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Published: 7/23/2006

Those catchy tunes by Ashlee Simpson and others have many of us singing along

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

If it weren't for the shuffle function on my iPod, Ashlee Simpson, who performs Tuesday night at the Toledo Zoo amphitheater, would be dead to me.

Allow me to explain.

Strike one, of course, was the infamous Saturday Night Live lip-synching scandal that rocked the foundations of morality and shook the temples of western civilization Then there was the alleged nose job. She had the cute bump removed, they said, sanded herself down in the pursuit of Top 40 perfection, or so it appears. If the girl was all lovable flaws before, she'd remade herself in the image of Dick Clark.

Then there were the reports that her album sank out of sight after its brief stay at No. 1 on the Billboard charts; and the booing during her halftime show at the Orange Bowl; and the rumors Ashlee wasn't even popular with tweens any more; and the Dallas Morning News (her hometown newspaper, mind you) calling her "the least talented singer in pop music"; and the disappointment that she hadn't won the Nobel Peace Prize yet, even though sis Jessica won it twice.

Possibly my facts are questionable on that last bit. (I'm always confusing the Nobel with the Pulitzer.) But like facts have anything to do with Ashlee at all.

For those who sweat over such things, for those who move their items in the grocery line back a few feet just so they can linger over the tabloid headlines a while longer, the line between rumor and fact, as well as outlandish fact and founded rumor, has blurred for her. It's why her second album, "I Am Me," is full of songs with titles like "Beautifully Broken" and sentiments about showing strength in the face of adversity. No, what happened with me and Ashlee is it stopped being about the music.

I mean, so what if there's been an online petition to get her to stop singing? And who cares if (holy moly ... ) 410,779 people have signed it (and counting)? And never mind the bloggers who say Simpson (only 21, mind you) is so shallow she wants to shoot her next video at Guantanamo Bay because it sounds, like, totally romantic and stuff.

Remember when it was about the music, Ash? For a while, through all of her miniscandals and image shifts (better known than any of her songs are), I didn't. But two events jogged my memory: First, she is playing Tuesday night at the Toledo Zoo amphitheater. Please feel free to insert here your own joke about whether the show will be live or Memorex. (Incidentally, one of her opening acts is MTV endless-rotation teen-throb Ashley Parker Angel. So yep, a veritable Ashlee & Ashley Lollapalooza.)

The other event - my iPod.

As anyone who owns one of these ubiquitous little gadgets will attest, the shuffle function (which takes however many thousand songs you've stored on it and spits them back randomly) is one of the world's best DJs, constantly throwing up surprising juxtapositions and choices, even eliminating the genre line.

Unless you narrow the selections, an iPod's shuffle function will give hip-hop equal weight with folk, Christmas tunes as much timelessness as the Beach Boys. And yes, factory-assembled pop acts like Ashlee Simpson the same relevance as a critic's favorite like Radiohead.

Your iPod is no rock snob.

Mine isn't.

Last winter, listening to music while driving, my iPod served up the elegiac blues of the Rolling Stones' "Moonlight Mile" followed by the Justin Timberlake slow jam of "Cry Me a River." Strange, but a shift without kickback. Then the electronic soul of Justin faded and up came the avant garde Japanese noise band the Boredoms - which pings and cracks with unnatural squawks of electronic manipulation. We'd gone from faux blues (the Stones) to faux-faux blues (Timberlake) to music that didn't sound of this earth - brilliant.

That's when Ashlee's "Boyfriend" came up, a faux punk ditty with the kind of driving chug that leads to speeding tickets. The lyrics (sandwiched with a refrain of "WHOA, Whoa, whoa, HUH!") are about how Ashlee swears she didn't steal this other gal's boyfriend - he called her.

But it sounded good.

Not in an ironic way, either.

Tight, fast, catchy - redundant, sure. But that's when my neck snapped back. As if teaching a lesson in rock snobbery, my iPod followed Ashlee with (oh, this is so good) the Gang of Four's "Damaged Goods" - tight, fast, catchy, one of those late 1970s punk songs that wouldn't sound out of place on a 2006 CD from a current hipster staple like Bloc Party. Or an Ashlee Simpson CD. Gang of Four sings about the commodification of modern life and she sings from her diary.

