Confession: I really enjoyed the Justin Bieber doco Never Say Never. If you care to know why, see below*. Yet when I looked past the fairytale veneer of Bieber’s story, the parent in me felt ill about what a child (because he was still a child when that documentary was made) in his position is exposed to – the pressure, the fame, the expectations, the loss (and weirdly, the creation) of identity. This is the message in Teddy Wayne’s latest novel, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine.
“You get worried you’ll forget the words even though they’re like the alphabet song by now. You’re afraid your voice will crack when it strains for the high notes… Your jeans will split and everyone will see your underwear. You’ll say something in a banter interlude that offends people and viralizes. Or something you haven’t even though of goes wrong, and not only is your career hurt, but so are the careers of the 136 people who work on your tour…”
The Love Song of Jonny Valentine is the story of eleven-year-old icon of bubblegum pop, Jonny Valentine, who is well aware that the fans don’t love him for who he is. His image, voice, and even hairdo have been manufactured by his L.A. label and his hard-partying manager-mother, Jane. But within the marketing machine, Jonny is still a kid, perplexed by his budding sexuality and his heart-throb status, dependent on his mother and his entourage, and endlessly searching for his absent father in crowds of faceless fans.
It’s fiction but it’s also pretty clearly Bieber’s story. And Britney Spears. And Lindsay Lohan. And Miley Cyrus. And further back, Drew Barrymore. In many ways, Wayne’s story is not at all original and I think that’s precisely his point.
There are aspects of this story that are so blatantly lifted from Bieber’s life that it’s almost distracting – the YouTube discovery, the signature haircut, the carefully staged concert stunts involving one lucky fan. But again, it’s the familiarity that makes this story so chilling. Without giving spoilers, scenes where Jonny meets up with ‘friends’, goes to parties and even flips through tabloid magazines reveal him for who he is – a child stuck between the world of adults and of kids. Dialogue about sales figures and record chart positions clash with Jonny’s reluctance to do his homework; his casual popping of sleeping tablets contrasts with his mother harassing him about eating too much junk food.
“It’s super-important to have a strong social media presence, and Jane’s always going, When interviewers ask you about your Twitter, say you love reaching out directly to your fans, and I’m like, I don’t even know how to use Twitter or what the password is because you disabled my laptop’s wireless and only let me go on the Internet to do homework research or email Nadine assignments, and she says, I’m doing you a big favor, it’s for nobodies who want to pretend like they’re famous and for self-promoting hacks without PR machines, and adults act like teenagers passing notes and everyone’s IQ drops thirty points on it.”
Some of Wayne’s analogies were a little too ‘in-your-face’ for my liking – for example Jonny’s homework assignment on slavery. Yet the more subtle layers, such as Jonny’s addiction to a particular video game, are probably a starting point for people who want commentary on current pop culture.
3.5/5 Whether you read this as fluff or something deeper, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine is entertaining and thought-provoking.
“A few mentioned they had a project in mind that I was perfect for and we should call their offices to take a meeting… I was still tired and wanted to go home, so instead of talking shop, I ate every spinach-and-cheese-pie triangle and mac-and-cheese cupcake….”
God, I don’t even want to think about what a mac-and-cheese cupcake even looks like but spinach and cheese go together like a horse and carriage. Try these Spinach and Feta Triangles – quick, easy and delicious.
* I was surprised to learn that Bieber was actually a talented musician – I had been under the false impression that he was simply a manufactured plastic pop-star, of a record label’s invention. In addition, Bieber’s hard work touring tiny, one-town radio stations to do interviews and meet fans was impressive. He was a no-name but put in the yards. And in doing all of this, Bieber (and his entourage) worked Twitter like it had never been worked before.