The Calculated Rebellion of Miley Cyrus

On May 18, Miley Cyrus released a song called “Can’t Be Tamed,” the title track to her new album, out now. Cyrus, of course, is one of the Disney Channel’s recent brood of teenage multimedia moguls, the star of a sitcom called Hannah Montana, the plot of which is surprisingly complicated and will not be unpacked here. Suffice it to say that if you were an 11-year-old girl, your mother would not mind you watching this show, though she probably wouldn’t watch it with you. And you’d outgrow it quickly, even if you still sang the occasional Miley song into the occasional hairbrush.

Anyway, in “Can’t Be Tamed,” M.C. declares that 1) She always has to get her way, 2) This is because she is hot, 3) Said hotness ensures that she “always gets the 10s,” and, finally, 4) She can’t be tamed. Cyrus’s vocals are harsh and preeningly robotic in the rote code for Badass Chick—same goes for the squashed, menacing synth beat extracted from early Lady Gaga singles. (It’s not an imaginative song.) On June 3, Cyrus performed the song on Britain’s Got Talent and pretended to kiss a female backup singer. Several newspapers charitably announced that this had “shocked Britain.”

I would bet that you’re unmoved by all this. Not just because you probably suspect that Cyrus’s rebelliousness is just another stage in the marketing of a bloodlessly managed persona, but because you have seen this particular stage of persona-marketing about eight trillion times. It’s what Disney-affiliated pop stars do without fail when they hit about 18; it’s what Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake all did. Ashlee Simpson opened her debut album, Autobiography, maybe 2000s teen pop’s one stone classic, by claiming, “You think you know me,” even though this was her first album and most of us didn’t really think that. (She was rebelling not against her past but her antiseptic sister, Jessica, whom we did think we knew.)

We all know how this works. We know that to talk about these stars without using phrases like “market share” and “demographic management” is to be, on some important level, a dupe. We also know that the people buzzing thickly around the YouTube comment sections for Britney’s “I’m a Slave 4 U” or Christina’s “Dirrty” or, indeed, “Can’t Be Tamed” are unanimously naïve: that the girls putting off their biology reports to type encomiums to Miley’s beauty and bravery, and the boys frothingly calling her a slut and a whore, are washing extreme emotion up against something no more emotional than a wire transfer.

OK, but let’s talk about Miley Cyrus. Who is, after all, a human girl not unlike one you may know or be. She’s 17—18 in November. From the age of 12, she has essentially been a wholly owned subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, according to whose mores she has had to speak, sing, behave, and (you could argue if you wanted to get all Orwellian about it) think. For this, she’s been rewarded with adoration and money; you’d be hard-pressed to consider Cyrus “unfortunate” from any serious perspective. But you’d also be hard-pressed not to admit that right now, in her position, you would yourself really want to play down your relationship with an oversize anthropomorphic rodent.

Which is the source of everything good about this stuff. Albums like Can’t Be Tamed are on their surface selling authenticity, and it doesn’t take a lot of sophistication to see that the resulting product is ruinously tainted. But there’s pleasure and nourishment in the friction between real and fake, between desperate and calculated. So: When Britney gets on the dance floor and says she’s a slave 4 U, she’s shedding one kind of subservience for another—except her new slavery is strange and menacing and exciting and may last only as long as the song. And the old slavery hasn’t really gone away, which makes the song a little like Juliet’s balcony, a place to stuff yourself with greedy kisses before your nurse calls from offstage. This is richer and sexier and more interesting than simple teenage rebellion or corporate accounting.

So that’s how this stuff can work. Can’t Be Tamed mostly doesn’t. A lot of its songs are ballads that ooze sap like an abandoned sponge; the only one that stands out is the really terrible one that goes, “The only thing that/Our hearts are made of/Are the acts of forgiveness and love.” (There’s also a cover of Poison’s perennial “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” which is itself stupidly sappy but really good at it, and just makes everything else here look worse.) The good stuff: There’s a song called “Two More Lonely People” that turns a second of country guitar into a dance-floor loop, which is cool in a New Order kind of way. There’s one called “Permanent December” with a part that makes good use of Miley’s freakishly mature sarcasm-voice. And there’s one called “Robot,” which is a good place to finish up.

