David Cook doesn't know how he feels about being back on the Idol stage again. Everything seems smaller, and he doesn't even mean that metaphorically - the Nokia Theatre has undergone a serious overhaul as part of the new downtown L.A. Live Entertainment Complex. It's even stranger to see a Santa Claus hat draped over the familiar blue neon sign and a snowflake dotting the lowercase "i", but David supposes the American Idol franchise needs all the help it can get as it heads into its 11th year.
Overhead, the screens shriek, "FOX Christmas Special: Ten Years of American Idol" in garish hues of blood-red and neon-green. David squints; clearly, the suits have been taking design cues from new guest judge Quentin Tarantino, who's into everything about the show these days, from the new arrangements with the house band to Simon Cowell's rather frightening new wardrobe.
"Need reading glasses?" inquires a sly voice at his elbow. David turns, blinking a little at the profusion of spiky platinum blond hair, bling and blindingly handsome features: the Season Ten winner looks even younger close up. The stylists have made him wear a baseball jersey that has "10" on it in big red sequins, as if, after 54 million votes, they were afraid people wouldn't know which Idol he was.
"Nah, wondering if you'd learned to Photoshop like that in kindergarten."
"Natch," and for a second David doesn't know if Aaron Chambers means "Naturally," or "How dare you disrespect me, my man," but the kid flashes his patented diamond-toothed grin and reaches out to bump fists with Dave, so he figures it's the former. Anyway, David's pretty certain this year's fierce, take-no-prisoners winner wouldn't sucker-punch him on national TV, or in front of the armies of ushers and techs and guys with clipboards getting ready to go live for the big special.
"Day-dreaming, boys? That's no way to get ahead." There's the sardonic English accent he still hears sometimes, three years later, in the anxiety-dream that had replaced the one where he's naked and flunking his high school physics exam. Simon Cowell crosses the stage, trailing assistants, decked out in Christmassy goodness - clearly, he must be in love.
All six foot two inches of Aaron are totally trembling beside David; he's had only weeks to try to get over the naked-on-national-TV anxiety dreams.
David stands his ground. He's feeling pretty good about his relationship with 19E and FOX: his three-year contract with RCA is about to expire, and over those years, he'd actually sung their song about magic rainbows and worked their executive rockstar look. At the same time, he'd made the music he'd wanted to make, and had only had to compromise a couple of times, nothing big - nothing involving red velvet, like Cowell is wearing now; Tarantino must be pretty fucking persuasive.
"Simon, don't you look nice!"
Simon gives David a dark look that clearly means, Don't screw with me, you little prick. David's surprised Aaron doesn't wet his low-slung pants in the face of Simon's glare; he kind of feels sorry for the kid, who'll have to navigate the label's shenanigans and image-mavens, and find his own voice amongst the sound which Jive would foist upon him.
And here's someone who's turned her back on the image-mavens entirely: Queen Kelly enters from stage left, wearing an iconic "ONE" sticker on her cheek, makes a kissing noise and claps her hand on Simon's shoulder. Simon recoils visibly and David laughs out loud.
"You're a mean one, Mr. Cook," whispers Carrie Underwood's silvery voice from behind him, and she comes round, pressing her cheek to his in a hello. She's wearing a not-at-all-subtle "Season 4" on a beauty pageant ribbon around her chest.
"Hey! When did you get in?" Carrie currently has a sell-out Christmas gig in the Las Vegas Venetian; it's even bigger than Celine Dion's was. "How did you get away?" Maybe she'd hired Hannah Montana to be her stand-in tonight, though he can't believe the high rollers would be that easily fooled.
"Wouldn't miss this," says Carrie, and she wouldn't have - out of all of them, she's the one who had embraced the corporate line the most wholeheartedly. She's 19E's poster girl, their Once and Future Idol.
"Teacher's pet," murmurs David, into her hair, and she pokes him so hard the number 7 nearly falls off his vest.
"Shut up, you're such a delinquent. That stuff gets so old."
