By Teddy Wayne. Free Press, 304 pp, softcover
“Whither Justin Bieber?” one might wonder these days, as the publicly shirtless pop princelet late-night rage-tweets about his “worst birthday” (the third most retweeted tweet of all time, apparently). Where that kid is going is anybody’s guess. But if you wonder where he came from, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine may hold some clues.
The second novel by New Yorker and Vanity Fair writer Teddy Wayne focuses on 11-year-old “Angel of Pop” Jonny Valentine, who bears some strong resemblances to baby Biebs circa 2009: he was discovered on YouTube, he performs overproduced, saccharine love songs about girls, and above all he sports a hairstyle called “the Jonny”, which inspires armies of imitators. “Girls historically love singers with sort of floppy hair,” he theorizes. Well, can’t argue with that.
The novel chronicles several stops on Jonny’s 30-city tour to support his album Valentine Days (if you think that’s barfy, his idol Tyler Beats’s album is called Tylernol). Poor Jonny’s got a lot to deal with: his controlling show-biz momager won’t let him use the Internet to email his estranged dad; he’s obsessed with advancing levels in his video game; he constantly worries about being “beefy” (“for now, we want to keep me slim and boyish”), and most importantly, sales are down for this latest tour and his contract is about to “sunset”—dangerous for a male tween songbird whose voice hasn’t yet broken.
Sure, you’d expect a book about a doppel-Bieber to be darkly funny, but this is a satire that’s kind of sad and touching, and delivers a lot of awful truths—which is to say, it’s a great satire, and also a great coming-of-age story. Jonny’s questioning of his legitimacy is particularly affecting: when something terrible happens backstage, he yells, “Help! Somebody help me,” instantly thinks of the Beatles, then observes, “It’s like I was the derivative of other people even in an emergency.” Love Song is meticulously researched, too; Jonny spouts enough stuff about music marketing and show biz that the book could be a case study for a talent-management seminar.
So, then, whither Jonny Valentine? Hopefully, he tweets wisely, keeps his shirt on, and one day gets his wish: to make real music, “not just diarrhea pop for little girls to cry to”. Regardless, he’s a great story.