on jessica simpsons’s memoir

i am giving myself exactly one hour and thirty-eight minutes in which to write about this. because there are 19 papers that need to be graded and i’m leaving for an estate sale with a friend at 9:45, but there are things i gots to say.

THE JESSICA SIMPSON MEMOIR IS AMAZING.

listen to your oline. this is not a lie.

it is a truth i have used what limited institutional power i have to broadcast.

yesterday, a bookshopper made a stray comment of “oh, jessica simpson has a memoir?” to her companion and i, perhaps more forcefully and more loudly than necessary in a small shop playing light jazz, declared, “YES, SHE DOES AND IT IS EXCELLENT.”

again, trust me: i speak truth.

fair warning: this is going to be a severely lacking book review because, i would argue, one of the best aspects of jessica simpson’s memoir– one of the reasons i keep recommending it to everyone– is that its allure is ineffable.

it is not at all that i have low literary expectations for jessica simpson.

this is not a marilyn monroe reading situation. this is not jessica simpson writes. i never once imagined she couldn’t.

when i heard she was publishing a memoir, i knew it would be good.

admittedly, given the ferocity of the advance press coverage, i did wonder if perhaps all of the beans would be spilled and the book might have nothing left to give. but i needn’t have worried, because, gossip-wise this is a book that giveth and giveth again. and then again.

but it’s something beyond that to, and i can’t quite lay my finger on what. which is supremely frustrating for someone who actually studies memoir and celebrity.

it’s something about the voice. it’s actually hers.

maybe she had help, maybe there was a ghost writer who worked with her, but regardless, the voice is 100% hers.

the reading experience is that of a one-on-one.

which other celebs have attempted, but my god is it effective beyond belief here.

jessica simpson and i go way back.

back to the first weekend of may 1999- when, just a few weeks shy of graduation, me and a motley sextet of sexually ambiguous high schoolers stood near a clump of trees facing the 2nd avenue stage of river stages passing judgement upon the approximately 35 teenyboppers who cared enough about jessica simpson to come see her sing at 10 a.m.

it seems important to establish where we were in my life narrative at this point in time. to make clear that i was young and impressionable and just about the most naive 17 a girl could be.

here is a picture of me and the love of my life playing at being adults at prom, a month before we saw jessica simpson on stage. (somehow we look older then than we do now.)

true story: seven months before, at a michael w. smith concert, a friend and i had asked her mother what oral sex was and whether orgasm was a synonym for papier-mâché. i’d never been kissed. my grades were my world. and then, suddenly, with the coming of spring, my boyfriend was gay and i was running with a crowd that saw concerts in daylight.

it is difficult to convey how deliciously deviant this seemed, how glamorous, how incredibly hedonistic in what i see now was such a juvenile way.

and in the midst of this there was jessica simpson.

i can’t find a picture of her from nashville, but this is apparently from 1999.

jessica simpson didn’t change my life. i know that. in reality, i promptly forgot about her. it was only years later that i even realized this famous person was the girl with the big boobs and bad backup dancers who had squinted into the sea of sweaty adolescents of which we were a dubious, judgmental part and instructed us to “do it up yo yo yo.”

and then i felt kind of bad.

the two things i vividly remember from that day?

(1) the six (seven? three?) of us, everyone but me smoking, cynics all, after very limited debate reaching the conclusion that jessica simpson wouldn’t amount to much.

(2) the 125 degree angle made by the slender bicep/elbow/forearm of the cool kid in the group, his angelic facial features distorted by a grin one would expect from the joker rather than a closeted gay southern baptist, as he recklessly flung jessica simpson’s demo (charred by a dalliance with a lighter) into the dump.

this was very long ago. we were all of us– jessica simpson included– very young. and we none of us had any clue what we were doing, engaged in performances of various kinds using scripts we’d been given.

but the thing that struck me in reading jessica simpson’s memoir is that we came from the same culture. that southern, evangelical world, characterized by a very strict set of rules for what it means to be a girl, what it means to be successful in one’s performance of being a girl, and what a good girl does and does not do.

we were both christian girls idolizing rebecca st. james, who may or may not have also been performing at that concert where my friend and i asked her mother about oral sex.

look at me bracing here, against the threat of the bouquet.

but this wasn’t the end of it.

