The Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne
The once and future kings of pop
Seth Green seems an unlikely source for an academic discussion of the proliferation of modern tabloid journalism. But considering he began acting at age six and counts Macaulay Culkin as one of his closest friends, he has an unusually solid vantage point.
As a guest on Marc Maron’s podcast WTF With Marc Maron in January, Green had this to say when the conversation turned to how the tabloids hounded Culkin:
“After 2001 the publisher that used to run Globe and Daily Mirror in the U.K. came to the U.S. to re-launch Us Magazine, theretofore the sister publication of People At that moment it changed to a weekly publication and focused solely on tabloid, and not just tabloid, young tabloid. The Olsen twins, Britney, Paris Hilton and then within a year there were five magazines. It went from Us Magazine to five magazines, Life & Style, OK, all these other things The next thing you knew people are addicted to buying five different magazines. And all of a sudden all of these adult women, adult professionals are buying these things en masse and having an opinion about Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears, where just five years earlier, or two years earlier, professional women over the age of 25 would not have had an opinion about the comings and goings of the cast of Boy Meets World.”
This is how we get “news” stories like 14-year-old Jaden Smith possibly dating not one, but two Jenner sisters. For child actors and musicians—especially those incubated on Disney Channel or Nickelodeon, groomed on sitcoms, packaged as singers, promoted as stars—the media no longer set different standards for covering child stars. Even youngsters must be on at all times, impervious to the temptations of adolescent mistakes, lest they lose their place in the spotlight.
It’s an impossible bargain, and the new digital environment blurs the line between the person and onstage persona. Public interaction can sometimes be genuine, but far more often it is a highly manicured and manufactured relationship.
Not long ago, Billboard announced that YouTube views would be incorporated into the formula for the Hot 100 chart. This, of course, would help online sensations like Psy, fun., Gotye, Macklemore and Carly Rae Jepsen receive chart recognition in an industry shifting away from radio airplay as the major barometer for popularity.
Justin Bieber—discovered via YouTube and plucked into stardom by Usher Raymond and others, a young star with a vast legion of devoted online followers and scores of videos with views in the hundreds of millions—has never scored a number one hit. This may, arguably, be due to now-antiquated methods of calculating the charts. (The precise formula remains a closely guarded Billboard secret.)
Roundly criticized by major music critics and lacking in adult crossover appeal, Bieber resorts to a circle-the-wagons, “Us Against The World” (sorry, Coldplay) mentality with his fans. The Bieber machine directs ire at vague “haters” as positive reinforcement for his fans’ investment. It’s a carefully calculated publicity scheme, but one that obscures the real Justin Bieber, once a kid so in love with music that his talent poured palpably from clips on YouTube.
When not nominated for the Grammys this year, Bieber planned a livestream to run against the awards telecast, an ill-advised, megalomaniac move that satisfied his followers while playing directly into his detractors’ hands. Was the move self-aware to Bieber’s aggressively defensive fanbase? (He even sicced his followers on the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney after the show.) Or did we witness a complete lack of self-awareness from a sore loser struggling to grow up?
All this brings us to Teddy Wayne’s second novel. In the same way the author did with the oil industry and Americanization in his first novel Kapitoil, Wayne constructs his second, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, around a popular cultural concept—this time, teen music stardom. He keeps things moving at an entertaining clip while dropping points for discussion along the way. The novel touches on over-involved parenting, exploitation of child labor and the sheltered life of child stars, all propelled by Jonny Valentine’s first-person narration.
The titular narrator bears striking similarities to Justin Bieber in terms of genre and trajectory, but this isn’t a simple dramatization. Bieber’s mother, for example, is conservative; she published a memoir detailing the pressure she felt to have an abortion and produced a pro-life film. Jane is the polar opposite of the politicizing, moralistic persona Bieber’s mother projects: a lonely, insecure woman who seeks to desperately control her son’s cash flow to escape unhappiness through wealth. At age 11—younger than when Usher brought Bieber to light as a young teenager—Valentine perches on the precipice of adolescence, beginning to question his mother’s strategies and comprehend her flaws.
Wayne clearly creates two different personas for Jonny. Onstage, we see Jonny Valentine, beloved by masses of teen girls, a star who sings, dances and connects to girls who don’t fit traditional standards of beauty. He writes songs like “Girls Vs. Boys” and “Roses For Rosie.”
