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Tuesday, September 30, 2003
Jessica Simpson - In This Skin

There is a war for the soul of Jessica Simpson, and I don't think she knows. It rages on many fronts, sometimes placing her on the margins and sometimes in the center, but any list of the players would include:

- The idea of "pop as pornography" (posited by Taylor Parkes and seconded by a host of theoryhead British crits--and about which I really do need to post) which might as well be renamed the "Jessica Simpson liner notes theory," given that the mere silhouettes therein would make a lesser man tumescent;

- Adam Green (ex-Moldy Peaches) whose song "Jessica" imagines the new Mrs. Nick Lachey (98 Degrees) as a washed-up ex-celeb and caretaker of her sick mother, possibly in Las Vegas;

- Heather Havrilesky and other assorted critics and viewers of Jessica's MTV reality show, "Newlyweds," in which she seems honestly confused as to whether "Chicken of the Sea" is chicken or fish;

- Sasha Frere-Jones, whose article on Justin Timberlake sought to reclaim the critical reception of pop, and the assorted "popists" on I Love Music;

- Jessica herself, whose coffee table book on her own nuptials (modestly entitled I Do: Achieving Your Dream Wedding), attempts to ensconce her as either an exemplar of American womanhood or a lifestyle coordinator.

- And, of course, there's me, who happens to share a birthday with li'l Jess. (Thanks, Weekly World News!)

Oh yeah, and the music. So what does her birthday buddy think of that? Well, it's pretty bad. I wanted to like it, finding myself generally on the SFJ side of the battlements, of course, but the production is bland, the songwriting is execrable, and one song steals its melody from a Portishead song. ("I Have Loved You" and "Sour Times"--it's just kind of embarrassing.) There're bits to like, but the interesting thing about Jessica Simpson is how, far moreso than other (inevitably female) artists accused of favoring style over substance and not being "real musicians"--Britney, Madonna, Mandy, etc.--Jessica really is about the context above the music. No doubt the music once mattered; her first disc is reportedly kinda good, but this one falls prey to a number of the stereotypes associated with Christian music--mainstream-huffing, unadventurous musically, unspecific lyrically, faux-innocent, etc. But once I knew to start looking for her, she started popping up everywhere, which was weird, because...well, because I just hadn't thought about her at all before, and I am not exactly uninvolved with music. But there she was, like a secret sign I just hadn't been hip to previously. And the more that it accumulated, and the more I listened to the album, the more important the periphery became, and the less important the album was; indeed, I really have no desire to listen to the album ever again, but I'm really interested in talking about Jessica Simpson. I don't think this is a bad thing, necessarily. I've no doubt she puts a lot of effort into a lot of the stuff in her life--the MTV show, the book (which, while definitely fawning, is still kind of bold in a weird, creepy way), her stage show, her appearance, and even her marriage. But the music, despite what she says in the liners ("I have searched to find the words that reveal to you my fears from special places within my soul" etc. etc.), just feels effortless, in that bad way that you'd talk about, say, the food your dad produces on his night to cook, rather than the Ramones. But Jessica herself just slots so nicely into so many of these discussions and ideas, without apparently producing any interest in the part of the participants to discuss her, that you have to wonder if she's maybe prepackaged as that, too. The utter consumability of her as an image--and keep in mind here that I like consumability--is just awe-inspiring. She's blonde and she's (apparently) attractive and she married a member of a minor boyband and presumably Orlando was involved somehow and she's Christian and, and...and you can just eat all of her up. It's really interesting. I feel like it's a secret sign for me to break.

Of course, the other interesting thing is that there are people out there who genuinely like this album, and like her, and will buy it all, in droves. In other words, it's interesting that people like this crap. And I don't mean that in a bad, they-shouldn't-like-it way: people like crap, and that's OK; lord knows I like some crapola. But it's interesting because of the role crap plays in our lives.

For instance, the two major lyrical themes of this album are:

1) Her husband and how much she loves him, and
2) How it's hard to be Jessica Simpson and the struggles she goes through.

The second one is super-disingenuous, seeing as how she looks like this, and if we're being honest, she's more likely to cause eating disorders than cure them, whether she has one or not. I guess this sort of free-floating empowerment crap might appeal to some people, but it strikes me as more of a bare-minimum kind of thing, and anyone who knows anything about Jessica will have a hard time buying her as particularly oppressed.

The love stuff, on the other hand...well, I guess that's part of the appeal, a big part, because her relationship and her love is very public; she even did the virgin thing, mostly convincingly. (And now it's gone, lads; more's the pity.) The lyrics describing said love are less horrible--if they were, they'd at least be interesting--and more just very banal and very straightforward. But I believe Jessica when she says that these lyrics are heartfelt and hard-won and very important to her, and I think a lot of other people will think so, too, but at the same time I also believe that they're not very good lyrics. Because that's the way it works with music, isn't it? The songs that are brilliant and interesting and special have a place in our top-tens, but the dumb ones--whether dumbly masculine or dumbly feminine, irregardless of the listener's gender--are the ones that really have emotional resonance for us. They're the ones we play at our weddings; they're the ones we get a little weepy about. So yeah, I like the Boredoms and Kid 606 and all that, but I love Pulp and Fountains of Wayne and Jonathan Richman. And I think this applies to all brands of music lovers: you'll like Emperor but love Slayer, like Reich but love Zorn (Masada's pop-cult covers are classic dumb-emotional stuff), like Autechre but love Aphex (lots of emo stuff on the RDJ album), like Lydia Lunch but love Sonic Youth, etc.

I don't think having a place in your emotional makeup is better than a DID placement necessarily, but I do think it's something not often examined or acknowledged; we simply write them off as guilty pleasures and don't worry about it anymore, all the while trashing other people's favs. Adam Green's "Jessica," for instance, goes: "Jessica Simpson / where has your love gone / it's not in your music / no." (Then again, I guess that's basically what I just said.) But maybe we do examine it without thinking sometimes. The Moldy Peaches, after all, did that really well: they made music that was simple and dumb on one level that you could love, but really weird and innovative on another that you could like. Of course, I know a weird number of people who dislike the Peaches, but I think it is actually the inability to get past that first level of emotional dumbness, an inability to admit that the two levels can co-exist, that causes resistance to the kind of joyful music that I like. But I think they can, and often do, go together.

Not so much with Jessica, though, and maybe this is part of her appeal to some people. Maybe they care about those sorts of lyrics more and care less about interesting music, or that's the musical sound they dig, or whatever. I read the lyrics and while they didn't have any effect on me, I could recognize that the potential was there, and in a way, that's something I admire--even if I'm still never going to listen to the album ever again.