Book Review: The Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne
Sound familiar? Child pop star soars to insane levels of fame after being discovered on YouTube. Paparazzi follow him wherever he goes. His hair style has its own name. Tween girls sigh and scream over him, and he just loves his fans SO much.
Welcome to the world of Jonny Valentine, the 11-year-old sensation at the heart of The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. Jonny catapulted to Bieber-like levels of celebrity after breaking onto the tween pop scene two years earlier. Now on his second tour, album sales are flat and the gate is unpredictable, the label execs are noncommittal, and manager/mom Jane is coming undone. Amidst all the chaos, Jonny eagerly awaits puberty, searches for the father that abandoned him years earlier, and relies on tutors and bodyguards for any semblance of normalcy and connection.
If it weren’t all so sad, it would be laughable to hear an 11-year-old spouting lines like this:
It was easy for her to say I should try to fall asleep when she wasn’t the one who’d just performed for two hours in front of a capacity crowd of 17,157 fans and had to take a meeting with the label tomorrow back in L.A., who was probably going to voice their concerns that the new album hadn’t meaningfully charted yet, which meant it never would, since sales momentum rarely reverses at this stage in the game unless there’s a major publicity coup.
Jonny is clearly a boy with talent, but is mega-stardom the way to go? He’s got a clear, sweet singing voice with dynamic range and some killer dance moves. Could he take a slower, more reasoned path to success? Study his craft, take lessons, continue with school, hang out with friends? Well, sure, but in today’s celebrity-obsessed culture, quicker and bigger is better, and Jane isn’t satisfied unless Jonny is absolutely tops.
Teddy Wayne’s skewering of pop idol mania is spot-on. Jonny knows to pick a chubby girl to bring up on stage, because if he picks a “hot” girl, all the not-so-hot girls will feel marginalized. He goes on a staged “date” with another tween star at the suggestion of his label, during which they pose for a candid “gotcha” photo by a pre-arranged cameraman. Jonny’s lyrics are bland paeans to the girl of his dreams, which can safely appeal to every girl without making him seem unavailable. When a back-up dancer misses a beat, Jane is ready to fire him for distracting Jonny in a concert, resulting in the pathetic sight of a grown-up pleading for his job with a child — while the child sits in his bean bag chair with his video game controller in his hand, both a powerful executive and a kid who can’t deal with adult problems.
The Love Song of Jonny Valentine is both a funny, pointed critique of the culture of fame and a sad narrative of a lost childhood. Told in the first person by Jonny, the narrative veers from a boy’s eye-view of video games and snacks to a hyper-aware discussion of fan bases, market penetration, carb counts, and media saturation. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Jonny, who really might be happier going to school and having friends his own age. Yes, he’s already made enough money to last a lifetime and his face appears on T-shirts, backpacks, and cell phone cases — but he’s also an isolated little man-child, sleeping alone in hotel room after hotel room, sneaking into his mother’s sleeping pill stash, worrying about the “chub” around his waist, and relying on his security chief for companionship and some semblance of responsible adult influence.
I found this book both highly entertaining and quite disturbing in its ability to capture the essence of a society obsessed with fame and all its trappings. Jonny has a rare off-script moment in an interview when he’s caught off-guard. Instead of his perpetually positive and inoffensive answers, he responds to a question about why people are so eager to read about celebrity scandals:
“[But] when things go bad for us, it really makes them happier about their own lives,” I said. “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 like 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.”
By the end, Jonny seems determined to play the game. Maybe he can’t have a normal life, but he’s determined to control the weird, hyper-public life that is his own. Will his star power last, or will he be another soon-forgotten overnight sensation known years later as a punchline to a joke? Only time will tell.
Check out The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. It’s sharp, funny, heart-breakingly pathetic, and eminently readable. And next time you read about the newest teen pop sensation, stop and wonder: What’s the price of fame? And who is really responsible for the cult of personality and paparazzi? Beneath the witty writing and fast-paced narrative, there’s real food for thought here.