Jonny Valentine is an almost-twelve-year old pop star. It does not take the character’s iconic haircut to let us know who the model for his character is. Jonny faces the problem that has daunted royalty, and state leaders forever. While he may have an outsized talent and while he may enjoy some perks beyond the reach of most of us, his actual life is rather pint-sized.
Jonny is managed by his mother, late of a job at Schnuck’s (yes, really) supermarket in Saint Louis, and determined never to return. She has some control and substance issues. JV considers his bodyguard, Walter, who is a pretty sweet guy, to be his best friend, which says something. He is also genuinely talented and is dedicated to his work, doing his best to give his fans what they came to see, and working off the extra ounces of chub that appear on his frame from time to time. He has mastered the patois of celebrity interviewing with the confidence of a Crash Davis (the catcher in Bull Durham). So, what about his childhood? It’s kinda tough to fit one in, between touring, recording, making appearances, training, studying, and the like. He wrestles with the possibility of taking a break from the celeb life to go to school like a real boy.
Jonny’s primary entertainment is the role-playing video game Zenon. It is even in his contract that, while on tour, every hotel room he stays in has to have Zenon, installed and ready to go. He spends much of his free time playing. However, despite the quality gaming access, unlike most kids his age, he has considerable difficulty gaining access to an actual computer. This is a result of his mother’s need to control, and probably a reality based desire to spare him the sort of slings and arrows typically launched against anyone famous. Brangelina might be able to laugh it all off, but hey, this kid is only eleven years old. One night, with Mom out and about, Jonny wrangles access to her machine and finds a mysterious query. It looks to be from his father, long MIA. Is it really him or some faker, maybe a pedophile? They seem to be legion in this world, BTW.
This is the primary thread for the novel, Jonny’s quest to connect with his father. There are other threads, or threats, as well. Physical maturation for one. Jonny has just gotten his first zit, among other bodily changes. He is quite eager for his bod to mature, but one wonders what that might mean for his career. With attendance at Jonny’s concerts beginning to sag, drastic measures are considered and Jonny is faced with existential career choices.
We get to see how this child star is marketed, sometimes in painful, if enlightening detail
we always want to have as much control as possible over my image, but the Lisa Pinto [a child actress with whom Jonny is set up for a PR faux date] exposure made sense from a packaging-strategy perspective, since even if it was driving off some of the fat girls, it would bring in more of the pretty girls, and if they liked me then the fat girls would like me more to try to be like the pretty girls, plus the pretty girls would bring their boyfriends to my concerts, which effectively doubled gate receipts and they also had to buy them crap merch to make them happy, but the fat girls didn’t have boyfriends. They had to buy the crap merch for themselves to feel happier. But Jane says we’re in the business of making fat girls feel like they’re pretty for a few hours and that most pretty girls are afraid other people think they’re fat anyway, so maybe it’s all the same.
There is so much in here about the life under scrutiny that I could feel the walls closing in just reading it. For Jonny it really is lonely at the top. Wayne offers us a couple of parallel lines, tracks on which Jonny’s train heads towards its destination. JV has a tutor and the primary subject he is working on is slavery. He is much taken with The Confessions of Nat Turner and has to write a report on it. This element continues through the story, reminding us every now and again that Jonny, while hardly a slave, spends his days in chains of a different sort.
Another recurring image is JV’s video game. In the absence of an actual life, Zenon becomes the primary frame of reference through which he tries to interpret the world. For example, while visiting a hospital burn unit
everyone in this unit and in the whole hospital was like a character whose body was damaged bad in Zenon and couldn’t hardly walk anymore and what didn’t kill them did not make them stronger.
When you can do whatever you want vocally and everyone in the stadium knows it, it’s like getting the invincibility potion in Zenon.
I was reminded of the teens in The Round House seeing the world through the lens of Star Trek NG. Jonny begins at a certain level, and advances through levels as he faces sundry challenges in real life, reaching the top tier at the story’s climax. We can see the challenges Jonny faces in the real world reflected in his video game existence. It is a nice bit of craft. And could be a key to unlocking the whole book.