“Robot” is co-written by John Shanks, who also co-wrote most of Simpson’s Autobiography, and there’s something of that album not only in the wailing, fuzzy chorus (which in Cyrus’s mouth blurs into noisy oblivion) but in the tense and brutal verses: “I mistake the game for being smart/Stand here/Sell this/And hit your mark,” and then, “There’s nothing left inside/Except rusted metal that was never even mine,” and then, “I would scream/But I’m just this hollow shell,” and I mean, Jesus. This turns out to be the only truly interesting moment on Can’t Be Tamed—the breaking-up-with-Mickey song to rule them all, more explicit and bitter about being a corporate instrument than anything else in its well-populated genre. It ends well, of course: Miley’s “not your robot/I’m just me.”

Which she is. But she’s also their robot. This is complicated, you see, even though it’s trivial, and I totally forgive you if you’d rather be thinking about something else. Don’t worry. The girls of the Mouse will still be down here, pacing a churned and muddy DMZ between feeling and marketing, between girlhood and the bottom line, hemmed in and doomed, singing into their hairbrushes.



Philadelphia takes over Central Park. Diplo, the elder here, cleared the way for the rest of this bill—without his ubiquitous early-aughts equations between Southern rap, ’80s synths, baile funk, Daft Punk, P.J. Harvey, etc., the genre-chopping headliner here—dub-y songstress Santogold—wouldn’t even exist. It’s not exactly his moment anymore, but you won’t find too many cynics within earshot of any ’08 stage he decides to get on. The of-the-moment draw, though, is Santogold, who got to quit her day job as a songwriter for Ashlee Simpson, among others, when her excellent self-titled record came out in April. She’s our first post-M.I.A. pop star, not so much sonically as conceptually: frenetic, global production, a cozy relationship with her label’s advertising and licensing department, and a gang of talented friends (Diplo contributed tracks to her debut) who consistently make her better. With Kanye West’s DJ, A-Trak, and local rap phenom Kid Cudi.

Sun., July 20, 3 p.m., 2008


The Veronicas’ Hook Me Up

Hook Me Up to a Computer might be a more accurate title for the second full-length from this Australian twin-sister act, which took its name from the black-haired babe of Archie Comics fame and, on 2005’s The Secret Life Of . . ., took its sound from the tween-rock tantrum of “Since U Been Gone,” as fertile a piece of source material as any since “Billie Jean” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Here, for the most part, the Veronicas trade the stretched-taut guitars and kiddie-punk drums of their debut for blocky club beats and ’80s-inspired synth riffs; their principal collaborator was the German songwriter Toby Gad, who, after penning a handful of Milli Vanilli tunes, has built a successful career writing for pop acts including Ricky Martin and Fergie.

Like Ashlee Simpson’s recent Bittersweet World, on which Mrs. Pete Wentz went from aping Courtney Love to aping Gwen Stefani, the result of the sisters’ transformation isn’t without its pleasures: Opener “Untouched” has a paranoid keyboard arpeggio and spooky string stabs that provide some unrelenting forward motion, while the title track repurposes “Tainted Love” for kids too cool (or stupid) for Rihanna’s “S.O.S.” Yet what distinguishes the Veronicas from any number of their demographic peers (when indeed they’re distinguishable) is the way their superhumanly screwed-in harmonies contrast with the natural push-and-pull of people playing instruments; it’s what makes the duo’s music say something intense about being young and confused and, as they sing on “This Is How It Feels,” broken with a heart wide open. Thanks to the preponderance of frictionless electronic settings, that special sauce is in short supply on Hook Me Up. This time, the Veronicas just sound like two more hot chicks out for a good time on Saturday night—valuable, sure, but not important.

The Veronicas play the Fillmore New York at Irving Plaza June 25


Musto vs. Musto

Michael Musto—our tirelessly night-crawling La Dolce Musto columnist—has collated a bunch of his fiercest columns into a book, published this month with the shockingly revisionist title La Dolce Musto (Carroll & Graf, $15.95). To mark this prestigious occasion, we asked Musto
—he of the open bars and open fly—to interview himself. He not only agreed to do so, he wrote this introduction.

