Coming of Age at the Pop Music Factory

By Kakutani, Michiko | International Herald Tribune, January 31, 2013 | Go to article overview

Coming of Age at the Pop Music Factory


Kakutani, Michiko, International Herald Tribune


Teddy Wayne's sad-funny, sometimes cutting new novel, "The Love Song of Jonny Valentine," follows the rising stardom, and daily pressures, of a young heartthrob right out of the Justin Bieber mold.

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. By Teddy Wayne. 285 pages. Free Press. $24.99.

"An old soul is the last thing you would expect to find inside Justin Bieber," an old entry on his Web site says. "But all it takes is one listen to the 15-year-old soul-singing phenomenon to realize that he is light years ahead of his manufactured pop peers." Mr. Bieber, now 18 and as big a pop star as ever, is the model for the 11-year-old with an old soul in Teddy Wayne's sad-funny, sometimes cutting new novel, "The Love Song of Jonny Valentine."

Jonny can seem so much like a young Justin clone that you'd think that Mr. Bieber could sue for copyright infringement. Like the real phenom, Jonny became a tween idol at an absurdly early age: In two years, he has metamorphosed from an ordinary schoolboy into a global heartthrob. He's almost as famous for his cutesy-pie hair as for his soulful voice, and he plays to arenas of screaming girls, one of whom he routinely invites onstage for a tearfully happy serenade. A highlight of his act is a song delivered from a cheesy, dangerous- looking heart-shaped swing that swoops out over the audience.

Mr. Wayne does deviate, occasionally, from the Bieber story line: He makes Jonny's mother his manager, and his father a missing presence in his life, and has Jonny growing up in St. Louis, not Canada. Yet, for whatever reason, his novel oddly echoes the 2011 authorized documentary "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never." It too features a filmed visit home to memorialize the star's humble roots, and chronicles the grueling work involved in a tour (including a brush with a performance-threatening illness) that will culminate in a blowout show in Madison Square Garden.

Mr. Bieber comes across in that movie -- and in reams and reams of interviews -- as a nice, smart, conscientious and highly groomed young man, who spends a lot of time trying to meet everyone's expectations, thinks about the long-term arc of his career and, in the words of one of his handlers, occasionally gets "a little whiny" about not having a normal life. The same is true of Mr. Wayne's narrator, who readily captures the reader's sympathy while conveying the weird isolation and stress that come with pop stardom today.

As he did in his critically acclaimed debut novel, "Kapitoil" -- set in 1999 and told from the point of view of a young computer programmer from Qatar who gets a job on Wall Street -- Mr. Wayne seems intent on satirizing the absurdities of late-stage capitalism. In this case he sends up America's obsession with celebrity and the insatiable, implacable fame machine that eats up artists and dreams, lacquers the talented and untalented alike with glitz, and spits out merchandise and publicity in a never-ending cycle of commodification.

Although Mr. Wayne is sometimes only shooting goldfish in a gilded bowl, he does manage to capture the mania of the media and besotted fans, the grinding weariness of a long tour and the cold- eyed strategizing of executives. …

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