Twenty-year-old rising pop star Jena Irene Asciutto puts her blinker on and adjusts her sunglasses, her tight curls spiraling in the wind. "We should get away from the Wayne County sheriff van if we're going to get stoned," she says. Her British, Emma Thompson-esque manager laughs from the backseat while I watch the mural-covered landscape of Eastern Market from the passenger-side window. I find myself silently singing the Talking Heads lyric, "Well... how did I get here?" Because, really. How did I get here?
To compare, Asciutto is a former American Idol runner-up, days away from the release of her debut full-length record, Cold Fame, a remarkably well-rounded collection that flirts with the space between spotlight and darkness. (The record was released earlier this month on Original 1265 Recordings, a label launched by the Detroit Institute of Music Education.) Meanwhile, I had just received an overdraft notification from my bank stating that my account is currently in the red by $14. Asciutto is unabashedly optimistic about the future. Yet I can't help but find myself a bit callused, bitter, and resentful of her endless supply of ambition and positivity, and her blindingly white teeth. In this moment, I feel old.
We drive aimlessly for several minutes, looking for smoke-friendly solace in the early afternoon sun. Asciutto is wearing a Mickey Mouse tall-tee with fishnets and I wonder if I'm trying too hard to look young in my leather mini-skirt and what I jokingly call my "Yeezy" sweater.
"This is so cool," Asciutto says. "An interview where I get to smoke weed? I love it."
Our decision to have an interview smoke session is inspired by "So I Get High," Asciutto's pro-pot power ballad on Cold Fame. The track is masterful in being both discreet and to the point and could just as easily be about finding God as it is about smoking the devil's lettuce. In its accompanying video, a moody black-and-white close-up of an emotional Asciutto ends with a clip from a Bernie Sanders campaign speech calling for an end to mass incarceration for marijuana possession.
"Were you a supporter? Or I should say are you?" Asciutto asks. I tell her that I choose to live in a fantasy land where cats can talk and Bernie Sanders is my president for all of eternity. Asciutto still feels the Bern, too. "For the first time we had someone who represented the positive rather than the negative," she says. With the taboo of politics out of the way, we disclose intimate details about why we chose to get our medical marijuana licenses and why smoking a joint is far more enjoyable than vaping, and, despite our high tolerances, why edibles are reserved only for special occasions.
"I'm the type of person that if I wake and bake every single day, I won't get shit done because it's a constant cycle like, 'Let's just smoke more!'" she says. "I think it's because I started smoking later in life than my friends. It's still kind of new to me."
Asciutto admits she's "still a new adult." "But I have very strong opinions," she says. "The hypocrisy (a word she phonetically breaks down when speaking as if coaching herself through its meaning) from the internet and the media upsets me. There are so many people that aren't vocal about how they smoke weed but dog other people for their views, and that stigmatism is something that really grinds my gears. That's where the song came from... being pissed off."
Of course, she means "stigma," but her misuse of the word reminds me of the years I spent mispronouncing the word "myriad," and her frequent use of platitudes and mixed metaphors does nothing but make me wistful for the days where I too didn't know any better. I don't correct her.
When asked about the first time she smoked pot, Asciutto surprises when she says it was after a photo shoot with American Idol sponsor Ford. "Everyone smoked weed on American Idol," she says. "Those are like 12- to 13-hour days. I was stressed and exhausted and everyone was like, 'Let's go back and have a joint.' I was like, 'Fuck it, let's do it.'"
We park on a residential side street and she is handed her grinder and papers with one hand as she digs in her purse for her medical marijuana container with the other. "This is going to be a skinny-ass joint," she confesses and I admit I never learned how to roll, despite having managed Detroit-based dispensaries for several years. I show her my stash and my thick, squat pre-rolls.
"Oh my God! You brought some!" she says. "I guess we have some smoking to do."
In 2002, I was 14. That year, Fox premiered American Idol and Asciutto was too young to use a touch-tone phone to vote for Kelly Clarkson. Idol, of course, would continue to be a massive hit (it finally ended on Fox in 2016; it returns to ABC next year), opening the door for the musically gifted, and giving hungry hopefuls and societal cast-offs an audience — as long as they were willing to play along with the then-new concept of reality television. I, like the rest of America, was transfixed.
