The only thing Ashlee Simpson did wrong on Saturday Night Live October 23—and let’s first acknowledge that, prior to Simpson’s lip-synch snafu, the last time anyone could actually muster the interest to refer to an SNL musical spot occurred when Sinéad O’Connor got all up in the pope’s grill over a decade ago—was failing to flip off the audience and stage dive onto their heads as soon as her drummer punched whichever button he wasn’t supposed to punch. The jig she danced instead was pretty good; as a matter of fact, it was great: a more honest performance of young-person emo anxiety than any of her tween-rock peers have yet managed with words and music. (Casting directors, start sending those Jodie Foster scripts now.)
But the jig wasn’t in keeping with the tenor of Autobiography, Simpson’s rip-roaring debut, which by my estimate is a Courtney Love album 3.7 times better than Love’s own solo bow from earlier this year. American Sweetheart is tragic and blasted and pissed-off and pathetic and desperate and sad; Autobiography is all those things, plus it has Fruit Stripe bubblegrunge guitars and insanely chewy melodies and an ear-tickling production job. Not to mention Ashlee’s voice, which despite the hysterical protestations of technique devotees currently bellowing into empty wishing wells, is worth every penny her dad spent to create it.
Like C.Lo in her prime, Simpson can pack so much contradictory emotion into a single line—a single word—that the music can barely contain it. Listen to her shred through the title track, a compact masterpiece of wrist-pumping Joan Jett rock candy whose lyrics get no more investigative than juicy non sequiturs like “Got stains on my T-shirt/And I’m the biggest flirt.” “Right now I’m solo but that will be changing uh-ven-choo-a-lay,” she sings, elongating the final word extravagantly, and all you hear is her: the impatience of someone who can’t wait, the confidence of someone who can, the petulance of someone spoiled by circumstance, the vulnerability of someone who’s never known better (or worse).
Autobiography is pungent with the aroma of lots of mid-’90s girlysounds: Garbage, American Thighs, Jagged Little Pill—the way that music managed to excavate profound meaning from putrid Hot Topic agitprop. It reminds me most, though, of Live Through This, when Love’s excruciating self-obsession accrued an unexpected gravitas thanks to an awful coincidence her songs were never written to shoulder. I mean, roll your eyes if you absolutely must at “Shadow,” Simpson’s defiant other-sister lament; after all, she does brag, “It used to be so hard being me.” But don’t discount Simpson’s SNL flashback the next time she admits, “My escape was hiding out and running for the door.” (PS: If Allison Moorer wrote “Shadow” about living in her big sis Shelby Lynne’s shadow, No Depression would be tripping over Magnet to praise her unguarded show of honesty. But whatever.)
Nine out of 10 pervs agree that “Haters,” from Hilary Duff’s second album, is about rival diary princess Lindsay Lohan. “You’re the queen of superficiality,” Duff seethes sweetly over a bitter powerpop groove, “Keep your lies out of my reality.” Obviously, a recontextualization is in order, since Duff’s role in the tween-rock firmament is playing pious Lisa Loeb opposite Simpson’s post-diluvian Courtney Love. Which doesn’t have to be a bad thing: Little girls shouldn’t be deprived of their Cinderellas in the name of what I or anyone else considers art. But despite liberal amounts of gold-dust guitar glitter, blow-dried backing vocals, and even the post-crash-Skynyrd “Rock This World,” Hilary Duff is too often the vanilla-bean fantasia AOR chauvinists take all girl-pop for. “Everybody knows I’m a little insane,” she boasts unconvincingly in “Do You Want Me?” oozing none of Ashlee’s obnoxious thrust. And, sure, that’s drama of a sort: Huey Lewis bought like 470 sport coats doing the same thing for AOR chauvinists back when he was on SNL. But celebrity skin’s a bitch, and nothing compares 2 a bruise.