By Mark Guarino
The line between reality and a gussied-up replication is so foggy these days thanks to a hodgepodge of television shows and government propaganda, does it even matter anymore? Fake newsmen infiltrate the White House press corp and fake singers employ their craft on national television. When the curtain rises and the fraud is revealed, the American public takes notice but generally moves on. The art of the sham has become fair game.
Teen singer (and, not coincidentally, reality TV star) Ashlee Simpson would not have the notoriety she currently has if it wasn’t for her October appearance on “Saturday Night Live” in which she was caught lip syncing. The incident was given a variety of spins — blamed on her drummer then acid reflex disease — but Simpson has not fully recovered. In January, she was unanimously booed at the Orange Bowl and sales of her debut album “Autobiography” (Geffen), stalled at an impressive three million copies. An online petition that asks her to stop performing has collected almost 350,000 signatures.
Simpson’s current tour, which arrived at the Rosemont Theatre Sunday, was designed as both penance with fans and a demonstration she can perform unhitched from technical aids. That’s a pretty low bar to aim for and, many times, during her speedy hour-long set (paced like she was nervous the tour bus would leave without her), Simpson remarkably still wasn’t able to make contact.
A five-piece band backed her during a 13-song set that featured the best known songs from her album, new songs and a few covers. Simpson sang live, but because she is not a distinctive singer, it was the familiarity of the songs, not the actual performance of them, that took precedent.
The problem is that, instead of being reared playing clubs and working her way up from there, Simpson came of age on TV where lighting and editing does the magic for you. It is the reason why, time and again, she proved she is not ready for a live audience. What else could explain why the singer could not make it through a 60-minute set without five breaks, had difficulty keeping time with her band, often relied on the double tracked vocals of her female backup singer and knew no other performance style than robotic pacing from left to right to left? Millions of albums with her face on the cover may have been sold, but that is about marketing. As a performer, even Simon Cowell would send her back to the bush leagues.
To give the brief show some semblance of structure, three songs (“Give it All Away,” “Love Makes the World Go Round,” “Going Back to Texas”) were performed acoustically, although Simpson shot through them so they were about 90 seconds in length each. She also gave relief to the mothers in the audience with a medley of ‘80s covers (Blondie’s “Call Me,” the Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket” and Madonna’s “Burning Up”) that were karaoke at best, with Simpson dropping out vocally and leaving difficult notes to her keyboardist.
Her husky voice was largely washed out by her band’s over-amplification, reducing her to simply slur through songs or strike poses. Like Avril Lavigne, Simpson provides a vehicle for a range of emotions — angst, rebellion, flirtatious sexuality — designed for preteens but never experienced by the performer. The most incredulous sight was not on stage, but on her official T-shirts co-opting the anarchy symbol so the “A” now stands for Ashlee. That’s reality in Ashlee’s world. She may align herself with social disorder and the rise of the labor class, just as long as it doesn’t mess up the hair.