Hilary Duff recently told MTV that, despite the title of her new album, dignity is something she continues to strive for in her day-to-day life. Our lil’ Hil breaks rule number one by providing the definition of the word in the liner notes (straight from dictionary.com no less!), but it helps confirm what I suspected when I first read her comments. Duff’s is a dodgy definition at best—the word she’s probably looking for is integrity, something that precedes dignity and which she, artistically speaking, lacks. The one thing I applaud Duff for, however, is not going the way of Lindsay, Paris, Britney, and even the Olsen twins. She could easily have pumped up the publicity by flashing some pink or getting into a scuffle at some L.A. hot spot, but she’s admirably managed to keep herself out of the tabloids. In that sense, she’s conducted herself with both integrity and dignity.
None of us should be judged by who we were and what we did when we were 16, so I’ll temporarily forgive Duff her previous crimes against all forms of entertainment and her lack of knowledge of current events—yes, I even managed to blame her for the ‘04 election in my review of Hilary Duff. It’s hard not to comment on things like Dignity‘s dedication (to her “special grandmother,” who taught her how to…read), the press release’s references to dignity not being “for sale,” and Duff’s criticism of people who are averse to “digging in to what’s within” (as she does on the song “No Work, All Play”), but I will do my best. One of that song’s many hooks espouses that “you gotta know yourself to be yourself,” and Duff is obviously still figuring that out, as she thanks her record label for allowing her to turn in the record she wanted to make.
Unfortunately, Duff doesn’t dig very far within, but that’s probably because there’s not that far to go. That’s not a swipe, really, as the singer-actress has been a star for as long as Slant has existed and her life experience consists primarily of the privileged Hollywood variety. “What’s wrong with me? I get lonely in a crowd,” she sings on “Burned.” “Boo-fucking-hoo,” one might say. Granted, she’s only 19 and there’s plenty of time for her to shave her head and enter rehab, but she’s thus far avoided the attention-seeking antics said loneliness can produce. Dignity‘s title track finds Duff explicitly excluding herself from her peers, chiding fellow celebrities’ public exhibitionism (“You’d show up to the opening of an envelope”) and the press’s enabling of it (“It’s not news when you got a new handbag”). Duff joins Madonna and Angelina Jolie, two women who clearly know there are more important issues in the world, in their bewilderment of people’s interest in the mundane everyday activities of celebrities. “Dreamer” is vague enough that it could be about a secret admirer or stalker, but it’s clearly about a paparazzo: “I go to bed and I wake up/Isn’t that interesting?/I brush my teeth and feed my dogs/Isn’t that thrilling?”
Other songs allude to potentially revealing personal experiences (Duff co-wrote almost every song, including “Stranger,” about a very public relationship, and “Danger,” which finds her canoodling with a man almost twice her age), but Duff is mostly just an anonymous voice for an assemblage of producers and songwriters. Which is perfectly acceptable for a self-proclaimed dance album, but Duff’s voice is nondescript and her delivery is blank; the impish, quirky, or coolly disaffected vocal characteristics and sex appeal that make other dance-pop divas viable performers is nonexistent. So quality songwriting and production is even more of a necessity for an album like Dignity to succeed on even a cursory level.
The album’s best tracks, like the Richard Vission-produced “Happy,” employ the design of ‘80s freestyle (“Burned” even blatantly rips the drum loop from Debbie Deb’s “When I Hear Music”), but that’s as adventurous as things get. (And what does it say that Dignity‘s catchiest track, the infectious pop-rocker “Outside Of You,” isn’t a dance song at all?) A problem presents itself when the players are hesitant to create beats that thump too loud for fear of awakening some kind of latent sexual appetite in Duff’s largely preteen, Disney-reared fanbase. So much for objectivity but, while it’s a huge step for Duff as an artist (which, in itself, is an endorsement coming from this critic), Dignity is bland by any standard. Dance music, after all, isn’t supposed to be “dignified.”