"The best jokes are the old ones," says Kris Allen, blond and grinning and all in defiant black (David was sure he'd been told to dress Christmassy). The Idol stylists must have only gotten him to agree to a sprig of holly and a subtle "8" pinned to his jacket lapel. Kris leans over to kiss Carrie on the cheek, and then kisses Dave, too. The Hollywood air-kissing thing is a great excuse for contact, so not to be outdone, Dave takes the opportunity to squeeze Kris' ass.
"I see you're still up to your old handsy ways, David," Kris grins, not pulling away, and David digs his hand pointedly into Kris' back pocket.
David says, "See, there was all this noise about me, but you were the true hugger of this franchise. Like, a stealth hugger, or something. All the photos of you had your nose in someone's shoulder, seriously."
"Nice to know you're looking at old photos of me," says Kris, pulling away like the stealthy hugger he is, and tacks himself to Carrie's other side instead.
This is the configuration they adopt an hour or so later when they go live and are told to come onstage again. Carrie walks out holding David and Kris by either hand, and they bracket her on the stage's barstool set-up.
It’s been a while: David had last seen Kris and Carrie earlier this summer, at the hilarious rock and roll wedding of David Archuleta and Allison Iraheta. The bride had been beautiful in black leather, a rose in her red hair, and Arch had worn white, like he’d done the last time he'd stood on the Idol stage with David in 2008. David had been so proud and happy for them both he'd kind of cried into his hand throughout the service.
When he dried his eyes and looked around surreptitiously, he had seen Kris wiping his eyes, too. He knew how Kris felt about Allison, although he totally didn't need to be this protective: the kid was fierce and fantastic, and a perfect match for his kid, his Archie...
On his other side, Carrie had made a face at him. You boys are so emo, she telegraphed, and squeezed Dave’s hand.
He'd always had that connection with Carrie; they'd been buddies ever since their duet on "You Can Go Your Own Way" at the opening of the American Idol Experience in Orlando in 2008, and he'd guest-starred in her Christmas Special the year after.
He'd actually done some training in order to prepare for the 2009 special. Carrie was a runner; she was probably three times fitter than he was, and had three times less body fat - she was totally going to show him up, otherwise.
She'd confronted him about it backstage. "I hear you've been pumping iron, heartthrob," she'd drawled, one hand on her flawless hip. "Afraid you can't keep up?"
"Hey, it's Dolly Parton I'm worried about. I can totally take you," he'd said, and made one of his gross faces at her, and she'd laughed so hard she had had to sit down. She'd actually still been kind of winded when they hit sound-check, and like a goofball he'd flashed her signs of the "I can take you!" variety throughout the taping. She still hasn't forgiven him.
Over the years, they'd ended up doing some industry stuff together; Carrie was a shrewd businesswoman who'd had six years of hands-on experience at the top of the music industry. He'd learned how to deal with 19E and RCA from her, and he'd been so impressed with her agent, Cecilia, that he'd hired her, too.
Of course, their relationship wasn't all business; they were friends. He'd taken her on a spin on the rollercoaster at the newest Disney theme park in Oklahoma when it had opened during the spring, for old times' sake, enjoying watching her face turn green as they tipped upside down. They'd had lunches and dinners when their tours and the industry circuit brought them to the same town, and she'd come with him a couple of times to watch their team, the Kansas City Royals, wearing a ball cap and the cutest short shorts this side of the Great Divide.
Like the old friend he was, he'd sent her flowers last year when she'd announced her engagement to Mike Fisher. When Cecilia had told him in May that Mike had called it off, he'd rung Carrie and offered to put a hit out on the bastard Midwest-style, and heard her somewhat shaky giggle down the phone in response.
It had made him kind of see red, so he'd cancelled some appointments later that week and flown down to Oklahoma to hang out with her and Kellie Pickler for the day. They'd all gone to the Rodeo Club in Nashville and danced till the wee hours of the morning. The press the next day had been great, everything Cecilia and 19E might have hoped for - David himself looked kind of a mess, because he hadn't had time to get to a stylist to Oklahoma, but Carrie had looked amazing, blonde and single again in a lace top and painted-on jeans. The photos were fantastic enough to make any ex-fiance emasculate himself; he hoped Fisher choked on something when he realized what he'd let slip away.
