be nice to be able to pretend.