The life and times of a modern day prepubescent pop star are the sardonic fodder for Teddy Wayne‘s new novel, “The Love Song of Jonny Valentine.” Written from the perspective of an 11-year-old singer, the novel jabs at the realities of the entertainment industry — its teen idol marketing machine and sale of wholesome romance to adolescent girls — and explores our culture’s obsession with fame. Wayne accomplishes this through his teen idol hero, who must handle his fame-addicted mother, navigate through a snarky media and deal with a record label in a manner well beyond his years.
While comparison to teen-idol-of-the-moment Justin Bieber are unavoidable (Jonny Valentine’s rise to fame also begins on YouTube), Wayne tips his hat to an original heart throb: Rudolph Valentino, who was sold to the masses via the silent movie in the 20s. Jonny’s last name at birth is Valentino, but he later adopts Valentine as his stage name.
Wayne’s first novel “Kapitoil” was published in 2010 and he writes regularly for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and The New York Times. We recently spoke to him from his apartment in Manhattan:
ART BEAT: “The Love Song of Jonny Valentine” comes out this week. Jonny speaks with a voice of an 11-year-old but also with a mix of marketing jargon. How is the novel’s style suited to its subject matter and themes?
TEDDY WAYNE: I was freelance writing a very short column about media and marketing for the New York Times. Each week I’d interview experts in the field who spoke in this very convoluted, technical marketing jargon. They’d talk about things like “building our brand” and “transferring assets to the digital platform.” I felt that this is a very emblematic vernacular for our age. I think we live in an era of tremendous entrepreneurial narcissism in which people are always trying to sell themselves. That comes out most strongly in celebrities who are their own brand, essentially. They are themselves products. I thought about the collision between this very mercenary, manipulative marketing jargon and the innocence of a child and thought it would make sense to combine them into the voice of an 11-year-old celebrity.
ART BEAT: Jonny makes references to Buddy Holly, members of the Beatles and mostly Michael Jackson. Can you elaborate on the role that music plays in the book?
TEDDY WAYNE: Jonny becomes aware over the course of the novel that the sort of music he’s making is not timeless art. It’s a disposable commodity that’s as much a widget as anything else. He’s dimly aware of this at the beginning but becomes more so, as he’s exposed to better music.
ART BEAT: Jonny plays the video game “The Secret Land of Zenon” throughout the story, which I found authentic. I know kids today play games like “Skyrim” and “World of Warcraft.” What’s the significance of this in the book?
TEDDY WAYNE: “Zenon” is a chance for Jonny to explore and make mistakes in the alternative universe of a video game in a way that his celebrity public persona doesn’t permit. This is what childhood should allow — for kids to make mistakes and learn from them. But he has such a high pressure, high stakes existence that he’s not able to do so.
ART BEAT: Going back to that entrepreneurial narcissism that you mentioned, your book is pretty frank about the marketing practices of the music industry. After reading this I had to ask myself whether popular music since the 1950s has been promoted just as to separate teenagers from their money.
TEDDY WAYNE: I think I would be overly cynical to say that everyone involved is just a greedy capitalist hoping to take the allowances away from 13 year olds. I think there are people in the world who function that way, but there are also real artists. Justin Bieber, for instance, is this huge global force and as much of a product as anyone in the industry, but I think he genuinely loves and cares about his music. Maybe it’s the apparatus surrounding them that makes it so mercenary, as opposed to the artists themselves.
But there’s definitely a machine that works that way. As far as music, film and books go, I think music and film tend to be on the harsher side of the commerce versus aesthetic battle, and books are still holding out as much they can.
ART BEAT: Regarding Teddy Wayne, I really liked your commercial for the book on Funny or Die.
TEDDY WAYNE: Thank you.
ART BEAT: Of course, it’s an exaggeration of the self promotion required in the publishing industry, but to what extent do you think it’s accurate?
TEDDY WAYNE: Yeah, one of the ironies of this book is that I now have to go around speaking about it and I’m guilty of exactly what I’m critiquing in the book. There’s a little sense of humor about that though. The book’s cover itself is this shiny, holographic foil that reflects a prism. It’s very attention grabbing and glitsy with expensive packaging, which are all the things that the book is satirizing or discussing. Authors do need to do that, unless you’re Philip Roth or Don DeLillo or someone of that ilk. You need to do your own publicity as much as possible, even when you’re getting help from a publisher. It’s just recognition of the changing times that now people read far less than they used to. They’re less willing to part with $25 for a hardcover book than they might have been 10 years ago even.
ART BEAT: What’s the closest experience you’ve had to a rock star moment?
TEDDY WAYNE: Most of my time is spent in my apartment by myself in my underwear, so it’s not normally a rock star lifestyle. But the closest I had was probably in the city of Bend, Ore., which has about 85,000 people, I think. They had selected “Kapitoil,” my first book, as their One City One Book read for 2011. They flew me out to Bend, where for about four days I was regaled with various events, including meeting 25 quilters who had made quilts based on “Kapitoil.” They let me take one home. I gave a reading at an auditorium to probably the biggest crowd I’ll ever speak to. So that’s as close as I’ll get to it. I didn’t trash my hotel room though.