Behind the scenes, his manager mother, Jane, directs every aspect of his life. The only other people with whom Jonny interacts happen to be members of his team: a voice coach, a personal chef, a private tutor, a bodyguard. All the friends from the time before his singing career took off stayed behind in St. Louis. Jonny willingly forgets his past in favor of a more glamorous life in a Los Angeles mansion.
At the outset of the novel, Jonny’s new record lags on the charts, criticism of his music from the mainstream press looms large, and his mother fends off pressure from Jonny’s record label to institute changes to his management. Jane keeps Jonny incredibly sheltered. He has no access to his own social media outlets, except when he secretly accesses his mother’s computer and discovers his estranged father may be trying to find him. As Valentine embarks on a national tour building to a culminating performance at Madison Square Garden on Valentine’s Day (broadcast on the Internet with access at a nominal fee), he no longer expresses enthusiasm for his work. Life has already made Jonny a tour-weary workhorse who reaps less benefit from his efforts than his hard-partying mother.
Jonny’s family life resembles Macaulay Culkin’s, or at its darkest moments, that of Michael Jackson or Judith Barsi. Though not physically abusive in the Joan Crawford vein, Jane only finds interest in parenting so long as it keeps Jonny on the path to continued stardom. She despises her own past struggles, and repeatedly manipulates Jonny into doing what is good for her instead of fostering his own goals.
Jane keeps Jonny so constrained that he can’t do anything to send the lucratively successful pop train off the rails. But we still have one glaring certainty: She can’t prevent him from growing up.
Despite meetings with label executives, vocal coaches, and PR reps to massage Jonny’s image and ease the transition from teeny bop to more adult pop music, Jane fiercely protects the golden goose. Unwilling to let Jonny be himself or become his own agent of change, Jane runs on cold fear that the money will one day dry up.
Cracks show. Tour life, especially when accompanied by a group of erudite rockers as an opening band, leads to experimentation with alcohol and sex, though fumbling and insecure. Wayne’s message comes clear; preventing a child from growing up builds pressure. It turns gradual, natural release into a powder keg of youthful rebellion that can explode.
Wayne’s most astute observation of child entertainers comes at one of the novel’s most contrived junctures. Jonny’s label pairs him with an up-and-coming young female singer on its roster, Lisa Pinto. They join a staged photo-shoot for the rumor mill press. While the shoot results in nice photographs, Jonny makes an attempt to actually connect with Pinto, who shoots him down when he asks her out on a real date. She tells him her parents barely speak English, and that not every child entertainer has their mother slavishly controlling every aspect of their life. Instead of self-introspection, Jonny reassures himself by retreating into questionable veteran status, predicting Pinto’s future stardom:
She’d make it as an actress and as a singer, because she wasn’t a normal kid. She was an adult in a kid’s body. If you were just a kid in a kid’s body, you might make it too, as long as you had good management. If you weren’t either, it was harder to tell.
While Jonny can recognize that ability in another performer, he doesn’t know exactly where he stands. He knows he’s not an adult. He harbors doubts about his mother’s management, especially as he works around her barriers to the outside world. Does he fall uncomfortably into that last category, with an uncertain future? But all kids have uncertain futures, and Jane’s tight grip on Jonny’s life for the sake of brand security threatens to choke out any potential growth.
As the tour reaches New York, Jonny begins to spin out of control but not as much as his mother. The opening band gets the boot for taking Jonny out on the town with them. Jane lands herself in the hospital. Finally, Jonny accompanies his bodyguard to visit an ex-wife and kids. The final on-stage performance means to offer hope, but that dissipates when Jonny meets his father then finds out exactly where dad’s been since abandoning Jonny as a child.
Wayne presents an intriguing take on the consequences of acutely focused preteen star coverage, but the narrative ends with no satisfying conclusion. The tour hardens Jonny, makes him stoic and unapproachable, unable to connect with kids his own age. He appears doomed to a life of perpetual performance.
If nothing else, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine displays the tragic consequences of saddling a boy, on the cusp of adolescence, with grossly unfair expectations.
Kevin McFarland is a freelance writer from the San Francisco Bay Area currently living in Lake Tahoe with his Alaskan Malamute named Dynamite. He writes regularly about books and television for The A.V. Club. You can follow him on Twitter @km_mcfarland