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Beat by Beat: Ashlee Simpson’s SNL Lip-Sync Fiasco

Breaking down one of the most infamous moments in live TV history.
  • Jude Law and Ashlee Simpson on Saturday Night Live. (NBC)
    Jude Law and Ashlee Simpson on Saturday Night Live. (NBC)

    Certain television moments become legendary, and often that legend spreads so far and wide that the legend outshines the incident itself. So it was seventeen years ago this week, on the October 23, 2004 episode of Saturday Night Live, when musical guest Ashlee Simpson was revealed to have been lip-syncing when the vocal track for her first performance of the night was accidentally replayed for her second performance.

    It was a hugely embarrassing moment, compounded by the sad little hoe-down dance she performed before slinking off the stage. While Simpson's career — a striving young pop starlet whose claim to fame was her older sister Jessica, who herself was a fourth-tier pop blonde in the age of Britney and Christina — made her ripe for lampooning, the moment itself remains a lasting testament to the truism that anything can happen on live TV:

    For this one minute that got a whole nation to rubberneck and — unfortunately — came to define an entire career, we're breaking things down beat by beat:

    November 1990: After weeks of controversy, German pop duo Milli Vanilli were forced to give back their Grammy Award for Best New Artist, after it was revealed they did not sing any of the vocals on their debut album. A national scandal over lip-synching commenced, with pop acts in particular coming under fire for not providing live vocals at concert and promotional appearances.

    October 23, 2004: Fourteen years later, a new episode of Saturday Night Live airs with host Jude Law and musical guest Ashlee Simpson. Law was promoting his new film, Alfie, while Simpson was appearing in support of her album Autobiography and its lead single "Pieces of Me." Her MTV reality series The Ashlee Simpson Show had also just debuted, because back then, we all found the Simpson children utterly fascinating.

    12:15 AM-ish: Simpson performs "Pieces of Me" without incident. While the song is now a footnote in live-television history, it's also undeniably still a bop today if you give it a listen.

    12:45 AM-ish: Ashlee and her band are on stage about to begin her second song, which is to be the title track, "Autobiography." Honestly, justice for "Autobiography" — the one song whose biggest claim to fame is not having been performed. Like so many before him (and after), Jude Law reads the words off the card.

    Hey Jude: To linger on the Jude Law of it all for a second: one thing that gets lost in the hoopla over Ashlee's lip-sync disaster is what a crucial time in Jude Law's career this SNL episode was. In addition to Alfie, Law appeared in six movies between September 17 and December 25 of 2004, four of them in a major role (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, I Heart Huckabees, Alfie, and Closer). This overexposure got controversially lampooned on that year's Oscars telecast by host Chris Rock, followed by grumpy-puss presenter Sean Penn wagging his finger at Rock for slighting "one of our finest actors." Confusing times for Jude.

    Slinky Beginnings: The band starts playing, and Ashlee kicks the number off with some weird, slinky, snake-charmer dance, which might give you a misleading sense of what kind of song "Autobiography" is. Alas, we would never find out where this choreography was going, because almost immediately, it happens…

    "On a Monday, I was waiting…" Like a ghost from within the walls of Studio 8H, Ashlee Simpson's breathy voice comes from the sound system, an unexpected and unwelcome encore of "Pieces of Me." While the band (pretty skillfully, it should be noted) switches up on the fly to playing "Pieces of Me" like they always meant to do so, Simpson is flummoxed — clearly not sure what to do. So she does what any of us would do: she begins dancing her now infamous little jig.

    And then another...

    While the entire clip from Jude's introduction to the commercial break is barely over a minute long, it's this part that fels like it lasts an eternity. As the camera hovers in its starting position and the band continues to play, Simpson jangles around in fits and starts, waiting for a reprieve that never comes. Thirty seconds in, she leaves the stage.

    It's at this moment that the career-ending gravity of what's just happened truly sinks in. A more seasoned performer might have taken charge and asked for a re-start. Of course, said seasoned performer wouldn't be lip-syncing in the first place.

    Not all heroes wear capes: As the nation attempts to lift its collective jaw off the ground, the remaining half of the clip is spent with Simpson's band — sporting the requisite skinny ties and Strokes haircuts that were mandatory at the time — heroically playing through "Pieces of Me," soldiering on like the true professionals they are. Remember this part when it comes time for the goodbyes.

    Mercy, at last: Finally, someone in the SNL control room realizes that Ashlee isn't coming back, and they tastefully fade to a handsome Jude Law promo card and the commercial break.

    Here comes the bus! Back now for the goodbyes, and Jude Law is being a genuine prince, all "Live TV! It happens!" But then Ashlee, in the midst of apologizing for the snafu, throws her band completely under the bus, saying that they started playing the wrong song, and that's why she danced a jig and then ran off. Her band who covered for her when she fled! Truly the darkest moment in all of this. Finesse Mitchell seems unconvinced.

    Not-So-Mean Girls: Not that she particularly deserved it after shoving her band under the back wheels of a Greyhound, but Ashlee gets immediate comforting hugs from Amy Poehler and Tina Fey while the credits roll.

    And that is how Ashlee Simpson earned her place in television infamy. Over the years, she's expressed understandable regret for her decision to lip sync that night. At the time it was reported that a bad case of acid reflux was behind her decision to not sing live. More recently on Watch What Happens Live she cited nodes on her vocal cords. On The Ashlee Simpson Show, we saw backstage footage of her doctor advising her not to sing or she could be risking damage to her throat.

    It was the beginning of a rough few months for Ashlee. The following January, she performed "La La," the third single from Autobiography (a true banger, if we're being honest) live at the halftime show for the Orange Bowl, and the telecast picked up loud boos from the crowd. Whether that was because they were genuinely angered by the performance or just hopping on what by then was a fashionable Ashlee Simpson-bashing bandwagon, she definitely sang that one live.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Saturday Night Live, Amy Poehler, Ashlee Simpson, Jude Law, Tina Fey