[Metroactive Music]

[ Music Index | Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

Photograph by Mark Liddell

What Does This Thing Do?: Ashlee Simpson puts the whole lipsyncing episode behind her.

Family Ties

Are careers of Ashlee and Jessica Simpson 21st-century versions of vaudeville clans?

By Sara Bir

FAME, family and the entertainment industry have a long history. Perhaps maintaining nature's strongest bond is the best way to cope with the pitfalls and demands of the stage—or, perhaps, the easiest way to recruit new members for the act is to spawn them yourself: bred for the biz.

Pundits and pop-culture junkies have raised enough stink over the dubious artistic merit of Ashlee Simpson's vocal to give a Whole Foods cheese counter a run. But there hasn't been much discussion dedicated to how their father, Joe Simpson, managed their careers to the degree that both of his daughters have reality shows on MTV. Am I the only one who thinks this is creepy? Maybe it's because on their respective shows the Simpson gals don't necessarily come across as terribly gifted in the intellectual or performance departments—which exploits those watching at home more than it does Ashlee and Jessica.

Papa Simpson is just trying to engineer his family's success in the most effective way possible. But when set against the archetypes of show-biz parents, it's hard to see where Joe and his wife, Tina Simpson, fit in. Thanks to musicals, movies and '70s sitcoms starring Shirley Jones, we average nonfamous folks know that all show-biz parents fall into four categories: there's the tyrannical mother (Rose, mother of Gypsy Rose Lee), the overbearing father (Leopold Mozart, father of Wolfgang), the beater (Joe Jackson, father of Janet, Michael, LaToya, et al.) and the mother hen (Shirley Partridge).

As for the gaggle of siblings prancing across a stage in homemade matching outfits—the Osmonds, the Cowsills and the Jacksons—they're all gone. The heyday for that sort of thing was not the '70s, but the golden era of vaudeville, which brackets the turn of the 20th century. Judy Garland got her start as part of her family's act, the Gumm Sisters. And you can't get any more melodramatic than the story of Violet and Daisy Hilton, conjoined twins born in 1908 whose abusive guardians forced them into a rigorous life on the sideshow circuit. After attaining their independence, Daisy and Violet made the rounds of vaudeville with a show called the Hilton Sisters' Revue. The 1997 musical Side Show is loosely based on the sisters' lives.

Jessica and Ashlee don't fall so easily into any of these molds. They aren't part of the same act (the blonde one vs. the dyed-brunette one, the soft pop one vs. the dyed-punk one), but in the larger picture they fall under the same brand: Simpson. From very early on, back when the Simpsons lived in Texas and Joe was a youth minister at a Baptist church, both of the girls were routed on an entertainment track; Jessica toured, performing at Christian youth concerts, while Ashlee famously began dance lessons at 4, and at 11 entered the School of American Ballet, becoming the youngest student ever admitted.

Joe became Jessica's manager, then Ashlee's, eventually forming his own label, JT Records. News on Ashlee's website reports that Joe Simpson is now producing a movie, to star none other than Ashlee Simpson.

There's a small part of me wondering if this is a rare breed of the overachieving-parents phenomenon—the same ones who send their kids to space camp and soccer practice before shuffling them off for French tutoring and cello lessons, parents who want their kids to have everything that was not available to them in their youths. Well, how many parents had fame as an option? In our society, where people will literally have body parts removed to get on television, fame—at any price or any level—is seen as the highest achievement to many. Therefore, if you love your offspring enough, you will produce the things that will rocket them to the coveted next level.

There's also the very distinct possibility that, like hundreds of show-biz families in history, the Simpson entertainment machine chugs on because it is their job, their livelihood and their passion. For the futures of Ashlee and Jessica, let's hope so.

Ashlee Simpson performs Tuesday (Feb. 22) at the SJSU Event Center. Tickets are $29.50$39.50 and available through Ticketmaster.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

[ Silicon Valley | Metroactive Home | Archives ]

From the February 16-22, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.