Michael Musto: Why a book, dear? Shouldn’t you read one before writing one?
Michael Musto: For your information, bitch, I happen to have read a lot of them—
back at Columbia. And the time seemed right for this project, since (a) it’s way easier to do a collection than actually write something new, (b) how much longer can I live?, and (c) the gossip landscape has changed so much in my [ mumbles] years here that now’s as good an opportunity as any to look back and reflect before soldiering on to the next red-carpet dreck-athon.

You started here in ’84, to be precise. I believe Warren G. Harding was president at the time.
My first column was actually in hieroglyphics, ba-dum-pum. (I’ll be here through Thursday night. Check out the ribs platter.) It was considered a guilty pleasure—minus the pleasure—and it was distinctly non-Voicey, since this was way before pop culture became so pervasive that even my aunt the nun started saying stuff like “What’s with Ashlee Simpson’s new nose?” But I kept guzzling and spewing, determined to change the face of gossip by snarking it up and bringing ’em down. In fact, I adopted such an aggressively nasty tone that publicists wouldn’t cooperate with me and stars would run whenever I entered a room. I quickly learned to temper that tone so only half of them ran. And I’m glad it’s the A-listers who do so; the B, C, and D stars are much better copy.

You certainly spin it all into magic. [ Rolls eyes.] The Voice has always given you complete freedom to write what you please, yes?
Yes! My editors have never said, “You can’t trash that futon store or transsexual escort. They advertise!” They’re even letting me interview myself, for God’s sake. The get-away-with-murder aspect of it all has been wildly cathartic for me, seeing as I’m paid to engorge myself with sumptuous buffets, dance around the pleasure dome, and then scrawl whatever breathless ravings I want about it all every week en route to cashing my check. Before I got the column, I used to pay the rent with kill fees.

Shocking! Do you regret anything you’ve written?
Yes. I wrote something nice once.

I remember that. I think you praised the Broadway musical version of Carrie. Speaking of which, why did you decide to be gay?
It’s not a choice, moron. But I did decide to be openly gay, if that’s what you mean. I can’t exactly pass for straight—and besides, I wanted to be honest about everything so I’d be free to dissect celebrities’ personal lives without hypocrisy. I’ve even written columns about my seizure disorder and my slut phase (which I’m starting to think were interrelated).

Your constant public gyrations would certainly seem to suggest so. Why aren’t celebrities themselves more willing to flounce out of closets?
They’re squeamish and career-driven and usually are surrounded by people
—often gay themselves— who feel coming out isn’t an option because it might diminish
10 percent of the pie. But I always felt if these stars stopped
acting like being gay is such an unspeakable horror, their fans would follow suit. For years I screeched in print at Rosie O’Donnell for being so publicly ambigu
ous—but then she finally came out with an explosion of potpourri and flannel, called me a gay Nazi, and became the biggest in-your-face dyke since Eleanor Roosevelt. And this little Nazi
faygeleh is thrilled. Like I said, the landscape’s changing.

But how thrilled are you about all the gossip bloggers moving in on your turf and co-opting our brain cells? Don’t you want to reach for the trigger, hon?
Au contraire. They add energy and immediacy to reporting and have forced the print media to be way less antsy about sexuality issues. When the daily columnists scream, “But they’re inaccurate a lot,” you want to yell, “Hello, pot!”

Whoa, nelly! All right, I can tell you want to go back to talking about yourself. What reactions have you gotten from your subjects (aside from running when you enter a room)?
Well, Gwyneth Paltrow said she admired my rage; Vincent Gallo screamed into my machine that I’d misquoted him (yeah, he’d actually said Anjelica Huston was a big C-word); Fiona Apple was mad at something she thought I wrote (though I’d actually written something else horrible about her); Whoopi Goldberg sent a telegram instructing me to get a sense of humor; and oh, did I mention that gay-Nazi thing?

You’re a little too proud of that, aren’t you? [Uncomfortable pause.] Who are the most constant presences in the book, aside from your ego and your id?
Madonna and Sandra Bernhard. When they were gal-palling around the media, they provided the high-water mark of gay speculation, back when it was still cutting-edge and a little bit dirty to be “that way.” I feel Madge helped the gays more than any politician just by always nodding to us and granting us the deference we craved (though some voguers are still flailing around screaming, “She stole our act!”).

