“Please tell me every girl in there is of legal age.”
“Every girl in there is of legal age,” I dutifully repeat to my manager, Jim Tolson.
Truth is, I have no clue if everyone’s legal. When I came home last night from the studio, the party was already raging. I didn’t take the time to card anyone before grabbing a beer and chatting up some eager girls who proclaimed that they were so in love with my music that they sang it in their sleep. It sounded vaguely like an invitation, but I wasn’t interested. My buddy Luke took them off my hands and then I wandered around trying to figure out if I knew even a quarter of the people in my house.
I ended up counting seven, tops, that I actually recognized.
Jim presses his already thin lips together before taking a seat in the lounger across from me. There’s a girl passed out on it, so he’s forced to perch on the end. Jim once told me that the biggest hazard of working with a young rock star is the age of his groupies. Sitting this close to a bikiniclad teenager makes him visibly edgy.
“Keep that line in mind in case TMI asks you about it on the street today,” Jim warns.
“Noted.” Also noted? Avoid any celeb hot spots today. I have zero desire to be papped.
“How was the studio last night?”
I roll my eyes. As if Jim didn’t have the studio tech on the phone immediately after I left, replaying the track. “You know exactly how it was. Crappy. Worse than crappy. I think a barking Chihuahua could lay down better vocals than me right now.”
I lean back and stroke my throat. Nothing’s wrong with my vocal cords. Jim and I got that checked out with a doctor a few months ago. But the notes that were coming out yesterday lacked…something. All my music seems flat these days.
I haven’t recorded anything decent since my last album. I can’t pinpoint the problem. It could be the lyrics or the rhythm or the melody. It’s everything and nothing, and no amount of tweaking has helped me.
I run my fingers over the six strings of my Gibson, knowing my frustration must show on my face.
“Come on, let’s walk a little.” Jim dips his head toward the girl. She looks passed out, but she could be faking it.
With a sigh, I set the guitar on the cushion and rise to my feet.
“Didn’t know you liked walks on the beach, Jim. Should we start quoting poetry to each other before you propose?” I joke. But he’s probably right about putting some distance between us and the groupie. We don’t need some yappy fan talking about my music block to the tabloids. I give them enough to talk about already.
“Did you see the latest social media numbers?” He holds his phone up.
“Is that an actual question?”
We stop at the railing on my wraparound deck. I wish we could walk down to the beach, but it’s public, and the last time I tried setting foot on the sand in the back of my house, I came away with my swim trunks torn off and a bloody nose. That was three years ago. The tabloids turned it into a story about me getting into a fight with my ex and terrorizing young children.
“You’re losing followers at a rate of a thousand a week.”
“Sounds dire.” Sounds awesome, actually. Maybe I’ll finally be able take advantage of my beachfront property.
His perfectly unlined face, courtesy of some of the best Swiss knives money can buy, is marred by irritation. “This is serious, Oakley.”
“So what? Who cares if I lose followers?”
“Do you want to be taken seriously as an artist?”
This lecture again? I’ve heard it from Jim a million frickin’ times since he signed me when I was fourteen. “You know I do.”
“Then you have to shape up,” he huffs.
“Why?” What does shaping up have to do with making great music? If anything, maybe I need to be wilder, really stretch the limits of everything in life.
But…haven’t I done that already? I feel like I’ve drunk, smoked, ingested and experienced nearly everything the world has to offer in the past five years. Am I already the washed-up pop star before I hit my twenties?
A tinge of fear scrapes down my spine at the thought.
“Because your label is on the verge of dropping you,” Jim warns.
I practically clap like a child at this news. We’ve been at odds for months. “So let them.”
“How do you think you’re going to have your next album made? The studio’s already rejected your last two attempts. You want to experiment with your sound? Use poetry as lyrics? Write about things other than heartache and pretty girls who don’t love you back?”
I stare sullenly at the water.
He grabs my arm. “Pay attention, Oak.”
I give him a what the hell are you doing look, and he lets go of my arm. We both know I don’t like being touched.
“They aren’t going to let you cut the record you want if you keep alienating your audience.”
“Exactly,” I say smugly. “So why do I care if the label drops me?”
“Because labels exist to make money, and they won’t produce your next album unless it’s one they can actually market. If you want to win another Grammy, if you want to be taken seriously by your peers, then your only chance is to rehabilitate your image. You haven’t had a record out since you were seventeen. That was two years ago. It’s like a decade in the music business.”
“Adele released at nineteen and twenty-five.”
“You aren’t fuckin’ Adele.”
“I’m bigger,” I say, and it’s not a boast. We both know it’s true.
Since I released my first album at fourteen, I’ve had unreal success. Every album has gone double platinum, with my self-titled Ford reaching the rare Diamond. That year I did thirty international tour stops, all stadium tours, all sellouts. There are fewer than ten artists in the world who do stadium tours. Everyone else is relegated to arenas, auditoriums, halls and clubs.
“Were bigger,” Jim says bluntly. “In fact, you’re on the verge of being a has-been at nineteen.”
I tense up as he voices my earlier fear.
“Congratulations, kid. Twenty years from now, you’ll be sitting in a chair on Hollywood Squares and some kid will ask their mother, ‘who’s Oakley Ford?’ and the mom will say—”
“I get it,” I say tightly.
“No. You don’t get it. Your existence will have been so fleeting that even that parent will turn to her kid and say, ‘I have no idea who that is.’” Jim’s tone turns pleading. “Look, Oak, I want you to be successful with the music you want to make, but you have to work with me. The industry is run by a bunch of old white men who are high on coke and power. They love knocking you artists around. They get off on it. Don’t give them any more reason to decide that you’re the fall guy. You’re better than that. I believe in you, but you gotta start believing in yourself, too.”
“I do believe in myself.”
Does it sound as fake to Jim’s ears as it does to mine?
“Then act like it.”
Translation? Grow up.
I reach over and take the phone from his hand. The social media number beside my name is still in the eight digits. Millions of people follow me and eat up all the ridiculous things my PR team posts daily. My shoes. My hands. Man, the hands post got over a million likes and launched an equal number of fictional stories. Those girls have very vivid imaginations. Vivid, dirty imaginations.