Aaron Carter was a millennial bubblegum boy – and a victim of a predatory music industry | Pop and rock
AAaron Carter was only 34 when he died Saturday, but he seemed to have lived more life than most. The singer and younger brother of Nick Carter, a member of the Backstreet Boys, started performing at the age of seven and released his self-titled debut album in 1997, when he was just nine years old. By the age of 13, he had three best-selling albums and a supporting act for Britney Spears on tour at the height of her fame. At age 14, he was chosen to perform alongside Liza Minnelli, Gladys Knight and Missy Elliott at Michael Jackson’s 30th anniversary celebration at Madison Square Garden. It’s an incredible list of accomplishments by anyone’s standards, but—as seems to be the case with many who find themselves in the public eye from such a young age—Carter’s adult life has been defined by his struggles.
Born in the small town of Rockwood, East Tennessee, Carter’s bubblegum voice and mini bad boy image made him a definitive millennial child star. Innocent enough to be family friendly, but rebellious enough to become the number one heartthrob for girls who grew up wearing bedazzled headbands and reading J-14, his tousled blonde hair and Eminem-via-Dennis The Menace look stood out even and into the oversaturated landscape of manufactured pop groups and graduates of the Mickey Mouse Club. His music videos were eerie and memorable, set in the familiar worlds of film meetings, photo booths, street parties, basketball courts, clubs—typically grown-ups who made pre-domesticity look and feel like an unbridled, isolated universe.
In 2001, Carter moved into acting, appearing as himself on Lizzie McGuire, as well as guest starring on Nickelodeon’s sketch comedy All That. He also lent his voice to the theme songs for the PBS animated series Liberty’s Kids and provided much of the soundtrack for the box office hit Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. He would later form an infamous love triangle with Hilary Duff and Lindsay Lohan, adding to his lore as a sort of teenage Lothario. In many ways, both good and bad, he was a proto-Justin Bieber – a teenage dream bought and sold with what turned out to be very little regard for his own humanity. “I’m so sorry that your life was so difficult and that you had to fight in front of the whole world,” Duff wrote on Instagram after the news of Carter’s death. “You had a charm that was absolutely radiant. Man my teenage girl has grown to love you deeply.”
Like many poster children of his generation, Carter’s career has had a dark side—the extent of which was scarcely known until the relatively recent reckoning with how we treat them in the public eye—especially to teenagers caught up in America’s mainstream entertainment landscape.
Carter’s departure from the music industry occurred around 2002, when his parents filed a lawsuit against his former manager Lou Pearlman, the late the disgraced pop mogul behind multiple bands juggernauts including the Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync. The lawsuit alleges that Pearlman failed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties for Carter’s debut album, which was released through Pearlman’s label and production company, Trans Continental. In separate lawsuits, the Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync both sought to be released from their contracts. Carter’s lawsuit was settled out of court, but his legal woes continued when Trans Continental filed a lawsuit against him in 2006, claiming he reneged on a recording contract outlined in contracts he signed when he was a minor. (After an FBI investigation years later, Pearlman pleaded guilty to conspiracy, money laundering and making false statements during bankruptcy proceedings. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2008 and died in federal custody in 2016.)
The years that followed were filled with careers, controversies and struggles with money (Carter filed for bankruptcy in 2013), drug addiction and poor mental health: in 2019, he revealed that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He tried to restart several times in the 2010s, returning to tours with roles in off-Broadway productions, appearances on reality shows such as Dancing with the Stars and his own series House of Carters. In September 2017, he appeared on the American show The Doctors, in which he tested positive for opiates and benzodiazepines. Later that year, he checked into drug rehab.
In 2018, he released Love, his first album in 16 years, and started making music under the rap moniker Kid Carter. However, the last few years of his life were primarily defined by his troubled family life – he was estranged from many of his relatives, at one point claiming that they had tried put him under surveillance – as well as a turbulent relationship with partner Melanie Martin, with whom he had a child in 2021. Carter checked into rehab for the fifth time in September 2022.
Decades after the excesses and glitz of the ’90s and ’00s, the underbelly of the era’s highly profitable entertainment industry continues to be revealed through the tragic and often-told-too-late stories of the likes of Britney Spears, Macaulay Culkin, Amanda Bynes, Lindsay Lohan and Demi Lovato. , not to mention many others who defined their generation from an incredibly young age. Carter similarly falls into an age group that now commands a great deal of goodwill from those who grew up with it on their TV screens and bedroom walls, while the pop generation is too old to benefit courtesy of greater awareness of mental health and addiction .
As tributes pour in from loved ones, peers and fans around the world, the sentiment is overwhelmingly one of sympathy. “Fame at a young age is often more of a curse than a blessing, and surviving it is not easy” said hit songwriter Diane Warren, but it shouldn’t be such a common narrative that glory comes at the expense of humanity. It’s a miserable thing to hope for the day when our youngest stars grow up to live long and fulfilling lives as the standard, instead of being lucky enough not to become a cautionary tale.
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