Brody looked at his Rolex then looked back at her. “It’s like two in the afternoon.”
Here, she decided to embrace her inner rock star. Her feet planted, she cocked her head, staring him down. “And?”
There was a nervous moment when they all looked at one other—is she for real?—but she stood her ground. Then they all scrambled to be the first one out the door.
She had no particular desire to get fucked up in the early afternoon, but she needed to loosen them up. More, she needed to get them out of their hermetically-sealed studio cocoon to see what made them tick. It was a fact-finding mission: she needed to get past their image, their poses, their entourages, and get to know them as people if there was ever any hope of writing for them. Which is how she found herself at a big table in the back room of a Chelsea dive bar doing shots with A-Game and Professor Drop, the other patrons passing by the entrance to their room, pretending to be nonchalant and doing a terrible job concealing their cell phones. They may as well have been looking at the ceiling and whistling.
RJ tried to order Dom Perignon and Corey scoffed.
“Whiskey, bitch,” she said.
A chorus of “Ohs!” rose from the table, and in that moment she decided to treat them like any other rival band from the 90’s: mock them relentlessly and drink them under the table. It was the only way to earn respect back in the day and she had plenty of experience. If Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did backwards and in high heels, then she had to play her instrument twice as well as her male band mates on stage and drink twice as much alcohol off stage to earn the same grudging regard. It was only after she was allowed access to the boy’s table in some dingy club or dive bar after a double-billed show—with Anders or Sloan or Terry assuring a rival band, “No, Corey’s okay”—would she reveal herself to be The Toddlers’ secret weapon.
A-Game—surprisingly, refreshingly—were game. Perhaps they just needed to burst out of their gilded bubble or perhaps they were unaccustomed to anyone outside of their insular group busting their balls, but they howled and jumped all over each other like a litter of puppies. Except Kriss, who remained stoic. Nothing was going to shatter that image. Corey just needed to figure out what image it was supposed to be.
“So,” asked Corey, when they were sufficiently lubed, “what are you guys hoping to, like, achieve with this record?”
Professor Drop chimed in with a long, rambling speech that featured words like aggregate and monetize and execute. A-Game nodded along, lapping it up, as if Drop was the Dalai Lama. She nodded along too, each word landing like small paper cut on her soul, and she took another drink. She turned to the four members.
“But what do you want to say?”
There was quiet. They all stared into the center of the table, as if it held the answer. Finally, Brody spoke up.
Murmurs of assent.
“Pissed?” said Corey, leaning forward.
“Yeah,” said Brody. “I’m fucking pissed.”
Deaver took over. “It started with the Jonas Brothers, then One Direction…”
“And now there’s these kids out of Korea, man,” lamented RJ. “I saw them on an awards show and there were like seven of them. How is that even fair?”
“So you’re pissed at boy band proliferation?”
Eager nodding around the table. “That,” said a solemn Kriss.
“We just want back in the conversation,” said Deaver, not unreasonably, but the rest of A-Game was drunk and riled and indignant to the seemingly endless impostors to their throne.
“Yo, where did they all come from?” said RJ, indignant. “When we were coming up, we had to go to war with Orlando, man. 3Peat, Fly2K, Alleykidz? We took all comers and we won.”
“We paid our dues,” said Brody.
Kriss straightened in his chair then, and without preamble and with one smooth motion, took off his tank top, revealing an impossibly chiseled chest. He tapped his heart. “Before they were flinging panties, they were flinging glow sticks. That shit stung.”
Corey leaned over to his examine the perfect marble plates of Kriss’s pectoral muscles.
“I don’t see anything…”
He tapped his chest again.
“I still can’t—”
“Sometimes I can feel it when it rains.”