I would spend Idol nights on the phone with my mother as we watched every episode together, pausing during performances and erupting into what we felt was very valuable commentary just before the judges could chime in. Since our TV transmissions were out of sync by several seconds, one of us would react to news the other had yet to hear. We watched this way for several seasons, over the phone. I like to think that if my mom were still around, we would agree that Jena (pronounced "Gina") was robbed of the number one spot during Season 13 because, really, the girl can fucking sing.
Now, Asciutto is a far cry from the 17-year-old who auditioned for American Idol back in 2014. The Farmington Hills native and then-senior at North Farmington High School had just quit her stint in what she calls her "cheesy" cover band Infinity Hour when she auditioned with Adele's power hit "Rolling in the Deep" in front of Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick, Jr.
Looking back at Asciutto's audition tape, it seems as if the judges initially almost didn't know quite what to make of her. "You do something with your tongue, it's like you close things off sometimes," Connick noted, and wondered aloud if she had a "speech impediment."
Asciutto admitted that the tongue thing could be a bad habit as she bashfully moved her hair behind her ears, looking every bit of 17. Urban, however, praised her unique enunciation and Lopez watched with a glassy, almost tearful gaze. Despite her vocal tic, the judges waved Jena through.
Her most memorable Idol performances include her takes on Radiohead's "Creep," Coldplay's "The Scientist," and Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love," often providing her own musical accompaniment on piano. Her signature warble and ability to hold a note and still make it sound powerful, pretty, and emotive enchanted America throughout Season 13, and made J.Lo grant several standing ovations and even a post-performance hug and kiss (something she claimed to "never do"). Eventually, she lost to fellow contestant Caleb Johnson.
Since Idol, Asciutto has visibly grown up. Now rocking a Skrillex-esque side-shave, vibrant, natural curls, a plethora of tattoos, and a whisper of mascara, she now looks less like the over-styled Kohl's catalogue version of herself presented on Idol and more like, well, Jena.
Asciutto describes her life post-Idol as "an unlearning process." "They teach you how to smile, you know?" she says. She seems happy to distance herself from that time in her life. "The more press and shows and content I put out means I'm moving farther away from those years and that period of my life," she says. "It's going to get pushed down, which is why I'm excited for this album to come out."
We light up and sit quietly as we blow the first clouds of smoke out of open windows.
When asked if she is glad she ultimately didn't win American Idol, Asciutto says, "Fuck yeah, dude." She finishes her toke with broken breath. "I wouldn't have been able to write my own songs. They have songwriters," she says. When she brought up the idea to perform her own songs to the show's executive producers, she says they wouldn't even listen to them. "It's so degrading when you've written songs from the age of like, 12, for someone to like, not even hear you out," she says.
After Idol, Asciutto says she shopped around to a few different labels, only to find more of the same kind of music industry mentality. "The first few label interviews I went to after Idol, it was just businessmen in suits with a bunch of interns that like, you know, didn't really care. I was on the bottom of the totem pole. I guess that's how it is when you're fresh off American Idol," she shrugs. "I've come to accept the stigmatism that comes with that."
I smile to myself at Asciutto's repeated malapropism, but also because everything she says feels so sincere.
"Do you want to smoke one of yours?" she asks.
I've listened to Cold Fame at least five times all the way through, though I may have lost count at this point. At first it was purely for research purposes, but soon I found myself driving solo, trying to hit her breathy high notes, bopping around to the incredibly catchy chorus of the Amy Winehouse-esque track "White Girl Wasted," complete with handclaps and frequent use of the phrase, "No fucks given."
The album is clever, honest, and totally unexpected from someone who isn't even old enough to drink legally — its orchestration is lush and mature, mixing moody, tender moments with fun and defiant indiscretions. It's not a cry for instant, radio-ready pop stardom, but rather a plea to be heard, following a trajectory that is delightfully more complicated than one might assume for a debut pop record. There are traces of Coldplay and Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine here, but Asciutto manages to steer Cold Fame from genre to genre with vocal prowess and unique flare while avoiding sounding like a carbon-copy or indecisive.
Asciutto sports a "Cold Fame" tattoo scrawled in a blurred cursive on her left hand, but she says it's not to commemorate her record — she says it's actually her favorite song by Band of Skulls. "That's where a lot of the inspiration for my record came from though, through my interpretation," she says. "The first line of that song is, 'What's the point of fame if it's been abused?' and I felt that on American Idol. If you went in a certain direction you could easily abuse your fame."
