From the beginning, Ashlee Simpson's career in music has played out like an American Idol grand prize package: a major label debut record, a reality TV show that airs months prior to the release of said record insuring massive sales, built in management, full promotion, image consultants, production hand-holding, the whole works. In the last six months, Simpson has survived two mortifying episodes of public ineptitude. First she was busted on Saturday Night Live in October for lip-synching. The carnage, although hilarious, was almost too gruesome to watch as she sprang into the most awkward jig before leaving the stage. When the show came back after the last commercial break, Simpson said, "I feel so bad. My band started playing the wrong song. I didn't know what to do so I thought I'd do a hoe-down." To add irony to disgrace, Simpson had been quoted in that very month's issue of Lucky magazine adamantly expressing her feelings on lip synching. "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-synch. It's just not me."

Then there was the Orange Bowl incident. While singing during the halftime show in January, Simpson chose to sing without guide tracks to directly answer her SNL snafu. This was a mistake. It is actually acceptable and even recommended to use backing tracks when performing live in large, outdoor venues. Simpson's appearance and staging with backup dancers seemed to be a joke all its own, but her performance was a pitch-poor train wreck ending with the sound of 70,000 booing football fans.

What has many of us scratching our heads is that in spite of these episodes, Simpson's star is intact and she is starting her second round of 15 minutes.

In 1990, Milli Vanilli became martyrs to the myth of artistic authenticity. Now, just a decade and a half later, it seems that the days of crucifying people for their misrepresentation have passed. This development was too late to stop MV's Rob Pilatus from killing himself. The German duo had been used as attractive stand-ins for aged studio musicians, but that was predating the advent and now ubiquitous use of Pro Tools.

Pro Tools is a computer program that allows the user to record music digitally and then go back through to correct notes, pitches, lengthen notes, improve vocal quality, etc. Although there is a lot of skill involved in mastering Pro Tools, it has become popular because the basics are easy and affordable. It's the industry standard software for everyone from major record producers to shitty garage bands.

Is Ashlee Simpson really that different from Milli Vanilli? If Pro Tools would've been in common use when Milli Vanilli's Girl You Know It's True album was released, they could've made "honest" men out of Rob and Fab by letting them sing on their own record. They could've kept the Grammy and they probably would've been launching their reunion tour and new album right about now, reaping millions.

With the recent crop of Pop Tarts all over the charts like Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and the failed Kelly Osbourne experiment, the other question is how much does it even matter to the people purchasing records that they're buying in to pre-fabricated, image-only artists?

In a recent phone interview, Rolling Stone Editor David Fricke lent his perspective. "People's tastes have really gone south. When American Idol is the biggest thing in America ... those are people who should basically be singing on cruise ships. The idea that that's considered a benchmark of pop talent and class, you're talking about a whole shift in American cultural taste."

Asked about his own feelings about Simpson, Fricke responded without pause or sugarcoating: "I could give a shit about Ashlee Simpson."

Co-writing credits are handed out like potty training treats to these girls for turning in assigned journals upon which the writing/producing team will base their songs. In the April 7 issue of Rolling Stone, John Shanks, producer to Kelly Clarkson, Michelle Branch, Lohan and, most recently, Simpson, was quoted regarding his approach to the process when "co-writing" with these girls. "You basically sit there and talk about their lives." Simpson's first big hit "Pieces of Me" reportedly came from a comment she made to Shanks. "I have all these sides to me, and my boyfriend doesn't understand." Three hours later he and writing partner Kara DioGuardi had written her first hit.

Since the pair of incidents occurred, Simpson has often been quoted with doe-eyed, hair twirling-style that she doesn't understand why she's been targeted with intense and even vehement scrutiny by the media, fans and the unforgiving music intelligentsia. Beyond her devaluing the worth of pure artistry, she is also obviously a victim of exploitation by bloodsuckers interested in how she could be developed and sold. She's been convinced by people looking to cash in that she is an artist, a singer, a star; at some point it's not hard to see how easy it is to believe your own well-packaged fable.

But what 19-year-old girl would say no if asked, "Would you like to be a star?" It's hard to blame her for saying yes. To her credit, her debut record Autobiography is still better than anything her famous big sister has released ... and Jessica can really sing.


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