Four million people, give or take some attention, got a tweet gauntlet today from lapsed pop star Jessica Simpson:
"What kind of music would y'all want from me on my next album? Thinking about going back to the studio"
You have to wonder whether she'll even recognize the place. Simpson's last proper album was in 2008, an attempted country crossover. Two years before was A Public Affair, best known for its title track emulating Madonna; two years later was a Christmas album that was a) bizarrely, almost entirely produced by The-Dream and Tricky Stewart; b) not as good as a) would imply; c) not exactly classic. Her fashion line appears before her personal site in a Google search.
Things weren't always like this. A decade ago, Jessica Simpson was one-fourth of the pantheon of pop princesses that also included Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Mandy Moore, and while she was always solidly #3 or #4 in the royal succession, you never expected the quality of her music would drop so far so fast. Granted, Simpson's musical persona was based on the era's not-that-innocent teasing, a phase that's mostly passed.
What's stopping Simpson from a comeback, anyway? Others have bounced back from tabloid snarking, terrible albums and settled marriages. And the 2010s have been surprisingly friendly to 2000s stars. Justin Timberlake, Eminem and Beyonce still make hits and headlines. Of Simpson's direct peers, Britney and Christina do; if Mandy doesn't, it's as much a conscious choice than anything. While we'd love to joke about Simpson's possible ventures (House? Chillwave? Tejano?), we doubt she'll listen to any of that. So instead, on the off-chance that a member of Jessica Simpson's team is reading this post, here are three plausible musical directions, based on the career trajectories of her former royal court.
THE BRITNEY ROUTE:
Simpson's qualifications: Blonde, Southern, spotty tabloid past
Use your name recognition to meet with top-tier songwriters and producers. The-Dream's a start; you'll probably be able to get Shellback or Benny Blanco or other next Max Martins. Pump out a lot of slick songs that are the 2011 counterparts to your 2000 pop, laser-targeted at pop radio but containing some futuristic sonic weirdness that force critics to write you reviews including words like "avant-garde" and "dubstep." Have huge hits; adamantly insist your career never had a breakdown. Make millions somehow believe you.
THE CHRISTINA ROUTE:
Simpson's qualifications: Has attempted genre crossovers and extra-musical ventures, with varying success
Cram in hellish years of voice lessons before this route. Then, meet up with slightly outre songwriters and producers--Diplo, possibly, or hell, The-Dream again. Wait another year but trickle a name out every few months to stir up a rich froth of hype around your album. Throw a few solid ballads onto the album for good measure. Don't get as many sales (or good reviews) out of this as you'd like, but parlay it into a TV judging spot that'll give you a No. 1 hit later on. Alternate between musician, personality and other hyphenates to keep your star aglow.
THE MANDY ROUTE:
Simpson's qualifications: Has done covers of power ballads, has seriously tried to get into acting in non-musical films
Declare stylistic independence from all your teenpop material. Stage mass refunds of Sweet Kisses and Irresistible, then one-up Mandy by pulverizing the CDs and making the shards into bare-midriffed voodoo dolls. Sell the dolls as part of the Jessica Simpson collection to finance your next releases: a polished covers album and a pleasant folk-rock album called Jessica Ann. Give dozens of interviews about how this is a major artistic breakthrough for you. Have moderate sales but, now, a pathway to future albums.