Musicians have been a presence in fiction for years, and are unlikely to depart its pages any time soon. Whether exploring the privileged life of a rock star or focusing on the gritty reality of a struggling drummer or guitarist, men and women making music exert an undeniable pull on the imagination of writers.
Writing novels about musicians isn’t without its drawbacks, however. In an essay in Tin House’s Winter Reading issue, writer Joseph Martin notes that “rock’n’roll tends to die on the page,” and then goes on to enumerate the “precious few unpleasant options” for plots of rock-centric novels. It’s an argument that stings: the line between well-worn plot tropes and boring cliches is, after all, a thin one, and it can be difficult to replicate a group’s sonic appeal through the medium of prose. That said, recent years have seen novels with rock music at their center receive a heavy degree of acclaim; consider Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. Put rock music in the background of a novel and you have a potentially rich counterbalance to themes of authority, conformity, and stifled creativity. It doesn’t hurt that some novelists, including Nick Tosches and Colson Whitehead, have a background in music criticism. But if rock is receiving this treatment, it begs the question: where are the novels where pop music is similarly prominent?
If you’re looking for smart contemporary music writing, it’s as easy to find an insightful piece on a pop act as it is on a rock musician or hip-hop producer. And it doesn’t hurt that the lines between musical styles are increasingly blurred — there’s little doubt that music that appeals to a huge audience is deserving of serious critical consideration. It would be easy to assemble an imagined mixtape of fictional rock musicians. More difficult, however, would be a similar list of pop groups written about in literary fiction.
The reasons for this are not hard to identify: the dynamics of a solo artist or group are different when one enters the world of pop. If you’re looking for a tormented artist working on their music in isolation, a rockstar protagonist might work for you. A pop artist working with a series of songwriters and producers (to say nothing of the crafting of a successful stage presence) sets up an entirely different dynamic.
And then there’s the earworm factor. Love it or hate it, the hooks for successful pop singles get lodged in your brain — no easy task. To come up with a fictional pop musician is one thing; to make them believable, and their music convincing, is a far more difficult task. But a few novels released in recent years have opted for pop, rather than rock, as their musical backdrop of choice. Do they suggest a path that future authors might follow?
Adam Levin’s 2010 novel The Instructions follows a few days in the life of young Gurion Maccabee, a junior high school student of prodigious intelligence who may or may not be the messiah. The novel builds to a revolutionary action; lurking in the background is a teen-pop sensation classmate of Gurion’s known as Boystar. Gurion’s action is set to coincide with Boystar’s performance of a single called “Infantalize” at a pep rally; over the course of the novel, flyers advertising Boystar’s album Emotionalize punctuate the school’s hallways, echoing the typographic diagrams that occur throughout the narrative. And while Boystar is a more elusive character than Gurion, each is surrounded by people who idolize them; each commands an audience larger than their age might suggest.
Boystar’s single “Infantalize” is introduced to the reader in a way that mirrors the characters’ experience of being introduced to it: through a long, hype-ridden monologue. “‘Infantalize’ starts out slow, quiet, smooth — sounds like it’s going to be a ballad,” says Boystar’s associate Chaz Black. “But it’s a rocker. A real bootyshaker, if I may.” There’s Chaz’s introduction to Boystar, and then — a few pages later — there’s Boystar’s own introduction, a teasing play on the title of his single, his words playing at a more mature persona in a way that’s just a little inappropriate for a junior-high pep rally.
Gurion describes the single’s opening: “Swelling cellos bled a hesitant pianoline. The lightest of drumrolls, a kind of sated cicada-sound — it murmured near the threshold, almost subliminal. And then a tweet of birdsong. And then a muted waterfall.” And then, before Boystar can sing a note, Gurion’s revolution reaches the gymnasium, its first strike incapacitating him.
In Levin’s novel, the pop vocalist’s role is a supporting one. In Teddy Wayne’s The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, he at the center; the title character, our narrator here, is eleven-year-old pop star. He is on the waning days of a nationwide tour, feuding with his label, obsessed with a virtual world called Zenon, and posesses an unhealthy fondness for his mother’s prescription drugs. Jonny’s narrative voice is a striking one: wise beyond his years in some ways and impossibly naive in others, with more than a few phrases that suggest that he’s internalized more music-industry doublespeak than would be healthy for anyone.
Wayne focuses more on the stagecraft of Jonny’s live show than he does specifics; we get a few song titles (“U R Kewt,” “RSVP (To My Heart),” “Summa Fling”) and a handful of lyrics. The question of whether Jonny’s music is actually good is never really resolved. There are hints at one point that Jonny may not fully comprehend some of his own lyrics; on the other hand, characters periodically find evidence of both deeply repressed anger and underlying sadness in his vocals, suggesting reasons for his appeal. What we do see of his signature song (“Guys vs. Girls”) seems catchy enough: a couple of rhyming lines that do tend to burrow into the brain. And there are some nice, worn-in features: “Guys vs. Girls” is ubiquitous enough to be regularly misremembered by a number of characters.
The artists Jonny shares bills with are a mixed group, in terms of veracity: there’s a Ulysses-reading,Vice-profiled group called The Latchkeys whose edginess and bond with Jonny seems to mirror Tyler the Creator’s occasional run-ins with Justin Bieber. At times, they seem a bit too knowing; they’re the most self-aware characters in the book. On the other hand, Wayne dubbing a crypto-Christian rock act 3 Days Dead seems just about perfect.
Jonny himself at times reads like a funhouse rendering of Justin Bieber, a notion that isn’t hurt by Wayne’s choice to use a quote from the memorably-coiffed popstar as one of the novel’s epigraphs. With that in mind, it’s also possible to view Jonny’s rival, the older and more successful Tyler Beats, as a sort of Justin Timberlake figure: possessing an effortless cool, but also keeping an eye on the future, with a plan to move away from performance and into production.
There are elements of satire to be found in Wayne’s novel. That’s understandable — given Jonny’s skewed worldview, a naturalistic take on the same subject matter wouldn’t work. But the stylized approach itself can clash with the fact that certain real-world pop stars already occupy a rarefied narrative space. If a novelist faithfully recounted R. Kelly’s blend of legal troubles and commitment to serial storytelling, Justin Bieber’s embrace of a thirty-five-minute drone reworking of one of his singles, or just about anything Ke$ha has done, it would already push against the limits of believability. Pop truth may be stranger than fiction, but Levin and Wayne have both demonstrated that pop music can be as fictionally evocative as its rock counterpart.
Photo of Teddy Wayne by Christine Mladic.