E!’s latest reality show, Ashlee + Evan, should be a fun, light romp about a former pop star and a celebrity son’s burgeoning musical collaboration. After all, it follows Keeping Up With The Kardashians, a show that usually manages to stay buoyant, even when it’s tackling tough topics like fertility and homelessness. But, there is a pall that hangs over the proceedings of married couple Ashlee Simpson and Evan Ross’ brand new docudrama.
That sadness can be traced back to a singular event: Ashlee Simpson’s disastrous Saturday Night Live appearance in October 2004. This might seem normal, as the fiasco is still the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Simpson, but that shouldn’t be the case, just under a decade-and-a-half later. While the “Pieces Of Me” singer never possessed the talent of a true pop icon like Beyoncé, whose first solo album dropped just a year before Simpson’s, the aughts star also didn’t deserve the absolute roasting, and subsequent career destruction, she received.
After all, in a post-#MeToo world, it’s impossible to imagine the entire world dragging, then abandoning, a teen girl who was just humiliated on national TV.
If you don’t remember exactly what happened during a Saturday Night Live that aired when George Bush was still president, let’s set the scene. It was October 23, 2004, Jude Law was SNL’s host and Ashlee Simpson, only 19 at the time, was the musical guest. Months earlier, in July 2004, Simpson dropped Autobiography, her debut album, where it eventually reached the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. As The Atlantic reminds us, the angsty pop-punk project sold 400,000 units in its first week. The previous year, Simpson’s older sister Jessica Simpson — arguably the more famous of the two Simpson siblings — only sold 64,000 units of her third LP, In My Skin, in its first week.
Ashlee was on her way t0 becoming the ascendant Simpson sister, thanks to her Avril Lavigne-esque pop-punk sound and commercially viable, PG-13 rated angst. She even had her own self-titled, rollicking MTV reality show as an additional promotional platform. Autobiography debuted in the middle of Ashlee's first season with the title track serving as the theme song.
Then, Simpson performed on Saturday Night Live. It’s often forgotten that her first performance on the NBC comedy institution went off without a hitch. It was her second outing that went awry, as the backing track for “Pieces Of Me” began playing… despite the fact Simpson was supposed to sing “Autobiography.” Realizing how wrong things had gone, Simpson did a literal jig for a few seconds before walking off stage; her band played for about a minute before Saturday Night Live cut to black. Simpson's lip syncing scheme was officially revealed to the world. After much dragging and criticism, we eventually learned a drummer played the incorrect back track. The necessity for the backing track in the first place was blamed on Simpson's alleged acid reflux.
As of 2018, Simpson has expanded on that oft-mocked excuse, saying during a recent Watch What Happens Live interview, "I had two nodes beating against each other and I woke up and had no voice.” She repeated the “nodes” explanation in Ashlee + Evan's Sunday night premiere.
So, essentially, a 19-year-old girl was ill and was either forced to perform by her team or felt so pressured not to fail during her biggest career break yet, she still went onstage.
Back then, the response to that sad situation was endless criticism, the mention of “acid reflux” becoming a punchline, complete disavowal from SNL’s storied creator Lorne Michaels, a violent booing at the Orange Bowl months later, and cataclysmic follow-up album sales. While Autobiography became a No. 1 album, sold over 3 million copies, and was 2004’s biggest debut by a female artist, her 2005 follow-up, I Am Me, was a flash in the pan , largely in part due to her post-SNL ostracism. While Simpson managed to sell 220,000 copies in Me’s first week, sales declined a whopping 67% between its premiere and its second week, and then dropped 25% more the next week. By 2008, I Am Me had sold less than a million copies.
SNL may have invited Simpson back a year after the lip syncing scandal to promote I Am Me, but the move wasn’t merely out of the goodness of the series' heart. The sketch series also had a reputation to defend: Michaels stressed after the fiasco that SNL brass had no idea Simpson would lip sync, and would have denied her access to their hallowed stage if they had known. By bringing Simpson back in 2005 SNL could put any question to rest about its own willingness to accept anything other than, well, live performances.
Simpson returned with a problem-free, presumably very live, return performance. It is still a performance very few people even remember occurred.
Despite her successful, controversy-free SNL comeback Simpson continues to grapple with what happened in 2004. In Ashlee + Evan’s premiere, she still calls the experience ”humbling” and very clearly nearly starts crying just thinking about it. She bemoans the fact many people don’t even know she released albums after Autobiography (which makes sense, as her third album, 2008's Bittersweet World, sold a scant 47,000 units in its first week). She is sad.
While Simpson is far from an icon, and (seemingly) lacks the required charisma, it’s difficult not to see how the vitriol she faced stems from the same snap hatred Janet Jackson faced that exact same year. Yes, the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” and the Ashlee Simpson SNL jig occurred a mere eight months apart. Simpson, a teen girl in a family striving to become a pop cultural dynasty, was tossed off her ascendant pedestal; Janet Jackson, an indomitable performer with 10 No. 1 hits at the time and the backing of an ultra-established pop cultural dynasty, was blackballed from an industry her family helped revolutionize. All because they were women who made one mistake beyond their control during a live performance.
Remember, Justin Timberlake apologized for his alleged trespasses against CBS, which aired Super Bowl XXXVIII, and was immediately forgiven for his arguably more egregious part in “Nipplegate.” Timberlake even got to perform at the 2004 Grammys on CBS a week after exposing Janet Jackson's breast to millions while, at minimum, now-disgraced CBS head Les Moonves was still reportedly dreaming of ruining Jackson’s career a seven full years after the incident.
While Simpson and Jackson's very different respective careers have yet to recover from nearly two-decade-old live TV oopsies, certain people are currently defending the attempted returns of self-confessed #MeToo sexual predators months after their scandals. But if anyone deserves the chance to “make a living,” as so many claim Hollywood's most abusive men do, it’s women like Ashlee Simpson and the one, the only, Janet Jackson.
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