I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
There is a scene in the first episode of the short-lived MTV reality series The Ashlee Simpson Show where the program’s titular star sits in her convertible at a fast food drive-through and looks for answers. She turns to the cameraman in her passenger seat and, through a wide grin, stumbles into a word stampede: “My favorite thing to do is get on the radio and I’m like, ‘Alright, what is Josh thinking about?’ and I turn it until I find a song.” The then-19-year-old hits the seek button and Basement Jaxx’s “Where’s Your Head At” blares through her speakers. With a bemused smirk and darting glances, Ashlee realizes that, according to her own rules, this probably wasn’t what she’d hoped was running through the mind of her actor boyfriend Josh Henderson. Alas, she continues: “Will I ever get married?” she asks, shoveling french fries into her mouth. “Crazy” by Aerosmith plays in response.
Like many things from 2003 that most people forget existed, this premiere episode of The Ashlee Simpson Show has been archived to my “Very Impactful to Your Essential Being” memory file. For every therapist or horrified acquaintance that has ever asked “Why are you like this?” the answer is simple: Because Ashlee taught me. While some young women utilized the narratives depicted in Sex and the City or The O.C as their guiding light through the murk of adolescence, The Ashlee Simpson Show became my beacon, showing me how to act and feel when my 11-year-old internal compass had gone hormonally haywire.
Ashlee’s function as my reality-star role model is purely accidental. Prior to the show’s debut, Ashlee’s credits included a recurring role on Seventh Heaven and a brief appearance in the cinematic classic The Hot Chick. But, as her music would so profoundly declare, she was actually “living in the shadow of someone else’s dream” — that someone being Ashlee’s older sister, Jessica. Jessica seemingly had it all: a successful music career, a hot boy-band husband, reality show fame. For pre-Mall Goth dye job Ashlee, that meant hanging in the background while her sister remained the apple of dadager Joe Simpson’s eye, an exhausting existence for a teenager with enough emotions to fuel a pop-rock album. Then, after making a few cameos on Newlyweds, Ashlee was given her own shot at reality stardom and a shiny record deal on top, and thus The Ashlee Simpson Show was born.
The world’s introduction to Ashlee as a personality was condensed into a 22-minute journey that included Ashlee’s mother Tina teaching her daughter how to clean her apartment, a writing session with the drummer from Sugar Ray on the side of a hill, and an anticlimactic breakup with Josh. The episode’s undercurrents hinted strongly that Ashlee is the antithesis of her sister: she has tumultuous relationships, she pens angsty songs written on notepads while sitting in child’s pose on her living room floor, she wears Volcom trucker hats.
It’s these things that made Ashlee “edgy” that also made her accessible to tweens like me. Nothing about Ashlee’s life was rocket science, but the way she innocently searched for meaning in things that are inherently meaningless spoke to my own delusions, both then and now. As someone who constantly reaches for profound conclusions in the most minute details (I once, as an adult, spent a more-than-brief period of time picking up every penny on heads I encountered, sure that this would be the time my luck would change), I found Ashlee’s radio scanning bit insightful, prophetic even.
By the end of the first episode, Ashlee is at a turning point: She misses Josh, but writes an insanely moving song out of the heartache (one of my personal favorites, “Unreachable”). Later in the season, she’d go on to date singer-songwriter Ryan Cabrera — an early aughts figurehead who still maintains the same frosted locks — and her album Autobiography would debut at number one on the Billboard charts. At the same time, I put “Unreachable” lyrics in my AIM profile when my boyfriend broke things off. I opened my diary to write my breakup opus and to put celestial vibes out to the universe that I was ready for my own Ryan Cabrera. Channeling Ashlee’s propensity to look for answers in the Magic 8 Ball of random song snippets, I rode shotgun in my mother’s Mercury Mountaineer, hitting the seek button on the radio waiting for my fortune to unfold in the bars of a pop hit.
I like to think my and Ashlee’s lives have progressed in tandem: She upgraded husbands from Pete Wentz to Evan Ross, graduated from MTV to Broadway; I upgraded from AIM to Twitter, graduated from writing in my diary to screaming into the void. But despite all of our clear successes, I imagine we both look back on our formative years with fondness, that without the Josh Henderson-s, the “Unreachable”-s, the AIM breakups, and diary entries, we’d never get to the places we were really meant to go.