Aw, thought Corey, A-Game thought they were hard. She remembered the first and last time she stage dove with The Toddlers, and the audience in Seattle had crammed a decade’s worth of groping into a single revolution around the club. She had no doubt she could go wound for wound with them like the three men on the boat in Jaws, one-upping all four of them with ease, but it wouldn’t change the one, simple truth that for a time, like it or not, they were the big kids on the block. The Toddlers were monsters of indie rock, and flamed out before the ascendancy of boy bands, but when it came to sales and commercial success, A-Game were juggernauts who dwarfed anything rock—classic, alternative, or otherwise—in the aughts. They were the kings of the jungle and everyone else fed on their scraps. And for awhile, for them, it must have been glorious as they roared and roamed the earth. But all reigns come to an end.
“So,” said Corey, “you guys were like the dinosaurs and then, wham, meteor.”
“I don’t get it,” said Kriss.
“Giant meteor? Wiped out the dinosaurs?” said Corey.
Kriss made a face. “Sounds farfetched.”
“Who’s the meteor?” asked Professor Drop.
“Younger bands? Changing tastes? The music industry?”
“…some crazy, sci-fi bullshit right there,” said Kriss.
“No,” said Corey, shaking her head. The whiskey was making it harder to get her point across, so she leaned in and explained it louder and more emphatically. “What I mean is you guys are like a T-Rex and all these new bands and haters and whatever are like velociraptors. Smaller, asshole dinosaurs just jumping on your back and trying to take a bite out of you and your legacy and okay, so there may be more of them than you, and you may be older and sadder and a little banged up, but damn it, you’re still the king of the dinosaurs with your enormous heads and giant teeth.”
She was nearly breathless when she finished. It was as impassioned a pitch as she could make, and in that moment, she recalled Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Sure, her speech wasn’t as good and the stakes weren’t quite as high, what with Mr. Smith addressing Congress while she was addressing four members of an aging boy band and a producer from Akron who called himself Professor Drop, and instead of twenty-four hours it was maybe thirty seconds max, but you can’t measure passion she thought, and then she began to think more about the movie and if that filibuster was really twenty-four hours long, then logic dictated that when Mr. Smith fainted he surely must have pissed himself, and after that, she realized no one had spoken for a long time and A-Game and Professor Drop were staring at her.
Kriss stretched his hand across the table, brandishing his knuckles. She realized then she was supposed to tap them with her own, and also that he still had not bothered to put his shirt back on.
“Word,” said Kriss.
When she realized there was nothing more she could hope to accomplish, only ground to lose, she decided to take her leave. They protested, but she sensed it was best to leave the party early, and the afternoon had gone from a business meeting over drinks to a party reaching escape velocity. Two more members of A-Game lost their shirts and the other patrons, who had previously tried to be discrete and hovered in the background, now piled into the back room.
The sunlight was jarring as she left the bar. She made her way for the subway, but Deaver stumbled out behind her.
“Hey,” he said. “Look, I know we’re not, like, your cup of tea, but I appreciate you coming.”
She didn’t know quite how to answer. They were most assuredly not her cup of tea. They were not even the right beverage, but to say so seemed rude. But to deny it seemed even more insulting. She shrugged.
“It was fun,” she said.
She was about to turn around when he lifted his arm and moved his hand across the sky as if reading an invisible billboard.
“A-GAME IS A-NEMIC.”
“Bentley Donns at Rolling Stone. ‘Ascent is empty calories that still manages to leave a bitter aftertaste.’ One of the best selling albums of all time and he shit all over it. Do you know how that feels?”
Maybe not at that dosage, she had to admit, but she was familiar with that particular brand of critical medicine.
“Look,” said Deaver. “I get that some people are always going to hate us. We’re not even looking to have, like, the last word on the subject. We just want one more word, you know?”
He stood on the sidewalk, looking at her with those same doleful eyes that stared out from the posters at teenaged girls across America once upon a time, bewitching them, making them feel like they were searching for only her, making her want to find him, rescue him, bring him home and prop him on pillows and wrap him in blankets and mend his broken heart.
Look away, thought Corey. Do not feel sorry for the boy band.