Sounds like you might want to strike a poseur. What’s your favorite column—
of yours?

They’re all my children! No, I’m kidding—I just always wanted to say that. My fave is probably the night out I did with the comedy group the Kids in the Hall, back when celebs were way less inaccessible and guarded. (I’m probably saying “way back when” a little too much. I didn’t used to do that way back when.) We were all pinching each other’s nipples and discussing the hazards of fisting, in between debating the vagaries of international politics. One of them even seemed ready to come home with me, but I don’t believe in starfucking, so I figured, “Why should I let him fuck a star?”

You are big, aren’t you? You’re on every single showexcept for the major networks.
Yes. I have become so accustomed to doling out soundbites that I can barely lift my head and talk to a friend if they’re not pointing a camera at my face. I’m so rehearsed by now that you merely have to tell me whether the subject is “Britney’s a ‘ho” or “Britney’s a goddess” and wind me up and there I go, delivering 12 to 18 seconds of chirpy blather that tells you everything you need to know without really telling you a thing. But it’s fun to have your opinion asked about everything
—from Mary-Kate to Ashley—and to have people yelp with excitement when they see you on the street, even if they think they know you from a Doritos commercial.

Make me yelp with excitement, Michael. Give me some gossip.
You’re a huge, gaping asshole! And by the way, it’s just that kind of pristine wit you can find in my new book, La Dolce Musto.


Pop Den Mother Needs a Taste of Her Own Medicine

Kara DioGuardi has been co-writer, co-producer, background singer, and probably bottle washer and therapist for a whole hunk of the best pop music of the last half-decade. She’s helped Hilary Duff to create fragile beauty and Lindsay Lohan to frolic and cry and Ashlee Simpson to restlessly probe herself and Kelly Clarkson to scream her guts out. Problem is that when she works with anyone much older than mid-twenties, the music dulls out. Now at age 35, with Platinum Weird, she’s singing lead on her first major release, working with Dave Stewart (age 54) of Eurythmics fame. The album is in the Fleetwood Mac–Sheryl Crow pop-rock line, with Stewart adding a Rolling Stones groove. DioGuardi’s a deep-voiced toughie—just Stewart’s type—and she’ll often end tracks with gospel-based fireworks, shouting and vamping over the background vocals. The results are respectable enough and occasionally wonderful, but have much less character than you get from the small-voiced, electronically enhanced Lindsays and Parises. Lyrics tend from the audaciously good (“Your promised land doesn’t stand/Can’t hold back the avalanche”) to the inexplicably terrible (“Have you thrown a wish into the ocean/And watched it slowly float away”), but they don’t jell. You have imagery with no story to connect to, so you end up with floating platitudes. What Kara needs is her own Kara DioGuardi, someone to do for her what she did for Lindsay: draw her out and find a way to make her words and sounds into her words and sounds.


Simpson Verdict

“We like to do things larger than life,” declared Victoria’s Secret Pink spokeswoman Sara Tervo, the day before the massive promotional bash for PINK, the company’s loungewear line for college-age girls. What was billed as the World’s Largest Pajama Party might have been missing a few beds and frozen bras, but it was not low on spectacle. God only knows how many V-string thongs sales it took to finance the massive two-floor set Ashlee Simpson would perform a grand total of five songs on, for the gargantuan polka dotted dogs that greeted revelers near the entrance, for the post-performance screening of Pretty in Pink, for the battalion of pr and security to keep plebes like us out of the free-drink VIP tent. Those who came at 7 p.m. when the event began and stayed until the time Ashlee actually appeared onstage (almost three hours later) were rewarded with free stuffed plush pink canines, pink cotton candy, pink flavored water, pink blankets that proclaimed Phi Beta Pink (huh?), and pink backpacks.

Created in 2004, the PINK brand is targeted at the 18-22 crowd; Victoria’s Secret has even partnered up with MTV to target campuses with the mtvU Girls That Rock Tour, and created its own webpage to download PINK MySpace logos. But short of a few lace thongs and bras, the collection—mostly candy-colored cropped sweats, lounge pants, and tee shirts that bear sayings like “Love Pink” and “Pink Academy”—has a cutesy tween appeal.