And, ever since the GMAs in New York City in the summer of 2009, he'd bonded with Kris - they were both small town boys at heart with big dreams, with things for guitar pedals and ball games, for retooling old rock songs and arrangements and making them their own. When Adam Lambert and Kris' wife Katy had abandoned them in favor of black tie gala seats at La Boheme the evening after their epic concert in the park, they'd ended up having a quiet drink together at the Four Seasons, just chilling and watching the baseball game on TV.
He'd made time to hang out with Kris after the 2009 finale, tried to give him a couple of pointers about the Idol winners' process and the music industry, pass along the ancient wisdom like Carrie had passed it to him. Kris was a business major, he knew about licensing and franchises and the way non-compete clauses worked; they'd sat down one night over beers, during a break from the Idols 2009 and Declaration tours, and they'd dissected the Jive/RCA template contract together. A couple of days later, Kris sent him a text about how, thanks to their conversation, he'd rather impressively managed to ask his lawyers the right questions at their pre-Jive meeting, and David had responded with the story of how he'd marched into his own lawyers' office and threatened them with a malpractice suit for not advising him sufficiently on the third-album addendum clause buried at the end of the document.
Kris had sent him front row tickets to his headlining promotional tour for "Live Like We're Dying" and his first album, and his second soundtrack album, "Prayers and Little Boxes", for this year's James Bond XII. They hung out after the 2010 Grammys and the AI9 finale, and David had made fun of Kris' surrender of his crown to lissome, big-eyed Zadie Scott-Palay and of the tight-fitting lace-up leather pants they'd made the outgoing American Idol wear. Kris' snide response was that he'd filled them better than David had - which was totally untrue, c'mon - and 19E had had to execute a pull order on the undignified photos of two former Idols trying to put each other in a headlock.
And David called Kris the day the story finally broke about him and Katy.
"Dude, the National Enquirer says she's shacked up with the co-star of her last movie, People says you want kids but she doesn't, and TMZ has photographic proof that you're being banged by Adam Lambert. Which is it?"
"Why do these gossip sites never have me banging Adam? Don't I look like a top to you, David?" Kris sounded quite calm, able to make jokes even, and David grinned into the receiver.
"You know I think you're all front-man, all the time. How's Adam?"
"In Vegas, on his honeymoon! Brad's going to be thrilled when he sees photographic proof of me banging his husband. Or Adam banging me, whatever." Kris sounded a little distant, and Dave pictured him rubbing his eyes tiredly in that way he did sometimes.
"I will be," said Kris, and that was that, and when David showed up on his doorstep five days later with beers and VIP tickets to the Dodgers game, well, he happened to be in the neighborhood and it was something friends did all the time.
There had been paparazzi hanging out in the bushes outside Kris' brand new bachelor pad. To David's disgust, however, there were no scandalous articles about either of them banging the other, even though Kris had new blond highlights and had worn an adorable striped t-shirt and aviator shades, and had looked pretty good for a guy who was going through a messy divorce under the unforgiving glare of the media.
As Kris is looking good now, a year on from that divorce, the ubiquitous wedding band beloved of storytellers and speculators missing from his left hand as he grips his microphone and flashes his easy grin at David.
Seacrest calls each Idol's name in turn, and the shrieks from the live audience wash over them like a tidal wave. Carrie gives Dave a huge, Hollywoodian wink.
It's showtime, American Idol style.
And showtime means too many cheesy singing-and-dancing montages and Christmas songs, interspersed with shots of the various Idol winners and runners-up performing good deeds around the world. Guest stars abound - John Mayer is back, and Mariah Carey and the Black-Eyed Peas, and Shirley Bassey, who sings with Jordin Sparks on "I Who Have Nothing". Ben Stiller and Taylor Hicks perform an excruciating stand-up comic routine. There's a special recorded message from President Obama in a cute Christmas hat, paying homage to ten years of an American institution and giving a somewhat awkward shout-out to young Aaron, the latest in that grand line.