when, in 2003, i finally started dating someone whom i’d had a crush on for years, as the battle of mosul raged on in the background on cnn, he confessed to me that he’d wanted to be with me ever since 9/11. because, after 9/11, it just seemed wrong not to be with the person you loved.

that’s how it was with jessica simpson and nick lachey, he told me. and i nodded and was deeply moved by this information that i somehow already knew.

because somehow, in the spring of 2003, the fact that 9/11 had brought jessica simpson and nick lachey back together was something people of my generation just knew. it was ambient info, floating on the air.

i do not know how we all knew this, but we did.

in early december 2006, the InTouch magazine screaming “NICK & JESS BUST UP!” landed at my door two days after i was dumped by this same someone. and i was alarmed to find that the article on how jessica simpson was drowning her sorrows in six-packs of zima hit entirely too close to home.

it is never good when the advice of a “medical expert who has never treated her but is familiar with her case” resonates.

to cope with this, i went to the rite-aid and bought a six pack of zima.

in winter 2006, having recently moved to chicago, i was walking down clark street in a rain shower and was mistaken for jessica simpson’s sister.

given my look at the time, this wasn’t entirely shocking. that i actually gave an autograph maybe was.

eyebrows were not in that year.

all that to say the obvious: oh how intimately woven into our lives these celebrities are.

but also i write that in order to think about this particular celebrity and what she has meant to women my age.

last spring, i read multiple memoirs on purity culture. they were excellent. they also all mentioned the extreme visibility of jessica simpson’s virginity in the early 2000s.

the prior year, there was a celeb on celeb dust-up online when the actor natalie portman said this in an interview:

“I remember being a teenager, and there was Jessica Simpson on the cover of a magazine saying ‘I’m a virgin’ while wearing a bikini, and I was confused,” Portman said.

“Like, I don’t know what this is trying to tell me as a woman, as a girl,” she said.

simpson responded on instagram, and portman amended her comments:

“I only meant to say I was confused — as a girl coming of age in the public eye around the same time — by the media’s mixed messages about how girls and women were supposed to behave. I didn’t mean to shame you and I’m sorry for any hurt my words may have caused. I have nothing but respect for your talent and your voice that you use to encourage and empower women all over the globe,” Portman said.

turns out simpson was confused too. #justlikeus

simpson’s book opens the door on this, revealing how she was similarly harmed by these mixed messages and by being asked, by tommy mattola at sony in particular, to embody virginal, teenage heterosexuality in a way that was neither authentic nor comfortable and, often, self-destructive.

i’m resisting the urge to say that no one looks good at the end of open book.

the men do not fare well, this is true. and, from the advanced press, one might be left with the impression of scorched earth. but it isn’t that.

rather, reading it, as someone who’s never participated in the music industry– outside of a brief stint in competitive church choir, during which i was informed it would be better for the team if i would lip-synch instead of sing– and who’s never been a celebrity nor married to a celebrity, it nonetheless feels frighteningly familiar.

i’m reminded of this essay on women and drinking. and this essay on women’ exhaustion. and this op-ed on the spectrum of sexual violence and rape.

i’m reminded of men i’ve dated and church youth group sessions i sat through. i’m reminded of all those purity pledges we signed in high school and the “true love waits” rings we wore.

i’m reminded of how fucking hard my friends and i tried to live up to something we didn’t understand, something that wasn’t possible, an idea of perfection constructed once upon a time by white men.

i’m aware how many of us are coping with the fallout of that effort in the here and now.

jessica simpson’s memoir sits within a long line of celebrity memoirs, but it also is situated in a very particular historical moment. i am not going to call her the voice of my generation (though she does feel like that for me, individually, in a way that, say, lena dunham never did). and i’m not going to say she’s the first to have written a book like this because, reading open book, i was often reminded of gabrielle union’s excellent we’re going to need more wine.

but open book hit me in a different way– a way in which race is likely relevant, because the white, southern, evangelical world simpson describes is one i also grew up in. hence the frightening familiarity. hence, maybe also, my tears at the book’s end.

part of the allure of celebrity is that they are people we know about, people we feel we know on some level because of all we know about them.

the fun of a celebrity memoir is that it confirms what we did know, and– if it’s a good one– lets us in on something we didn’t.

the value of that is that, in doing so, it tells us something not just about the celebrity’s life. it also tells us something of our own.

 

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