She pauses for another hit. "And I saw it happen," she says. "I saw it with guest stars and contestants who thought they were hot shit. You're not shit. You're just another person in this whole pond. There's a lot of blue and coldness that comes from fame and it's not all peaches and cream. You have to know what you're signing up for."
I pass Asciutto my Death Star joint. She sparks, pauses and continues. "I hate not being myself. I hate being guarded and filtered," she says. "Yeah, some people are offended by swearing or offended by smoking weed. Finding my own audience in this whole process has been really scary, but it's definitely been very humbling."
She says the process of writing and recording Cold Fame took almost a year because she kept going back to the recording studio to make changes — a reflection of changes she was going through in her own life. "I'm glad we went back because this is the time where I changed and evolved the most as a person," she says. "It was super hard for me to go from being this, like, pop princess, American pie, American Idol contestant to discovering who I actually am. I'm ready for the record to be out. The whole thing feels like a fucking lifetime ago, ya know?"
I nod and respond with a super stoner-y, "Totally," but the truth is I don't know. I have no fucking clue.
I double-fist a cigarette and a joint and refuse to admit that I might be too high to keep smoking. Tiny little Asciutto, though visibly high, doesn't flinch at the offer of another toke. Now seemed like the perfect time to discuss success.
I mention how my definition of success has changed over time and continues to shift as I evolve. "Success, at this stage in my life, is most centered around being happy," I preface before explaining that I can't possibly understand what success must mean to someone so young who has, already, with grace, achieved so much. She passes the joint to me and I refuse to give up. I take a hit and ask what success means to her.
"That's, like, a really good question," she says. "I never thought I would have been able to come out with a full-length record this young. It's totally fucking weird, but, um, other than that I can't even imagine, like, being completely myself and having this much support from my label."
She waves her hand over her eyes. "Shit, I'm going to get really emotional... um, support from my family, my friends, and from new people I meet all the time ... it just makes me really happy to know that being myself is good enough, you know?" she says. "OMG, I'm crying." And she was. Her manager and I take turns consoling her, but unlike last time, I do know what she's talking about.
A van drives by without a door blasting what sounds like Middle-Eastern hip-hop. "Damn, that's ratchet," Asciutto says. "Good for them."
Asciutto, who currently lives in Ann Arbor, says she prefers Detroit to New York or Los Angeles. "Not that I don't love those places, but there's something special here," she says. "Out there it's like, every man for himself. This is a good starting point for me."
I suggest she call it a "restarting point," but it seems ridiculous to think that a 20-year-old needs to restart anything more than a Snapchat video. But as I watch the wind catch her rogue curls and she wipes her eyes still red from hot-boxing her car and still damp from her epiphany, it suddenly doesn't seem totally unbelievable. I may not be anticipating the release of my first record and I may never know what Ryan Seacrest smells like, but I have started over. Many times, in fact.
Asciutto untangles her crossed legs and passes her grinder back to her manager, looking down and smiling to herself as she dusts stray weed flakes from her lap. I can see that no matter the years that may separate us or the experiences that may divide us, in this moment, we are both high. Like, really fucking high.
"Should I drive?" she asks.
I make the choice to stop recording here because we had entered the classic stoner talking-in-circles territory. Very stoned circles. Sentences became choppy and answers swell around excessive use of the word "like" and long, unproductive pauses. At this point, truthfully, if it weren't for Asciutto's manager, we may never have found our way back to the coffee shop where my car was parked.
Our conversation continues over iced lattes and avocado toast while we fill the time between her next scheduled interview. At this point, Asciutto feels less like an American Idol and more like a friend. We gush about our shared love of the indie band Big Thief and I reference Bright Eyes to her unknowing wide eyes and she tells me she'll add them to her Spotify playlist. "What album should I listen to?" she asks, and I suggest I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning while realizing that Bright Eyes is likely considered classic rock now.
Instead of feeling old, however, I feel more like my mother — doling out advice, providing new reference points and maps of entire worlds to explore. This feels like a gift. As her manager steps away for a moment, Asciutto makes a confession.
"Please don't print the part—" she says, but I stop her there. "I know. And I won't," I say, tapping her hand. I was 20 once too. I know that a young woman is nothing without a few secrets.