The Idols themselves sing solos, of course, and duet with each other. David sings "Plaid Hearts", the first single from his new album, which sounds strange with the Tarantino-fueled house band rather than in the safe hands of the Anthemic, and "One Song Glory", which he'd been singing every night now for the past four weeks on the star-studded Broadway revival of RENT.
And of course no Idol reunion would be complete without the mandatory group sing and Kumbayayas. They've done a cheesy music video to "The Twelve Days of Christmas" - Dave had landed seven swans a-swimming, of course, which had been a true test of his manhood, but it had been better than the eight maids a-milking, or the eight buxom models in period dress and carrying pails that Kris had been saddled with, and they'd all gotten a kick out of watching Carrie shriek over her four calling birds and Reuben Studdard pull two turtledoves awesomely out of a top hat.
Then there's an old though non-Christmassy song for the grand finale. FOX had just purchased the rights to the Kids From Fame soundtrack, and some bright spark had thought it would be a great idea for the Idols to sing the ancient Fame song, "Starmaker" as a meaningful paean to the Idol franchise, which had in fact made the ten of them into stars.
There had been very little time for rehearsal, and the number could easily have fallen flat on its face. But you don't get to win Idol and not be able to fly by the seat of your fucking pants, and thusly they all hit the song running, even though Kelly looks like she's about to murder someone when she leads off with, Here as I watch the ships go by, I'm rooted to my shore..., and Reuben moves in, silky-smooth, I keep asking myself why and if there's more on the other side.
Fantasia is rocking her glittery number three necklace. She smiles at Carrie, and they both harmonize prettily on, Here as I see the friends I thought I made, a little bit crazy to know by now we've outgrown one another...
All the Idols pour themselves as one into the chorus, Carrie's voice ringing out loud and clear in the high notes above the rest:Star-maker, dream breaker, soul taker - we're happy now...
Taylor's line, all-too-meaningfully, is Now when I see the things I want; Jordin's, clear-eyed and calm, is I can take the things I see - then, David's up, and he's singing, But I keep asking myself why, and if there ain't just a little bit more for me. He puts his lungs into the low growl on the end, a little more emphasis than he'd intended: he sees his three and a half years in the industry, filled with glittering professional success, all of them spent alone.
And Kris takes the next verse, and, oh God, David hasn't realized how poignant it is - Here when it's time to count the cost, I keep measuring what I've lost - and David can't look at him, suddenly, hearing the catch in his voice, knowing what he's given up to get to this place; David feels his eyes get red in the way he somehow always gets on this stage.
Zadie takes the last line: And wondering if you knew it would all end up with you. And it does - it begins and ends with Fox, with Idol: the starmaker, soultaker. He's not sure, looking at her lovely face, her Streisand mouth, whether she's truly happy, then or now. Perhaps none of them are. He wouldn't be at all surprised.
Finally, the long show and taping onstage are over, and the interminable press offstage as well. The obligatory Idol after-party commences in the Bellini Room of the glamorous new L.A. Live Entertainment Complex. Tarantino and Cowell leave early, though Ellen and Portia linger to speak with David and some of the others.
Ellen squeezes his arm. "Hey, your RENT reviews are awesome! How's sharing the stage with Alice Braga?"
"Phenomenal," says David, and tries not to think about her golden skin, her red lips, her tears when she left his bed for the last time. Hey, at least he was trying to branch out from his thing for blondes, if not particularly successfully. Come to think of it, he hasn't been that successful with blondes either; it had been a rather undistinguished few years. He suppresses his hindbrain-wired leer at Portia, who winks at him before taking her leave.
David sighs. It has been a long and surprisingly emotional day, and he needs to get back to New York tomorrow for his evening show. But he has time for a quick drink, he supposes, for old times' sake.
And, if he's to admit his feelings to himself, there's an itch, a simmering fire under his skin that has been tugging at him ever since tonight's performance, although he's not going to do anything about it. An insufficient number of suitable blondes, he tells himself: the one that had been on stage with him is not fair game.
Dave decides to snag a fancy cocktail instead, and then another. After a while, with alcohol's warm glow spreading its usual cheer through his body, David is feeling light, happy - full of Christmas spirit. He's glad he'd come back to spend this evening with nine people who share this unique experience with him, the only people in the world who understand what it's like to have once been America's fucking Idol.