After an opening film montage and a few seconds of overly-enthusiastic guitar pogoing by her all-dude band, Ashlee took the stage. Sporting a gray-checked bustier with attached garter straps swinging over her jeans and a black bra peeking underneath, Little Sister was all grown up—a parent-sanctioned version of a Girl Gone Wild, complete with wavy Paris Hilton locks cascading over her bronzed-up shoulders and eyebrows tweezed drag-queen thin. We missed the old Ashlee with her mall-rat outcast shtick, however contrived it was. Pole dancing to a street-lamp prop and slapping her ass, Ashlee swiftly sang—so we think—through her stockpile of hits (“Lala,” “Pieces of Me,” “Boyfriend”). Giggling breathlessly between songs, she made a few comments with classic CosmoGIRL-credibility: “It is so cute, everyone in their pajamas, I love it—every night we get into our pajamas and watch music DVDs.” (Right.) “I heard there’s a lot of candy out there, I’m pretty jealous! (Not to worry, we’re sure there’s better “candy” backstage.) We leaned in for a gander at her celebrated new nose, and even from twenty people back, one could tell Simpson had committed what we like to call the “Jennifer Grey.” The “neither denied nor confirmed” nose job had transformed her from quirky and unique to commonplace and forgettable. Old Ashlee—dark hair, Hot Topic gear, imperfect virgin shnoz—might have shown her realistic teen awkwardness a bit too much to be a true PINK chick in one of those “Don’t Mess With this Girl in Pink” baby tees. New Ashlee is the smiling sorority sister, the blond cheerleader, the perky in pink.

“Ashley or Jessica?,” we asked a guy on the way out. “Pre-op or Post-op?” he smart-assed back.



Cake Shop’s “God rave”—so dubbed, Easter Sunday, by YACHT’s Jona Bechtolt—was only the most right-now lie (show was not a rave) told by the three brothers-in-laptop (YACHT, Bobby Birdman, E*Rock) present. Other fiction included fake dates on the back of the tour shirt (“Praha” was a larf); E*Rock’s originals, written variously by Yaz, Soft Cell, and whoever he ripped his “fight fight fight for your fanta-sy” bit from; and Bobby Birdman’s chest-sized dreamcatcher. The inordinate amount of time the trio spent running in and out of the crowd? Less a lie than true two ways: Dudes were rock stars or populists, depending on which end of the jog they were on.

Like a wised-up SNL-night Ashlee Simpson, YACHT and co.’s DIY-meets-computers-meets-rap—they too mostly danced to prerecorded tracks—looked to capture the audience’s heart by lying to us: to be onstage and bad at it at the same time. YACHT sang “Drawing in the Dark”—”Why would you be drawing in the dark/When you could be drawing in the light?”—with untouched markers in front of him, a dare nobody took ’cause he didn’t really want them to. He also smashed his laptop screen, by accident. Broken, pixels everywhere, it looked just like the stage’s back wall, on which the letters Y.A.C.H.T. were colorfully projected.

Birdman, closing the show, used a great smarmy lounge-singer voice to instead tell jokes about a washed-up Swedish entertainer he saw singing identical “get high on hope” schlock over and over different tracks of Mortal Kombat techno. When he himself finally crooned, you wondered about Bobby’s own fate: The joke was on us, sure, but on him too.


Harmonic Convergence

It’s been an amazing decade for teenpop, and it’s amazing right now, Aly & AJ’s “Rush” coming in at the end of last year and the Veronicas’ “4ever” this year, each with absolutely piercing penetrating X-ray harmonies, as vibrant and insanely sweet as the early Beatles and Byrds before those bands “grew” out of it. In retrospect it feels as if, starting back in 2001 with Michelle Branch’s “Everywhere” and on through Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” Ashlee Simpson’s “La La,” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” something has been straining to let loose: simple outrageous exquisite sound. Maybe because Aly & AJ and the Veronicas are both sister acts, two lead singers apiece, there’s no holding back their harmonies.

