Buzzed Books #40 by Ben Buckingham
Teddy Wayne’s The Love Song of Jonny Valentine
Simon and Schuster published The Love Song of Jonny Valentine in 2013 to favorable reviews. Teddy Wayne’s 285-page novel chronicles the tour of tween pop star Jonny Valentine. Valentine, with his trend-setting signature haircut and his bubblegum love songs, seems reminiscent of an early Justin Bieber. Wayne even used a Bieber quote as an epigraph for the book: “I want my world to be fun. No parents, no rules, no nothing. Like, no one can stop me. No one can stop me.”
Structurally and conceptually, the novel is easy to describe. We open in Las Vegas and will follow Johnny around on his Valentine Days tour, culminating in a big, final show at Madison Square Garden (which fans can live-stream for only $19.95!). As Jonny moves from hotel room to tour bus to sound check, readers are informed on the details of his celeb life. His mother is his manager. His father is out of the picture and a voice coach and bodyguard serve as his primary male role models. Jonny’s one friend, Michael Carns, is a distant memory.
Initially, Wayne’s point of view choice (first person, Jonny’s perspective) worried me. Did I really want to be inside the head of an eleven-year-old for 285 pages? That craft choice would seem to limit the book’s social commentary and psychological insight. If the voice was to stay authentic to Jonny’s character, how profound could we really get?
However, Wayne successfully walks that fine line. Unlike some other novels narrated by young people, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonny is not more intelligent or gifted than your average eleven year old. His voice is only elevated when he speaks about the business side of music, using lingo like, “untapped Asian markets” and “brand-perception game changers.” Jonny is no marketing genius, though (he doesn’t even know how to use Twitter) but has picked up a few key terms from his years in the biz.
The most interesting aspect of Johnny’s character is how he views his superstardom. On one hand, he’s cocky. Speaking of Mi$ter $mith, his previous opening act, Jonny says, “I overheard him one time in his dressing room complaining to his entourage how he couldn’t believe he was opening for an eleven-year-old white boy. I’m like, Go triple platinum with your debut, and I’ll open for you.” At the same time, Jonny can be hard on himself. He wants to be a superstar, the next Michael Jackson, and he wants to write real music, “not just diarrhea pop for little girls to cry to, but something that hits everyone and moves them.”
The book’s success really lies in the fact that the more I read the more I grew to like Jonny. He strives to please his mother and fans, but further, he is aware of the many jobs his tour provides. When given the option to quit touring and attend school like a regular kid (however “regular” that experience would be) he can’t help but consider the effect his decision would have on his body guard, his voice coach, his tutor, his back up dancers, and all the rest of the crew.
Ultimately, the novel is as much about Jonny as it is about readers watching Jonny, about how America endlessly idolizes celebrities only to critique their slightest faults. The word “love” gets tossed around—Jonny loves his fans, his fans love him—and yet Wayne seems to point to the emptiness at the heart of celebrity worship. Even Johnny knows, “you can only love someone for real who loves you back.”
Wait in any check out line in America and you’ll see what sells magazines: divorce, drug use, and scandal. As long as we keep buying it, they’ll keep printing it. On a talk show in New York Jonny says, “People like to think about celebrities… Sometimes they’re a little happier from watching us sing or act or play sports, because we take them away from everything… And when they make fun of my mother it makes them feel better about how they raise their own normal kids. So even when they think they love you for not being a normal person, underneath it they actually hate you, because that’s the part that hates themselves for not being special, and for knowing they couldn’t handle the pressure of being famous anyway.”
This is a solid critique from an eleven year old and one of the few times in the novel Jonny sticks up for himself. I never really cared about Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, Justin Timberlake or Miley Cyrus, and I haven’t run out and bought a subscription to People magazine or anything. But after reading Wayne’s novel, I can better sympathize with that type of figure: the child turned star turned mega-celeb. Despite the sold out shows, the screaming fans, the money in the bank, Wayne points to the loss of childhood and the loss of innocence at the center of any young celeb. Michael Jackson, who Jonny Valentine relentlessly idolizes, might be the most poignant modern day example.
The magic of the novel resides in the empathy I develop as a reader for a character archetype I’d previously written off. In the end, I want what’s best for Jonny (whatever that means). Despite these wishes, one has the feeling that Jonny Valentine’s career and personal life will follow the same trajectory as that of Justin Bieber or Britney Spears. The years ahead will not be easy for, or on, Jonny.
The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, then, is about what came before the fall, before the loss of innocence, before the tattoos and DUIs, before the scandal. Like so many child stars, Johnny is manipulated into “choosing” a life of touring, recording, dieting, dancing. The frightening thing, and also the really, truly brilliant thing about Teddy Wayne’s novel, is that readers end up right there with Jonny, ready to go along with whatever bad decisions he’s going to make, for all the same wrong reasons.
Ben Buckingham received his MFA from the University of Central Florida where he taught English composition and was President of the Graduate Writers Association. His fiction received Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. He attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2015 and has received a scholarship to attend the New York State Summer Writers Institute this July.