Like Frank Sinatra, Cat Power, and a number of beauty pageant contestants before and after her, Jessica Simpson is a covers artist.
In the states, Simpson has seven gold singles to her name since cresting on a blonde wave of virginal jailbait late last century. Three of those hits are from that era, one of them is her post-divorce anthem, and three of them were released during the height of Newlyweds‘ popularity. Two of the three songs in the final category are covers, in addition to a few more that didn’t chart. I’d cast a more critical eye toward two of her singles sampling pop standards–“I Think That I’m In Love With You” borrows the hook to John Cougar’s “Jack and Diane,” “A Public Affair” is built around Madonna’s “Holiday” and Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”–but hip hop has so revolutionized pop music that it seems unfair to call Simpson out for something Rihanna has done too. Though “SOS” and “Please Don’t Stop the Music” are masterful pop songs, in part because of how inventively they repurpose Soft Cell’s cover of “Tainted Love” and Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”. Simpson’s hits rely upon our familiarity with the sample–a Diddy hat trick–but never transcend the source material.
Upon her entree into pop stardom, Simpson was cast as a paler shade of Britney. Spears was the pop star, Christina Aguilera was the diva, Mandy Moore was the first one to go brunette, and Jessica was the one who actually obeyed the record label’s directive and married someone in a boy band. It’s terrifying how much these roles mean to us.
The callous dismissal of Simpson’s musical talent stung in part because she was almost cast opposite Spears and Christina Aguilera in the early 90s reboot of The Mickey Mouse Club. The legend is that Simpson was intimidated by the prospect of following up Aguilera in a singing audition and choked. I also think marketing four blonde teenage pop stars to the TRL crowd further suggests the music industry’s arrogance and disregard for people. “Maybe the Britneybot’s synapses will misfire after we ply it with diet pills. Good to have a backup.” Packaging young women as disposable commodities is sexist, even before we factor in their uniform physical attributes. But their male counterparts didn’t fare much better. Being cast as an archetype (the bad boy! the funny one!) in one of many interchangeable vocal groups is pretty dehumanizing too. Ask Du Jour.
The cultural rationalization that Simpson is good enough has hurt her career irrevocably, perhaps because she was trying so hard to live up to some ideal that, like Judith Butler and Kartina Richardson suggest, is a copy of an original that doesn’t exist. It was the cancer that infected her relationship with John Mayer too (actually, John Mayer is the cancer that infects all of his relationships). It impacted her voice, which lacked any distinct character. It functioned instead as an index of shouty melismas, breathy coos, and feigned erotic sighs that became hallmarks of contemporary pop vocal performance. Simpson didn’t sound like anyone in particular except maybe that girl you knew in high school who sang Mariah Carey’s “Hero” at the talent show. But I never remembered her voice or how I felt when I heard her sing so much as recognized when the moment had passed. Often, her voice sounded like the pop equivalent of a fake orgasm.
So it’s interesting to me that where her career actually took off was in retail, which is all about recycling and mass reproduction. The prospect of dressing like (or smelling like) Jessica Simpson holds little appeal to me. With rare exception, celebrity personal style is a myth. She’s famous, which means she has an army of stylists. Of course, part of my response is based on is cast as Simpson’s inspiration. Her look is pure Farrah and–like Rachel Bilson–I’m a Jacqueline Smith kind of girl. But she’s made a fortune getting multiple generations of women–my mother, your college roommate–to buy her pumps. And she really seems to like her own clothes, to the point where she parlayed her success in retail into a gig judging Fashion Star. She also seems to like the body wearing them. So I’m interested in how, following that time she wore unflattering jeans for a concert and everyone decided she was fat, Simpson has embraced a new shape. She didn’t give up sugar. She didn’t crash diet. She didn’t will herself into her seventeen- or twenty-five-year old body.
Simpson also gave birth to her daughter last month. I don’t intend to scrutinize her post-pregnancy body, as no one should have the right to sanction what kinds of bodies are permissible and aberrant in a society. I also don’t intend for this post to blindly celebrate Simpson’s curvier figure or–by omission–throw shade at female celebrities who’ve slimmed down. Simpson’s not radical. She’s a rich celebrity who shifted an unremarkable singing career into an opportunity to put her name on some handbags. But she seems happy and I hope she’s content and can figure out how to help her daughter acquire peace of mind (Will and Jada have some pointers). If in fact we’re all copies of some ideal we can only perceive and never reach, we may as well enjoy who we are and who we’ll become.