Of course, it’s not so simple. The same high harmony can be eerie or desperate or blissful depending on what surrounds it and how it’s delivered. And harmony is just one of the things going on in a song, and songs like these are just a sliver of what’s happening in teenpop, which is never just joy joy joy kids kids kids fun fun fun, anyway. The Beatles were never merely yeah yeah yeah either (“she says you hurt her so, she almost lost her mind”). “4ever” starts with dissonant guitar twang, then in the verse the vocals do a bitchy brat-punk and the music goes up a menacing Transylvanian half-step—as the lead singer basically orders some guy to come on to her—that leads into cascading harmony, inviting us to surround ourselves in its blinding emotion. But in the break the girls sing, as if bargaining, “Let’s pretend you’re mine—we could just pretend, we could just pretend, yeah yeah.” So the ecstatic “We could make the night last forever” has as its underpinnings the idea that not only won’t life last forever but that this particular love won’t even make it past the night.

Which may be how the Veronicas want it. Like a lot of teenpoppers, they run psychologist Erik Erikson’s stage five of youth development (identity versus role diffusion) into stage six (intimacy versus isolation) so as to come up with identity versus intimacy, which is certainly a no-win dichotomy. It leaves me uneasy, despite my liking the music on The Secret Life of . . . . No other songs are as good as “4ever,” but a slew are somewhat within range, with the same brat-bitch vocals and scintillating harmonies and with lyrics that all say “It ain’t me babe” in some way or another: I’m not who you think I am, I’m not who you want, our affair isn’t what it seems. Then, as the album tails off, they sing several sappy love songs with a pro forma ache that’s as dull as any other pop singer’s pro forma ache. This isn’t a poor batting average (two-thirds good), but I’m left feeling queasy, the Veronicas’ being sentimental and sharp-tongued in such proximity. But hey, what’s my problem? Wouldn’t “sentimental and sharp” be, like, the woman of my dreams? Well, the “sharpness” is sometimes glib—the ease with which they put down potential suitors and throw over boyfriends—and I’m wavering between two descriptions: “sentimental and sharp” when I’m feeling good about it, “sappy and caustic” otherwise. One track that bugs me in particular tells a potentially interesting story: A longtime trusted gay confidant whom the narrator had opened her soul to unexpectedly starts putting the moves on her; she not only doesn’t want this, she feels vulnerable and betrayed. So far so human, and I think homophobia is the opposite of the song’s intent, but the line that’s given the spotlight, the showstopper, is “I always thought you were gay,” the word “gay” hanging there as if it’s something creepy.

In fact, the Veronicas‘ sound is unsettled, though this isn’t necessarily a flaw: Their high-pitched beauty feels aggressive, like those needlepoint water sprays you can set on your shower head. “Harm me with harmony,” Naughty by Nature once said. It’s like a woman who will wrap herself deliciously around you and then spit in your eye just to show you she’s real.


She’s Not Your Steppin’ Stone

At first I was dismayed by the title of Ashlee Simpson’s I Am Me, fearing that yet another post-teenpopper had gone poetically maudlin with an Affirmation of Self. Instead, the title song turns out to be a glorious fuck-you aimed at a man who dumped her. And of course it is an affirmation of self: “I am me and I won’t change for anyone, for anyone, like YOU,” sung in a Courtney Love voice with Courtney Love fury. So to find herself she first needs someone to knock her down and someone else to lend her the voice that lifts her back up and lacerates the guy who’d originally thrown her over. Ashlee ends up snarling, “What’s she got that I don’t have?” and then her singing dances triumphantly through wordless “Whoa whoa whoas.” So her self-affirmation has to battle with her rage and jealousy, which provide the real energy for her dance. Not a simple story, is it?

Ashlee is modeling self-esteem for teen girls, telling them they can triumph over adversity and survive without a man and that a breakup may be the best thing that happens to them (you hear this message all the time in teenpop). And she’s trying to work defeat and desperation into all this self-worth. These two impulses aren’t necessarily antithetical: The Courtney Love types—Ashlee isn’t one, even though she has her angry moments—are ultimately affirming themselves too, or affirming
something, embracing life including one’s own disastrous self. But certainly that quest takes them through a whole heap of self-loathing.

