In late September, the singer-songwriter David Cook released a brooding rock album called Digital Vein, a web-savvy answer to his 2006 debut, Analog Heart. It's a hooky collection of pop-rock, with tracks like "Laying Me Low" combining grunge's grit and the swooping strings into taut tracks that aspire toward adult-contemporary radio playlists and sizeable rooms —presumably, both places Cook still wants to be.
Digital Vein is Cook's fourth album but his first without the support of RCA Records, the storied label on which he found himself after rising to the national stage through American Idol. The Fox singing competition reshaped pop's 21st-century landscape and made a lot of money for a handful of people. It transformed Cook, meanwhile, from a Tulsa singer-songwriter self-releasing his record into a reality-show victor with a brief string of hits to—seven years after his win—a Tulsa singer-songwriter self-releasing his record.
Cook was the first Idol champion to take the trail blazed by Season 5's fourth-place finisher, Chris Daughtry, to the top. Daughtry was the inaugural WGWG—a term Idol watchers semi-affectionately give to "white guys with guitars." Cook's smoky voice and smoldering sex appeal turned Mariah Carey's "Always Be My Baby" into a murmured late-night devotional. His take on "Billie Jean" showed he could yelp à la '90s rock deity Chris Cornell. He was a compelling performer and a great contestant, improving in line with the judges' suggestions without bending completely to their will. He eased Idol into an era where pop stars who played instruments onstage were expected, not simply accepted.
Post-Idol, Cook had a fair amount of success. Because the show kept SoundScan tallies under wraps until the confetti fell, he debuted 11 songs in the Hot 100 at once. Co-written by Cornell and produced by alt-rock guru Rob Cavallo, Cook's second single, "Light On," showed off his range and sustained his post-coronation attention. His second post-Idol album, This Loud Morning, did fine, too, climbing into Billboard's Top 10 but never approaching the platinum status his self-titled LP had achieved. The album marked the end of Cook's post-Idol record deal, but the moment had given him the momentum to continue making music, something he hadn't necessarily expected.
"What [Idol has] done for me and countless others, I don't think that can be quantified," Cook told Billboard shortly after Digital Vein's release. "I have a career doing something I love because of that show, and that is not a small thing."
At least for now, though, 2016 will be Idol's last year. The show took its lumps following Phillip Phillips' cruise to the title, from infighting among judges and a disastrous attempt to force a female winner to a decline in ratings and sponsors. Still, the pop world will look somewhat different after Idol, despite the show's waning ability to produce new hitmakers. Its perennial pool of new prospects will disappear, inevitably replaced by more talk of The Voice's Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani's relationship than the stars they're meant to be making. But what of those Idol survivors, like Cook, still trying to make their own way after their time on the show is over?
The biggest winners and finalists have transcended Idol and become pop stars: the girl-next-door Kelly Clarkson, the glamorous yet spiky Carrie Underwood, the chameleonic Adam Lambert, the stoic Daughtry, the feisty Fantasia. Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar, and Constantine Maroulis nabbed a Tony Award. Clay Aiken ran for office and emerged as a gay rights spokesperson. Katharine McPhee and Katie Stevens landed on scripted TV, while Kellie Pickler's reality show about married life debuted in early November.
Others found less conventional avenues to careers: Danny Noriega—whose sassy quip "Some people weren't likin' it" during Idol's seventh season made him a low-level meme—reinvented himself as a YouTube personality (and, later, RuPaul's Drag Race contestant) named Adore Delano. Though booted off Idol before the finals despite a slinky reworking of "Since U Been Gone," Todrick Hall parlayed his appreciation of spectacle into elaborate YouTube clips and, now, a show on MTV. Both these gimmicks might have worked without their purveyors singing in front of Simon Cowell, but the initial TV experience certainly helped.
Cook has had the most common type of post-Idol career—making music that codes as pop, but without direct support from Idol's big-business backers. Instead, he's hand-selling his wares to anyone who is still interested. Digital Vein came out on his Analog Heart Music imprint. On these songs, his voice is a bit raspier than it was back then. Still, it suits his middle-of-the-road noir rock well, and in an inadvertent nod to his time on Idol, he includes a cover of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game," a song so good for his moody persona it's a wonder he didn't perform it in 2008. At times, he enunciates a bit too much for the tune's wounded nature and his Portishead-like arrangement, but the way his voice opens up on the chorus's big vowels is sublime.
"The industry has shifted from when I first got into it seven years ago, to where it's easier now to get people to listen, but it's harder to get people to pay attention," Cook told Billboard. "Idol was a way to get people to pay attention and give people a voice who may not have had the opportunity before."
And some of those people continue to pay attention. To wit, I caught a bit of Cook's set at the Middle East in Cambridge two years ago, when he was midway between This Loud Morning and Digital Vein. Morbid Angel and Os Mutantes played the same room later that month, meaning he could still lure a crowd suited for legends. And those people who follow the show fanatically, as though it were the NFL, still track his moves, just as they follow the progress of even the most briefly glimpsed Idol semifinalists.
Does it end there for Cook?
Perhaps. The type of rock in which Cook traffics—aware of pop sensibilities but not completely wedded to them, free of both self-pity and post-grunge yawps—is pleasing to the ear but still in need of a home within the current radio landscape. It's hard to imagine him suddenly stepping into the spotlight again.
Perhaps American Idol's true lingering legacy, then, is creating a slew of pop stars who had their moment underneath white-hot lights but eventually settled down with a fanbase interested in their work, not their celebrity. That's not necessarily the dream that the show laid out all those years ago, when Clarkson became an icon and Aiken became a Rolling Stone cover. But for the hyperdistracted, crammed world of pop in 2015, when very little gets a lot of lasting attention, maybe it's enough for a WGWG like Cook.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Obscure idols"