Manufactured On YouTube, Teen Pop Star Searches For His True Voice
In Teddy Wayne's new novel, YouTube sensation Jonny Valentine has the sugar-sweet pipes of a teen heartthrob. But he also has a controlling manager-mom, a missing father, a retinue of people who work for him and a record label that's leaning on him to move the merchandise — fast.
The Love Song of Jonny Valentine explores the stratosphere of megastardom and cult celebrity amid that classic of American novels: the road tour. Readers cross America with Jonny, whom they first meet on a tour bus when he's 11 years old. Yet, like other coming-of-age characters before him, Jonny must first find himself.
Wayne joins NPR's Jackie Lyden to talk about the novel and child heroes.
On developing the voice of Jonny Valentine
"The voice is really a combination of a preteen innocent grammar, run-on sentences, emotional comprehension of a child colliding with this savvy, marketing cynical voice of a veteran branding executive. And it actually derived in part from a freelance job I had for about two years writing a business media and marketing column for The New York Times, in which I'd interview people in the industry each week who spoke very much like marketing lingo experts."
On the appeal of a creating a child star
"Entrepreneurial narcissism is, I think, one of the defining features of our age, and it's one thing if an adult celebrity is hawking his own product, which is often himself. So, if Ashton Kutcher is branding himself on Twitter, that's fine but when a child does it, it becomes that much more pernicious. And the cracks in the facade of how we function as a society are that much more evident."
On Jonny's mother's role:
"His mother or momager, as the term [is] these days, is a fiercely devoted and loving mother. She wants very much to have gotten them out of the circumstances they were in in St. Louis. She was a supermarket bagger ... and I think everyone can relate to a mom who wants something badly for her child but maybe that's not what the child himself wants.
"There are many scenes of her being tenderly loving with him, of caring about his safety and protecting him. But there are also scenes in which she overlooks what he truly needs, which is a mother who is simply his mother, not his manager, too."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
A new novel called "The Love Song of Jonny Valentine" explores the stratosphere of megastardom amid that classic American novel tropes, the road tour. Destination: Madison Square Garden, New York City. The novel's hero is just 11 years old when we meet him. He has the sugar-sweet pipes of a Justin Bieber, whom he closely resembles. He also has a controlling manager-mom, a missing father and a retinue of people who work for him.
We cross America with his crew by bus on Jonny's make-it-or-break-it big tour. Like all boys, he has to find himself. Jonny Valentine is the creation of Teddy Wayne, who joins us now from our bureau in New York. Welcome to the program, Teddy Wayne.
TEDDY WAYNE: Thank you for having me, Jacki.
LYDEN: You have stumbled on here to the most authentic voice for this young 11-year-old protagonist. I mean, child stars have been a feature of American culture since they started making, you know, movies, and then recording songs. But how'd you come up with Jonny Valentine?
WAYNE: Well, I first must say, as per the findings of Simon Shuster's legal team, that any resemblance to real persons living or dead is purely coincidental. So there is no direct corollary in the real world to this.
LYDEN: I'm glad we're covered because I've shelled out enough for my mistakes this week.
WAYNE: But the voice is really a combination of a preteen innocent grammar, run-on sentences, emotional comprehension of a child colliding with this savvy, marketing, cynical voice of a veteran branding executive. And it actually derived in part from a freelance job I had for about two years writing a business media marketing column for The New York Times, in which I'd interview people in the industry each week who spoke very much like marketing lingo experts.
LYDEN: Ah, so that is all the various similitude. Why don't we have you read something for us where we meet Jonny since we're talking about his voice.
WAYNE: Sure thing. This is from page two. His mother has just told him to go to sleep - his mother, Jane, who's his manager - because they have a big day tomorrow.
LYDEN: And we should say. This is just the two of them. This is an intense mother-son relationship because they're each the only family the other has.
WAYNE: Right. So they've just hung up the phone. He's in his hotel room alone.
(Reading) I put down the phone and stared at it. It was easy for her to say I should try to fall asleep when she wasn't the one who 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 is probably going to voice their concerns 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. And now that I convinced myself zolpidem was the only way, I didn't have a chance without it.
LYDEN: It's a little scary seeing an 11-year-old who knows what all different kinds of sleeping drugs are.
WAYNE: He steals his mother's zolpidem, or Ambien is the nongeneric term, and he self-medicates in various ways. He also is prevented from going onto the Internet ever unsupervised. So throughout the novel, he sneaks onto her computer to check his email or see what the Internet's saying about him. And actually, early on, he discovers that a man claiming to be his father - his long-lost father who left the family when Jonny was 5 or 6 - is now trying to reconnect with him.
LYDEN: What intrigued you about making your star a child and not, you know, just an older rock star?
WAYNE: Well, you know, entrepreneurial narcissism is, I think, one of the defining features of our age. And it's one thing if an adult celebrity is hawking his own product, which is often himself. So if Ashton Kutcher is branding himself on Twitter, that's fine. But when a child does it, it becomes that much more pernicious. And the cracks on the facade of how we function as a society are that much more evident, I think.
LYDEN: And this is Jacki Lyden just branding myself here speaking to Teddy Wayne about his new novel. Let's talk about the lyrics that you've written here. One of his hit songs is called "Guys vs. Girls." And it's been his hit, and they're all cheesy, a little cloying, but they're genius. Could you give us the lyrics to "Guys vs. Girls"?
WAYNE: The chorus is: Guys - and then his backup singers sing guys - versus girls, girls. Why is it got to be that way? Guys versus girls, will you be my girl today? I'm a very mediocre guitarist and singer, but I wrote the full song to it - and there's four versus plus the chorus - and, in fact, recorded my own version.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUYS VS. GIRLS")
WAYNE: (Singing) Guys versus girls, why is it got to be that way. Guys versus girls, will you be my girl today.
LYDEN: One of the things I found so effective here, Teddy, is he is wrapped in cellophane within cellophane. He can't get on the Internet, and his mom is ruthless. She is his mom-manager - that always sets up some risk. But he knows how it's all done.
WAYNE: His mother or momager - as the term these days - is a fiercely devoted and loving mother. She wants very much to have gotten them out of the circumstances they were in in St. Louis. She was a supermarket bagger at Schnuck's Supermarket in St. Louis. And I think everyone can relate to a mom who wants something badly for a child, but maybe that's not what the child himself wants.
There are many scenes of her being tenderly loving with him, of caring about his safety and protecting him, but there are also scenes in which she overlooks what he truly needs, which is a mother who's simply his mother not his manager too.
LYDEN: Did you think about other child heroes of other American novels at all? I might or may, I don't know, lean there thinking about a picaresque, like with Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer.
WAYNE: Some people have said they see references to Huck Finn. There is something Huck Finn-ish about it. Huck travels along the Mississippi on a raft with Jim. Jonny travels across America on a tour bus with his bodyguard Walter. I don't know about quality, if I could compare myself to the greats, but I don't mind putting in this picaresque tradition of American coming-of-age narratives.
LYDEN: Well, I could speak to you all day, Teddy Wayne, but thank you very, very much for writing "The Love Song of Jonny Valentine."
WAYNE: Thank you so much, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.