Well, nobody said any of them knew how to party properly. Rod Stewart and Jordin are making an inappropriate May-to-December tableau on the dance floor. Ben Stiller and Fantasia are trading shots of champagne and one-sided irony; in her heels, she's tall enough to rest her drink on his head. Zadie is batting her glittery eyelashes and posing for photos with Lindsey Lohan.
It's totally a surprise, but Reuben and Taylor seem to actually be hitting it off, sitting in a corner and whispering in each other's ears. He feels a rush of affection for them. The other surprise is that Kelly has the end of Aaron's longest necklace hooked around one elegant finger, and he's practically clinging to her leg; she might choose to cut the kid loose, eventually, but Dave kind of hopes she puts the nineteen-year-old's stamina to good use instead.
"Wanna get out of here?" Carrie's snuck up behind him again, and slides her hand into his, Kris on her other arm.
The three of them end up in a discreet bar in the adjacent Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where Carrie is staying tonight, and so is Dave - he'd taken the opportunity to have new floors put into his house in Beverly Hills while he's away doing Broadway. No security since the hotel detail's sufficient, Kris' Jeep is parked in the VIP parking lot for a speedy getaway.
Idols Four, Seven and Eight, as their chests helpfully denote, huddle in their dark booth in a tight semi-circle. The waiter brings them Coronas and white wine.
"Think we're safe here?"
David grins. "Which one was it: Mayer or Timberlake?"
Carrie groans, and, unusually for her, tosses her drink down her throat. "Both, I don't even wanna know. You're not the only one with a thing for blondes, David."
"No, obviously, because I saw Lady Gaga getting friendly with Mr. Allen," David says.
Kris makes a face into his beer: "Not a huge fan, sorry. Her white leather face mask kinda creeps me out."
"Her everything kind of creeps me out," Dave confesses, and Carrie bursts out laughing.
"Seriously, how much do we suck, right now? I mean, look at us, award-winning artists, gorgeous and single, and we're not out there Christmas-partying it up, we're hiding in this bar. Our agents should kill us." Carrie shakes her head.
"After the divorce, my agent came up with a list of people I was allowed to date," sighs Kris.
"Was I on it?" Dave and Carrie demand together, and then grin and point fingers at each other.
"No, and no. Believe me, if either of you had been, it would've been an improvement," and Kris, too, tosses back his drink. "I agree with you, Underwood, we totally suck."
"Nature of the beast," says David, softly. "I mean, all of us are busy." He considers his fellow Idols; all the Idols, really. Single, now, each of them, and none more so than the one who'd come into the game with a wedding ring.
What do you know, the franchise really was a soul-taker after all, and had somehow left all of them self-obsessed, workaholic, and incapable of holding onto a relationship. Did Zadie find this to be true? Was Aaron having a hard time? They'd soon learn. He rubs his eyes.
"Hey." Kris reaches over the table, and runs a gentle thumb over his wrist. "At least we suck collectively. It could be worse."
"What, that all ten of us are sad sacks, alone at Christmas? There's something worse?" David summons refills; they're never going to get through this night dry.
"Worse is that I think Taylor and Reuben were kind of getting it on, when we left." Carrie rolls her eyes, and Kris smacks her lightly on the hand.
"C'mon,” he tells her, “I know how you feel about Taylor, but I thought it was sweet. You know, at least they can be sure they're with someone who gets it."
Carrie puts her head on Kris' shoulder. "Allen, you're such a romantic. But, y'know, I think you might be right."
David drains his drink and looks at them, blonde heads close together. He feels something shift deep inside him. Here stands everything I thought I made - It's the only life I know, and I can't even call it my own. Maybe that's true: self-obsessed, workaholic, and incapable of holding onto a relationship, except, perhaps, with someone who gets it, who lives the same obsession with self, with work, every single day.
The eyes that have seen everything Dave's seen; a heart that's felt everything Dave's felt.
I've got no home, I belong to you. Idol, that fucking starmaker.
Who is it, that Dave sees? You can go your own way.