Ashlee Blows

But she's getting better

Ashlee Simpson sucks. A Yahoo search on that phrase generates 135,000 hits. Last December, New Times contributed to that chorus, writing that she had "dyed blandness black." But we revised that opinion after witnessing Simpson's compelling caterwauling during the Orange Bowl halftime show in early January. Despite her deceptively demure debut disc, Pieces of Me, Simpson is an alt-rock goddess in the works. When she finishes her Courtney Love-in-reverse makeover, which started with her transformation from a blond to a ruffled-feathered ravenhead, she'll be punk's Miss World.

Simpson's epiphany-provoking performance failed to impress college football fans, who jeered her relentlessly screechy rendition of "La La" despite the song's event-appropriate lyrics ("You can throw me like a lineman"). But then, there isn't much overlap between Trojan backers and Distillers diehards. Simpson's unadorned voice just keeps stabbing, like a tattoo needle, until it produces something freakishly beautiful. On record, her casually crooned claim "You make me wanna scream" is criminally unconvincing. Live, delivered at top volume in a screech that sounds like two cats getting stapled together, the sentiment becomes self-evident.

Simpson suddenly seems aware of her counterculture calling. At a recent concert in Kansas City, she covered Hole's "Celebrity Skin," her robust rasp cracking convincingly as she sang "Oh, make me over." She also commandeered the Pretenders' "Brass in Pocket," belting out, "I'm special, so special" like a whiskey-ravaged Joan Jett reciting a positivity pledge. And she tailored Blondie's "Call Me" to fit her husky tone, wisely phoning in a chorus that would have required her larynx to dial long distance.

Ashlee's picking up the Pieces and putting together a punk princess.
Ashlee's picking up the Pieces and putting together a punk princess.

As for her own material, "Shadow" felt like an endearingly damaged Christina Aguilera ballad, an ugly-duckling "Beautiful." Simpson teased a torch-song treatment of "La La" with appropriate wardrobe accessories (feather boa, stilettos), but she kicked off her shoes and got footloose before demonstrating that she could perform her signature, riding-an-invisible-broomstick-pony dance while wearing high heels. Simpson's stage presence demanded attention, albeit in the eager, look-at-me manner often exhibited by kids on diving boards.

Simpson's band, now featuring Ash's Lucy Walsh on keys, seems capable of making the move to grimier fare. During the brief costume changes, most of which consisted of the jeans-and-T-shirt-clad Simpson swapping hats, the group played Andrew W.K.-style synth-metal instrumentals. And Simpson appears ready to roll. "I'd like my next record to have a raw, gritty sound," she said during a post-show phone interview.

But the giggly, giddy Simpson might not have the unhinged personality that traditionally accompanies punk icons. For one thing, she mishandled her defining crisis, dancing like a gloating troll when her Saturday Night Live lip-synching stunt went awry. Instead, she should have asked herself a crucial question: What Would Courtney Do? Simpson could have let a stagehand suckle her breast or filibustered with a rambling diatribe filled with surprisingly highbrow historical references until the proper track could be located. These approaches would inspire doubters to call her "controversial" and "eccentric" rather than "untalented."

Simpson also reacted incorrectly to the Orange Bowl onslaught, recoiling as if she'd just been slapped upon hearing the crowd reaction and then apologizing on Total Request Live. A proper punk goddess would emphatically flip the bird or provoke her antagonists with a snappy retort like "You guys suck worse than the Sooners." Being ostentatiously inaccessible means never having to say you're sorry for a sour note -- or anything else, really.

"I didn't really get angry [at the boo birds]," Simpson says evenly. "A lot of people didn't want to give me a chance and still don't, because of, you know, things that I've gone through. But I'm doing just fine, with or without them. There are lots of mean people in this world, and I don't care what they have to say. Nobody's perfect, and people have to accept that."

Perhaps she just needs the right Henry Higgins. Good Charlotte's Benji and Joel Madden pop up in Simpson's liner notes ("you guys are so rad!"), but she's already tougher than those achingly pleasant pseudorebels. Rancid's mohawked marble-mouth, Tim Armstrong, who wrote tunes for Pink's Try This, could school her in anti-enunciation and anachronistic 1977 fashions. The Pretenders' famously prickly Chrissie Hynde, named by Simpson as her fashion idol to a likely perplexed Allure reporter, might be an effectively turbulent tutor. "It would be amazing to work with her," Simpson raves, her voice pulsating with oh-my-God enthusiasm.

If Simpson follows her aggressively off-key muse, her albums won't continue to sell millions, but she can live through this. On the average, underground artists have much longer careers than pop princesses. In terms of making the transition to a modestly successful long-haul artist, Simpson has several advantages over her platinum peers. Her show, which features no professional choreography, pyrotechnics, or flashy sets, would translate easily to small clubs. And unlike Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, Simpson demanded artistic freedom on her initial effort, which means she won't be stuck padding future set lists with dated songs she didn't write.

"I watched those girls do that, and I thought it was silly," Simpson says, coming as close as she gets to caustic criticism.

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