They say a well-rounded education is the key to success, and if that truly is the case, the my schooling is woefully incomplete when it comes to the subject of pop. That's why we bring you "Popology," the guide to modern radio-friendly stars as seen through the eyes of a guy who grew up on punk and metal. In case you missed previous installments, check out my thoughts on Britney Spears' landmark debut and the final album from *NSYNC.
In this week's installment, Jessica Simpson kisses everybody hello.
When Jessica Simpson dropped her debut album Sweet Kisses in November of 1999, the hype about her was that she was the real deal. In a sea of Britneys, Christinas and Mandys, Simpson was touted as having a super-serious voice. She was a balladeer with a gigantic instrument who eschewed dance tracks and dancing in videos in favor of soaring balladry. She was like a second-generation Celine Dion, except from the American Heartland and not, you know, Canada.
Based on the opening track of Sweet Kisses, that's an accurate assessment. For a single from a pop album meant to appeal to teens, "I Wanna Love You Forever" is a pretty traditional ballad. Apparently, it was a gigantic hit, though I really have no recollection of it at all. (Of all the albums I've listened to for this feature, her catalog is the most remote to me.) Simpson sits back and belts like the Titanic is sinking, and it's produced with a majestic, almost stoic air of dignity. Her voice is for real, and the chorus of the song ("From the moment that I saw your face/ And felt the fire of your sweet embrace/ I swear I knew I'm gonna love you forever") has an epic prom song quality. It's no wonder it nearly topped the Billboard Hot 100.
It's usually dangerous to kick off your album with a ballad, which may be why Sweet Kisses immediately moves into an uptempo number called "I Think I'm in Love With You." It's by far the album's biggest and most anthemic hook, probably because it's lifted from John Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane" (which was by far Mellencamp's biggest pop hit). It's not really a dance song, per se, but it does have a summery bounciness that wouldn't have been out of place scoring a montage on "Dawson's Creek." (It actually kicks off Songs from Dawson's Creek Volume 2.) As far as pop anthems go, I have no idea how "I Think I'm in Love With You" wasn't the top song in the country for six months. It's as close to a perfect song as I've heard so far.
Following "I Think I'm in Love With You," Simpson settles back into tender ballad territory, though she does it with panache. "Where You Are" is a duet with 98 Degrees member and future husband Nick Lachey. It's another string-heavy arrangement, and is lyrically pretty heavy. Unlike Britney Spears, whose lyrics seem to come from a place of puppy love and subjugation, Simpson's words seem to come from a slightly more adult place. Perhaps it's because her voice is richer and deeper, but I really get the sense that Simpson is deeply concerned about her romantic future, especially when she sings stuff like "When you're smiling back at me/ Only then will I be free/ So take me where you are." For his part, Lachey sounds perfectly reasonable, but he's sort of blown away by Simpson's pipes.
She tries on a kiss-off dance song with "Final Heartbreak," which doesn't necessarily work. Material like this sounds almost below Simpson, and though the chorus is easy to sing along to, it doesn't really cater to her strengths. In fact, as the album moves on, there's a pretty clear struggle between what Simpson is really good at and how people thought she should be presented and marketed. When the album kicked off, I figured it would be mostly ballads, but as it turns out, it's full of filler like "Woman in Me" and "I've Got My Eyes on You." Neither of those are bad songs and Simpson sounds exceptional, but putting her voice on those tunes is like making a Ferrari Testarossa drive in a funeral procession — there's so much wasted power and potential.
Still, there are plenty of pleasant diversions at the back end of Sweet Kisses. (As a side note: All the albums from this era are awfully top-heavy, aren't they? Like ...Baby One More Time, most of the best songs on Sweet Kisses are found in the first four or five tracks.) "Betcha She Don't Love You" is a perfectly reasonable "I'm better than the girl you've got now" song, and "My Wonderful" does some interesting things with acoustic guitars and gospel harmonies (in hindsight, it's the best indication of what Simpson's later work would end up sounding like). The best surprise at the end of the album is "Your Faith in Me," another torch song that shows off Simpson's incredibly dynamic voice. The production is total Lite-FM pianos and strings, but in a sea of disposable teen pop songs, it's downright refreshing.
Sweet Kisses ended up selling two million copies and remains Simpson's most successful album (at least commercially). Since then, her music career has been somewhat up and down, though her 2008 country music reinvention Do You Know has injected new life into that branch of her empire. But Simpson's greatest legacy is that of an ultimate multi-tasker, and her knack for diversification rivals Justin Timberlake's for sheer excellence. Simpson has been the star of multiple reality TV shows (including the watershed series "Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica" and the just-launched "The Price of Beauty"), gave excellent performances in films (most notably as Daisy Duke in "The Dukes of Hazzard," but she also starred in "Employee of the Month" and made some memorable guest spots on "That '70s Show") and has had her hand in a line of beauty products, accessories and handbags. It's a shame that tabloid headlines about her relationships with public figures (Lachey, John Mayer, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo) have overshadowed her music, because Sweet Kisses (and especially "I Wanna Love You Forever" and "I Think I'm in Love With You") is a towering achievement.
What do you think of Jessica Simpson's first album? Does it hold up? And what other recent classic pop albums should we be exploring? Let us know in the comments!