She's Not Your Steppin' Stone
At first I was dismayed by the title of Ashlee Simpson's I Am Me, fearing that yet another post-teenpopper had gone poetically maudlin with an Affirmation of Self. Instead, the title song turns out to be a glorious fuck-you aimed at a man who dumped her. And of course it is an affirmation of self: "I am me and I won't change for anyone, for anyone, like YOU," sung in a Courtney Love voice with Courtney Love fury. So to find herself she first needs someone to knock her down and someone else to lend her the voice that lifts her back up and lacerates the guy who'd originally thrown her over. Ashlee ends up snarling, "What's she got that I don't have?" and then her singing dances triumphantly through wordless "Whoa whoa whoas." So her self-affirmation has to battle with her rage and jealousy, which provide the real energy for her dance. Not a simple story, is it?
Ashlee is modeling self-esteem for teen girls, telling them they can triumph over adversity and survive without a man and that a breakup may be the best thing that happens to them (you hear this message all the time in teenpop). And she's trying to work defeat and desperation into all this self-worth. These two impulses aren't necessarily antithetical: The Courtney Love typesAshlee isn't one, even though she has her angry momentsare ultimately affirming themselves too, or affirming something, embracing life including one's own disastrous self. But certainly that quest takes them through a whole heap of self-loathing.
Recently on a message board, someone named Cunga called Ashlee "a rich valley girl with a Christian youth-group father incorporating the image of a G-rated 'rocker/punk' as a marketing move for the type of MTV viewing teens who might think Green Day is the epitome of dangerous." I won't argue, because I don't know. Until a couple of weeks ago it hadn't occurred to me to wonder if Ashlee might be punk. If she is, it's just an impulse (emotional? aesthetic? commercial?), not a lifestyle choice. She's not in alternative's sociopostyouthical quasi-bohemia. Some people in that bohemia not only can't imagine that an Ashlee Simpson could possibly create an album that's better than the recent Hold Steady, Lightning Bolt, LCD Soundsystem (but she did, and it's better than the Pink and Avril albums that paved her way too), but they also can't consider the idea that her occasional punk moments are more galvanizing than those of the Hold Steady et al. But you know, if you go way back to the original punk rock, it wasn't just angry kids in the garage but bizzers and pros and schemers and nice girls in cubicles writing lyrics on demand and copycats trying this and that fashionable style and getting lucky on the angry stuff (that last applies to the kids in the garage too): "Steppin' Stone," "Kicks," "96 Tears," "Wild Thing," "Gloria," "Hanky Panky."
What Ashlee and her main collaborator, John Shanks, themselves do, actually, is to pull styles from here and there: The current single "L.O.V.E." is funny chirpy dance-funk on the theme of girl bonding, and it's great. The album's first single, "Boyfriend," uses an echoed laugh right off the Clash's "London Calling" and mimics that same song's clipped reggae chords, with a Gang of Four/Franz Ferdinand snapping-twig guitar riff launching each verse. Ashlee goes tuneful and anthemic on the chorus; this may seem to run counter to the song's bubble-punk impulses, but works for me (one of the potent contradictions in "Anarchy in the U.K." is that it's an engaging wrap-your-arms-around-each-other sing-along anthem about destroying everything). "Catch Me When I Fall" is a good soft, sensitive ballad. She asks, "Who will save me from myself?" but basically evades the issue, since she wants to be rescued rather than transformed. She sings, "When the lights are off something's killing me," but she doesn't say what's killing her. (I mean, like, boo hoo. As Gary Allan says, things are tough all over.) I do wonder if her choruses wouldn't be more powerful if she didn't rely so much on souping everything up with double-tracked singing and 101 guitars. Her voice isn't a powerhouse, and it's not as scabrous or throat-retchingly thrilling as Courtney's, but it is a tough little one, the bruised feel being perhaps too consistent, too solid. I want to hear the voice crack up. I miss the excitement of music potentially veering out of control, which I get a little bit from Franz Ferdinand and a lot from long-ago bands like the Electric Eels and the Stooges, the feel of somehow keeping your wheels under you while skidding full-throttle near the cliff. Right, we're not getting that from Ashlee. But we're rarely getting it from anyone else, either.
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