But to the naked ear?

In the same ballpark.

Of course, this is contingent on your actually having an Ashlee Simpson song in the first place. The nice thing is, you might. Disposable pop is hot at the moment. Ashlee may indeed be the least talented singer of her generation, but she is so at a time when hip-hop has loosened the grip it's had on charts for the past dozen years. There's nary a hipster band that hasn't name-checked Kelly Clarkson in an interview; nary a critic who hasn't admitted that Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" actually rocks - and just listen to Christina (hey-ay-ay-ay-eeee-oh) Aguilera's single "Ain't No Other Man" (whoa, whoa, bab-ee) and try to deny it.

Eeeeeeeee-yeah-yeah-whoa.

Not cool to admit you, hey, actually kind of like that new Paris Hilton song? Take solace in the fact that the Village Voice's annual (and influential) poll of the nation's music critics has lately been awash with names like Britney Spears, Usher, Kelly Clarkson, and one Mariah Carey.

Blame it on the popularity of American Idol, a virtual clearinghouse of Top 40. Or on the way iPods level the playing the field. Or (here's a shock), the simple way some of these songs, with their oooooos and babies and whoas have reminded us of the power of the hook - of the inescapable song everyone hears and everyone recognizes in a few beats and a melody, a phenomenon we once took for granted that's gone missing in the rush to fragment pop culture and serve it back in a personalized niche.

Let's not overstate things.

There's a reason Ashlee Simpson has been covering in concert the Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" and Peggy Lee's "Why Don't You Do Right?" And why the flagging sales of her CD led to its recent relaunch, complete with a new song, a cover of a tune from the obscure Cuyahoga Falls band Jaded Era.

She doesn't have good songs.

Not many, anyway.

But the snobbery against this stuff (or rockism, as it's sometimes called) - the kind that says guitars are synonymous with quality and the more unheard of the band, the better - is looking increasingly dumb.

Her voice is thin? Yeah, so? No worse than Patti Smith's voice is without modulation. Ashlee's a fake, assembled in a studio by publicists and marketing people and her gurulike Texas dad, Joe?

The history of pop, to some extent, is a history of questionable talents being discovered by deal-makers and paired with songwriters, musicians, and marketers. Heck, that's the history of punk acts like the Sex Pistols. (There's a reason the Ramones had a love affair with '60s novelty singles and girl groups.) Not to mention, there's a glorious history of one-hit wonders and no-talent successes, and the history of rock would be far more tedious without the quirkiness.

The great thing about rockism, however, is you never have to listen to the music you hate.

You dismiss it out of hand.

To these people, iTunes has been a boon. They no longer have to bring an Ashlee Simpson CD up to the counter of a record store and carry it home in a paper sack. They download it directly. After all, even though no one likes her music, and she's a walking punchline - one with a lifetime to redeem herself - she's managed to sell many millions of copies of her albums.

So who's going to her shows?

When I last checked the official online forum for her Toledo concert (www.ashleesimpsonmusic.com) it had 54 comments posted. Stuff like, "I can't wait to see you for the third time!!! Look for me in the very first row!!!" And "I am so excited! :)" And "Look for me!! I'm dragging my husband!!" And "My parents are so cheap that they couldn't even let me go to this concert. Ashlee Simpson is my favorite artist."

And, my favorite:

"Please!!!!!!! Come to ARGENTINA! Come to ARGENTINA! Come to ARGENTINA! Come to ARGENTINA! Come to ARGENTINA! Come to ARGENTINA!"

If one can judge a fan's love by the number of exclamation points in their notes - Ashlee, it's not easy being Ashlee, but you are appreciated, girl. Whoa whoa whoa. Oooooooooo, yeah.

Ashlee Simpson performs in a 7:30 p.m. concert Tuesday at the Toledo Zoo amphitheater, 2700 Broadway. Opening acts are Connor O'Brien and Ashley Parker Angel. Tickets, $42.50 and $32.50, are available from Ticketmaster or the Toledo Sports Arena box office, 1 Main St. On Tuesday, cash-only tickets will be available beginning at 5 p.m. at the zoo's Broadway entrance. For more information: 419-385-5721.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.



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