On This Day: Oct. 23, 2004
Ashlee Simpson wasn't feeling the L.O.V.E. in Studio 8H round about midnight 19 years ago.
Saturday Night Live was three episodes into its 30th season, and Jude Law was in the house for his first hosting gig. It was a banner year for the British heartthrob, who was all over the multiplex appearing in such diverse movies as The Aviator, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Alfie — the movie that introduced him to his then-flame, Sienna Miller.
At 19, Simpson was also making her Studio 8H debut, riding the wave of her MTV reality series and debut album Autobiography. Her older sister, Jessica, had previously emceed the show alongside then-husband Nick Lachey in January, but had never — and still hasn't — joined the storied ranks of SNL musical guests. Ahead of the Oct. 23 episode, she appeared alongside Law in a giddy promo that implied some age-inappropriate butt-grabbing was going on just below the frame.
Simpson's Saturday night started off just fine, as she joined SNL royalty Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph in crashing Law's monologue to proclaim him "The Most Beautiful Man in the World." (Simpson also popped up in two additional sketches during the dress rehearsal run, but those appearances were scuttled in the live telecast.) Later on — just before a Fey/Poehler anchored edition of Weekend Update — she appeared to deliver a soulful rendition of her hit Autobiography single "Pieces of Me" that had the crowd cheering.
After three additional sketches — including Darrell Hammond's Donald Trump hyping a Halloween edition of The Apprentice — Law reappeared to say "Once again, Ashlee Simpson," and the camera glided past him to the stage for her second song.
What happened next immediately entered the annals of live TV history. As Simpson and her backing band prepared to cue up the album's title song, her vocal track from "Pieces of Me" started to play instead, indicating that she had lip-synced the previous performance. The vocals quickly faded out, but the damage was done. Simpson performed an awkward dance and then wandered offstage while her band jammed on their instruments live. Twenty seconds later, the telecast cut to a commercial.
SNL soldiered on after Simpson's public fail, airing two pretaped "Bear City" shorts with a live sketch featuring Seth Myers and Law as hard-drinking British thespians Michael Caine and Peter O'Toole sandwiched in between. The singer reappeared when it came time to say goodnight, with Law putting her arm around her and remarking, "What can I say? Live TV."
"Exactly, I feel so bad," Simpson said, proceeding to throw her band under the bus. "My band started playing the wrong song. I didn't know what to do, so I thought I'd do a hoedown. I'm sorry!" Simpson gave Law a hug as the host urged viewers to "go see Alfie!" As the credits rolled, Simpson continued to make apologetic faces as Fey and Poehler came over to lend some encouraging words.
What Happened Next
The Simpson camp took Sunday off and then kicked into spin mode as fans inundated Ashlee Simpson's official website with questions and concerns. On Monday, Oct. 25, Simpson called into TRL — then MTV's music epicenter — to offer more context for what happened.
"I made a complete fool of myself," the singer explained, revealing that she suffers from "severe" acid reflux and lost her voice hours before her SNL appearance. After her doctor advised her against singing, Simpson's manager father, Joe Simpson — who also managed her sister at the time — insisted she use a backing track.
"I was so upset, because I have never done that before," Simpson said about being made to follow her dad's orders. "But my voice wasn't strong enough. I couldn't even speak." She also singled out the drummer as the one who cued up the wrong track. "I didn't know what to do. I just froze. My band kept playing the song, like they were always told [to do]. We all went into a state of shock."
For his part, Joe Simpson defended his daughter, telling Ryan Seacrest on the American Idol host's L.A. radio show that she was far from the only artist to rely on backing tracks. "She has a backing track that she pushes so you don't have to hear her croak through a song on national television," he said. "Every artist that I know in this business has had vocal problems at some time — from Celine [Dion] on down. So you've got to do what you've got to do."
Meanwhile, questions swirled around whether SNL had secretly made a habit of letting artists lip-sync on a supposedly live show. Approached by the press at an event at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., days after Simpson's appearance, SNL guru Lorne Michaels confirmed that Simpson's drummer pushed the wrong button at the wrong time. "It disoriented and threw everyone," the producer said. "If they were more seasoned performers they'd have handled it better."
Michaels turned to a group of seasoned performers to redeem SNL's reputation as a live music venue. Appearing on the Luke Wilson-hosted Nov. 20 episode, U2 frontman Bono opened the band's performance of "Vertigo" by repeatedly saying "Live, live, live, live" into the mic. U2 ended up playing four songs that night, storming the stage during the closing credits to sing "I Will Follow" followed by "All Because of You" for the Studio 8H audience.
Meanwhile, Simpson forged ahead with her "Autobiography" tour in February and dropped her sophomore album, I Am Me, eight months later. On Oct. 8, 2005 — nearly a year after the lip-syncing incident — she returned to the SNL stage on a Jon Heder-hosted episode and performed two tracks off that record, "Catch Me When I Fall" and "Boyfriend," based on her brief entanglement with That ’70s Show star Wilmer Valderrama and Lindsay Lohan. This time, no backing tracks or hoedowns were required.
Where We Are Now
While Simpson's singing career continued after SNL, she never completely picked up the pieces. In between albums, she pursued other opportunities, including starring in West End and Broadway productions of Chicago, launching various fashion lines and joining the cast of The CW's short-lived Melrose Place reboot.
In 2014, she married her second husband, actor Evan Ross, and the duo released a 2018 EP to accompany their E! reality series, Ashlee + Evan. The couple recently appeared together on the red carpet for the Cannes Film Festival premiere of the British costume drama Firebrand, which counts her Studio 8H collaborator Jude Law among its cast.
Prior to Ashlee + Evan's debut, Simpson looked back on the SNL incident in an interview with E! News. "That was a very long time ago," she said. "It's something that happened to me and things in life happen to you and they make you stronger and they make you a better performer, a better person."
Appearing on Bravo's Watch What Happens Live that same year, Simpson also took ownership of how things played out. "[It was] me, completely," she said. "What happened there was I had a vocal problem. I had two nodes beating against each other and I woke up and I had no voice. Then I should have said, "'No, I will not go on. I will not do this.'"
"I was such a young girl," Simpson added, reflecting on her 19-year-old self. "For me, it made me stronger. And, you know, s*** happens."