One way of looking at this coming-of-age tale is to see it as being about mythology, how contemporary mythology is created, managed, massaged into the best possible form. Jonny is busy creating a mythos around his public persona, from controlling every ounce of weight on his body to planning which packaged remarks to slip in to his performances to give an illusion of spontaneity. His managers and instructors are all concerned about maintaining his public image. In walking this path, Jonny has to descend from his show-biz Olympus in order to deal in a real way with people, but the distance created has grown too large. His relationships with girls ares based on mythology. A groupie deals with him as a thing not a person. And the star child-actress with whom he is placed into a celeb-date situation is very different in person from the persona she projects to the world. She is playing the same image game. It is all about the myth and not at all about substance. Jonny has an image, a myth about his father, and whether that is true or not, it is the image, the myth, that offers him motivation to continue his quest. Even those who threaten Jonny and others like him, react to the image they have of Jonny and know nothing of the actual person. TV is maybe the best known creator of mythology these days, and it is easy to see it’s hard out there for a myth. When Jonny stumbles in sustaining his myth during an interview the maintenance crew comes in and tries to restore the image to what it should be. A corporate sort at Jonny’s label is also focused on mythology, or image, looking to make that image more appealing to an older demographic. Jonny’s daily engagement with Zenon allows him to engage in a mythological battle that informs how he sees the actual concrete world. Just like the rest of us. He wonders how his in-game avatar might handle a situation instead of asking, say, what would Jesus do?
I liked this book a lot. It offered a look at a world with which I am completely unfamiliar. This is not an environment that I particularly care about, so the fact that Wayne captured and held my interest for the duration and offered up a lot of detail about that place speaks to his power as a novelist. I learned stuff, and that is always a happy statement to make.
The book is rich with snappy observations. I do not possess the knowledge to judge their accuracy, but they sound reasonable from here. Here are some of my favorites:
Coastal [media] never probes when you bring up religion, because the risk of controversy is too big
TV people were paparazzi with fancier job titles
A celeb is only a celeb if you remember them. It’s like we disappear if no one is paying attention. We think we have all the power, but it’s actually the public who decides, just like with politicians. Except it’s really the record and movie execs and probably a few guys in a room in Washington, D.C. who control the purse strings and give the public the next number-one Billboard singer and movie star and president, but they make it seem like the public chose it so no one gets too upset
the audience was pretending to text and singing along with “U R Kewt” so loudly that I couldn’t hardly hear the band or my own vocals, which made me pissed. If they actually cared about hearing me sing they’d let me sing, but it’s really all for them, which is why like eighty percent of pop lyrics are about you, not her or an actual name, so the listeners can pretend it’s them.
You can’t challenge the listener that much, but if you only give them what they already know, you might have quick commercial success but no rotation stamina. And if it’s too complex, you don’t like it till you’ve heard it a few times, and it’s more important than ever to hook listeners within the first seven seconds or they switch to the next video on YouTube or the next song on the radio.
Jonny is not without his flaws. He gives in to some less than admirable temptations, taking advantage of the privileges associated with celebrity, and, of course, having to pay a PR price, at times. Giving him some texture makes him human as does his real disappointment at the loss of some of the things he had in his life prior to becoming famous. Whatever his flaws, Jonny is a likeable and relatable character, even for an old buzzard like me. He takes on some serious challenges, learns something of the world, overcomes or not, but certainly grows.
My one gripe with the book is that Jonny seemed, at times, much too knowledgeable for a person his age. I suppose it is conceivable that he might know most of what is attributed to him, but I was not 100% convinced of that. Nevertheless, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, released, cutely, in February 2013, is more than a mere holiday confection. It offers a sometimes heart-breaking look at growing up. You will never look at Justin Bieber in the same way again, or any of the other child pop stars who will surely succeed him.
BTW, should you read this book, you may never be able to make a tuna sandwich or egg salad without having a certain image arrive unbidden to your consciousness. I’m just sayin’.
January 28, 2013 – Michiko Kakatani’s NY Times review