Recently on a message board, someone named Cunga called Ashlee “a rich valley girl with a Christian youth-group father incorporating the image of a G-rated ‘rocker/punk’ as a marketing move for the type of MTV viewing teens who might think Green Day is the epitome of dangerous.” I won’t argue, because I don’t know. Until a couple of weeks ago it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder if Ashlee might be punk. If she is, it’s just an impulse (emotional? aesthetic? commercial?), not a lifestyle choice. She’s not in alternative’s sociopostyouthical quasi-bohemia. Some people in that bohemia not only can’t imagine that an Ashlee Simpson could possibly create an album that’s better than the recent Hold Steady, Lightning Bolt, LCD Soundsystem (but she did, and it’s better than the Pink and Avril albums that paved her way too), but they also can’t consider the idea that her occasional punk moments are more galvanizing than those of the Hold Steady et al. But you know, if you go way back to the original punk rock, it wasn’t just angry kids in the garage but bizzers and pros and schemers and nice girls in cubicles writing lyrics on demand and copycats trying this and that fashionable style and getting lucky on the angry stuff (that last applies to the kids in the garage too): “Steppin’ Stone,” “Kicks,” “96 Tears,” “Wild Thing,” “Gloria,” “Hanky Panky.”

What Ashlee and her main collaborator, John Shanks, themselves do, actually, is to pull styles from here and there: The current single “L.O.V.E.” is funny chirpy dance-funk on the theme of girl bonding, and it’s great. The album’s first single, “Boyfriend,” uses an echoed laugh right off the Clash’s “London Calling” and mimics that same song’s clipped reggae chords, with a Gang of Four/Franz Ferdinand snapping-twig guitar riff launching each verse. Ashlee goes tuneful and anthemic on the chorus; this may seem to run counter to the song’s bubble-punk impulses, but works for me (one of the potent contradictions in “Anarchy in the U.K.” is that it’s an engaging wrap-your-arms-around-each-other sing-along anthem about destroying everything). “Catch Me When I Fall” is a good soft, sensitive ballad. She asks, “Who will save me from myself?” but basically evades the issue, since she wants to be rescued rather than transformed. She sings, “When the lights are off something’s killing me,” but she doesn’t say what’s killing her. (I mean, like, boo hoo. As Gary Allan says, things are tough all over.) I do wonder if her choruses wouldn’t be more powerful if she didn’t rely so much on souping everything up with double-tracked singing and 101 guitars. Her voice isn’t a powerhouse, and it’s not as scabrous or throat-retchingly thrilling as Courtney’s, but it is a tough little one, the bruised feel being perhaps too consistent, too solid. I want to hear the voice crack up. I miss the excitement of music potentially veering out of control, which I get a little bit from Franz Ferdinand and a lot from long-ago bands like the Electric Eels and the Stooges, the feel of somehow keeping your wheels under you while skidding full-throttle near the cliff. Right, we’re not getting that from Ashlee. But we’re rarely getting it from anyone else, either.


Get del Real

Natalia Lafourcade skipped happily through her self-titled debut like a giggling six-year-old, strumming an acoustic guitar over bossa nova rhythms and unobtrusive turntables. She got loud like Kelly Clarkson on the choruses, murmured like Hope Sandoval on the verses, and charmed coquettishly all the way through. For her next trick, she’s “joined” her touring band and decided to “rock.” This mostly means her debut’s pop-ist producers have been replaced on 11 of 15 tracks by Café Tacuba’s Emmanuel del Real.

The first single, “Ser Humano,” was one of the four songs produced by the debut’s mastermind, Aureo Baqueiro; it’s a dance-rock anthem with twangy guitar and a hiccupy, roaring chorus, and somebody needs to translate the lyrics for Clarkson or Ashlee Simpson like, now. But the tropical disco joy of the title track is an even better manifestation of Lafourcade’s still-blossoming brilliance. Some listeners will surely hear
Casa as a retreat from the weird cutesiness of the first album into a more staid Latin alt-rock sound. That’s their problem. The keyboards on “El Amor Es Rosa,” the art-rock stomp of “Suelo,” and Natalia’s amped-up vocals (she frequently sounds like the young Andrea Echeverri) are all the defense this album needs.