The improbable redemption of Ashlee Simpson

Tough times in pop-starlet land these days. Britney's in the booby hatch — though that may not be the best word choice — Jessica Simpson single-handedly destroyed the Dallas Cowboys' Super Bowl dreams, Christina Aguilera is on maternity leave and otherwise sane, law-abiding parents are effectively ransacking the countryside for Hannah Montana tickets.

And riding to the rescue is...Ashlee ­Simpson?

Laugh if you must, but Jessica's little sister, now 23, is looking pretty good lately. Not only has she managed to avoid any kind of public embarrassment for more than two years — next to Britney's forced hospitalization and the ongoing pipe-­hitting saga of Amy Winehouse, Simpson's Hasselhoffian November 2005 escapades at that Toronto McDonald's seem downright quaint — she's dangerously close to becoming downright respectable. Seriously, stop laughing.

Simpson won praise from London theater critics, a much harder bunch to impress than Perez Hilton or the chatterboxes at E! Entertainment Television, for her late 2006 turn as murderess/celebrity Roxie Hart in Chicago. She and boyfriend Pete Wentz, the Fall Out Boy bassist/lyricist she began dating around that time, have since become one of Young Hollywood's most stable, normal couples. And she sounds like she's getting her musical act together as well.

Simpson's third album, Bittersweet World, isn't due until April, but its first single, "Outta My Head (Ay Ya Ya)," was released as a digital download in December. Whereas sister Jessica is rumored to be recording a country album in Nashville, Ashlee has gone in the exact opposite direction.

Working with producers such as Timbaland — who collaborated with Fall Out Boy on "One & Only" on 2007's Timbaland Presents Shock Value, and produced several Bittersweet World tracks — alt-soul singer-songwriter Kenna, Neptune Chad Hugo and, um,, Simpson seems to be following in the footsteps of another throwaway pop star turned platinum-­selling dance diva (and Timbaland protégé), Nelly Furtado. As remixed by Brooklyn electro It boy Brad Walsh, "Outta My Head" is a pumping club-hit-in-the-­making similar to New Order's "Blue Monday." Simpson cavorts atop a giant Rubik's Cube in the video, which is pretty awesome too.

There is another precedent for this. Back in 1997, at the dawn of the teen-pop era, 18-year-old Swedish siren Robyn cracked the U.S. Top 10 with "Show Me Love" and "Do You Know (What It Takes)," which combined the most infectious aspects of her fellow Swedes Ace of Base and Max Martin, the man behind some of the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and 'NSync's biggest hits. But after a falling-out with her record company, Jive, over their Britney-like planned marketing campaign, Robyn's follow-up LP was shelved and she disappeared from America's musical radar, one more disposable flash in the pan from a period full of them. (LFO, anyone? Anyone?)

Robyn retreated to her native Europe, where she had several more hits and managed to free herself from her Jive contract. A chance encounter with the music of minimalist duo the Knife laid the foundation for 2005's self-financed, self-titled album, a commercial and critical smash. Robyn debuted at No. 1 in Sweden, and its single "With Every Heartbeat" topped the UK chart last year.

The Manchester Evening News called Robyn a "mini-Madonna," and Pitchfork said her import-only album was "one of the year's finest, smartest and most engaging pop albums." This year, not only is Robyn finally scheduled for a proper U.S. release, but Robyn herself is one of SXSW 2008's above-the-fold acts, right up there with R.E.M., Vampire Weekend, Destroyer, Dolly Parton and Be Your Own Pet.

Could Ashlee Simpson follow suit and headline SXSW herself in the near future? Stranger things have happened, so who's to say she can't?

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray