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Giving in to the Gimmick



Jessica Simpson is like Applebee's.

Let me explain.

Take her 2004 cover of the "The Little Drummer Boy."

In case you haven't heard the track, it's nominally a duet with her sister, Ashlee. Jessica takes the first line, trying, and very nearly failing, to pronounce the word, "told."  Then Ashlee comes in on the following line, aping the strong-but-hollow style of the '80s singer Tiffany (which, frankly, Tiffany did a lot better).

As usual, both Simpsons are having trouble breathing, as though they were just about to, well, you know. Neither seems aware that the song is about a 5-year-old playing a drum for baby Jesus, and that it's not supposed to be sexy. The power-ballad arrangement is worth mentioning for sheer bad taste, as are those Lord of the Dance pipes coming in at the end.

The song was featured on Jessica's Christmas album, "ReJoyce," which was sold in large part through 7-Eleven stores. I seem to remember a big display picture of Jessica, the wings of her hair flung back by the photographer's fan, pinned up above the soda fountain in the Cary Street store.

Simpson's "The Little Drummer Boy" could just be another ill-advised cover on another ill-advised Christmas album. But strangely, fascinatingly, there's more to it. Like a set that contains every last part necessary to build a real working miniature car, this cover contains all the elements of her essential creepiness. Yes, if we had to, perhaps in the event of nuclear apocalypse, we could reconstitute Jessica Simpson from her Christmas album.

What are the elements of her creepiness? First, there's the heavy-handed family togetherness — because who doesn't like family? — which instead comes across as uncooperative, even mercenary. That is, their duet actually sounds like an attempt to overpower one other. Then there's the sexiness — because who doesn't like sex? — which is totally out of place, some might say sacrilegious, in a song about baby Jesus.

I'm not accusing Simpson of sacrilege, though, just of complete disregard for vehicle. That is, Simpson and her handlers don't really care what song she's singing or what product she's pushing. Their marketing gimmicks are as cartoonish as Jessica's big hair. They are only paying attention to sales figures. So it's no wonder that her pop releases rarely break the top 10, or that her line of cloying, sticky makeup products flunked, too.

If you've been in a drugstore or a Sephora store lately, you've seen the discount bin full of her Dessert Treats, positioned by the door, marked down to 75 percent off. I have a feeling that those tubes of cotton-candy-flavored lip gloss are fated to clog up the drains of the world, along with billions of cigarette butts and those lime-flavored Tootsie Rolls that always survive Halloween uneaten.

Sure, other pop stars and starlets hawk products, too, but none do it in quite this empty-minded fashion. For better or for worse, Britney Spears seems to have a mind of her own, and a real feeling for pop music. Ditto Christina Aguilera. Both are convincing enough in their way. Simpson isn't, though. Her life phases are indistinguishable from the marketing campaigns that accompany them; she's not so much a singer or an actress as a glorified spokesperson. She's like Applebee's: not very authentic, but marketed as authentic. (And because most of her offerings are bland, too.)

Applebee's likes to characterize itself as a neighborhood restaurant. Even the apostrophe in the name of the restaurant suggests possession by some local, knowable quantity. But there could hardly be a less-appropriate way to describe Applebee's, because Applebee's is a vast international chain. Wisely, which is not to say anymore scrupulously, other marketers and politicians are aping the Applebee's style. See "Applebee's America: How Successful Political, Business, and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Community."

It's easy to understand why Simpson and Applebee's market themselves as they do. Everybody likes money. What I don't understand is why consumers endure this condescension. Where's the outcry, the "fireworks of derision," to borrow Martin Amis' phrase? Without some sort of outcry, we can only expect more of the same: more creepy covers of holiday classics, more lines of hair extensions on QVC, more fatty riblet platters on the table.

Bon appétit. S

Catherine Baab grew up in Richmond. She is currently completing a master's degree at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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