On an afternoon this past February, Aaron Carter bounced around a Guitar Center in Asbury Park, N.J. with an energy somewhere between performative and manic. He was interested in everything—synthesizers, microphones, keyboards, bags to transport merchandise—and, trailed by his tour manager, Doug, who was filming him for a Periscope livestream, he moved through the store as if he were attempting to beat the world record for Fastest Time to Point at All the Items in a Guitar Center and Comment About How You Might Want Them. "I've spent over two million dollars at Guitar Center in my life," he told me at one point. "I've spent over two million dollars at Guitar Center in my life," he told several Guitar Center employees at another point.
Yes, on this Thursday in Jersey, former pop idol Aaron Carter was trying to make his presence known. And it worked. Sort of.
One man asked me, "What's this, a famous guy?" Two young girls stared as he bought some fancy in-ear monitors and a merch bag. Excitedly and somewhat apologetically, an employee asked Aaron if he'd sign a t-shirt for his girlfriend. While his tour manager ran out to the van to grab a shirt, Aaron undercut the moment to tell me he'd have to charge this guy for it. "It's my business," he explained.
If you know anything about Aaron's history, it's obvious why the 28-year-old would want to keep a close watch on his “business.” It didn’t fare well last time it was out of his sight.
At the height of his success, Aaron had a triple-platinum album featuring three enormous hits: “Aaron’s Party (Come Get It),” the album’s title track and first single, “I Want Candy,” and “That’s How I Beat Shaq.” It was the year 2000 and the then 13-year-old toured as the opening act for two of pop’s biggest stars, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, before embarking on his own tour in the summer of 2001. He had a high-profile romance with Hilary Duff before allegedly cheating on her with Lindsay Lohan—every young man’s dream at the time, I imagine. He had the success and promise of a young Justin Bieber, nearly a decade before Justin Bieber’s debut. It was a time when pop ruled, and Aaron was one of its princes.
His first full-length album, Aaron Carter, was released under the management of his parents at the some-might-say-too-young age of nine. (Lou Pearlman, who is currently serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for embezzlement, would later join his management team.) A 1997 video of Aaron performing his first single, a cover of the Jets' "Crush on You," proves what you might already suspect about Aaron at this point in his life: He is a baby. His voice is a baby's voice; his dance moves are often limited to running back and forth, simply because traveling from one end of the stage to the other on his little legs is time-consuming enough to prohibit many other moves; and he is just as cute as you'd expect a baby to be, up there on stage in enormous bright orange overalls, acting like he's a grown up. It's adorable in one way and, paying particular attention to the body rolls, unsettling in another.
Aaron’s Party (Come Get It), his second studio album, preceded 2001’s Oh, Aaron, another platinum-seller. Aaron Carter, just 15 at the release of his last studio album, 2002's Another Earthquake, was making a remarkable amount of money. Less remarkably, that lead to trouble.
Aaron brought a lawsuit against Lou Pearlman in 2002, accusing him of owing hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties. They eventually settled out of court. (He would sue Pearlman again in 2007 to be let out of his recording contract. He won that one.) In 2003, Aaron filed for legal emancipation from his mother and co-manager Jane Carter. She was in control of his finances at the time and he alleged that she, too, had taken over $100,000 of his earnings. In a statement, Aaron said he felt betrayed by her: "I worked hard for months—10, 11 hours a day, not including school and press appearances—and I come home and owe money!"
"Then I turned 18 years old," he told me, "and I got hit with five million dollars in tax liens that my parents didn’t pay when I was 12 and 13." At this point in the conversation, Aaron and I were still standing in the discordant nightmare that is the Guitar Center keyboard room. Aaron is now thin and covered in tattoos. He smells like cigarettes and is immediately unreserved.
On his 18th birthday, Aaron also received access to a $2.1 million trust fund—a portion of his own earnings set aside by his parents when he was a minor. He told me this amount is far less than what his parents should have given him under the terms of California’s so-called Coogan Law, which requires that 15 percent of a child performer's wages be placed in a blocked trust. "I grossed over $300 million in my career," he claimed, "So, they didn’t even give me my Coogan Account, which is 15 percent. What’s 15 percent of over $300 million?"
I ticked through the numbers in my head and finally came up with a guess: "...A lot?"
I was right: a lot. He worked through it with me. "Fifteen percent of $100 million is $15 million. So, $45 million should’ve been in my account, and it wasn’t. I had $2.1."
But despite being shafted financially, Aaron Carter needs you to understand something right now: He is not broke.
"I spent the last ten years trying to figure that out," he said, about his bankruptcy case. "I couldn’t work, because I had liens on me, and I didn’t want to spend my money to pay for a Chapter 11 or a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. But, guess what? I got a Chapter 7. Because I went into the courtroom and I told the judge that, after spending my whole adult life, from 18 to 27—which is what? How long is that?"
Unhappy about the frequency of math problems presented during this interview but grateful for one I could solve, I gave him my answer: "Nine years."
"Nine years," he agreed. "I spent nine years trying to figure out how to file this bankruptcy so I can fix my career. In the interim, I was working on music. And I spent nine years trying to figure it out."
Aaron is clearly angry. But the anger, surprisingly, never seems to veer towards resentment. It doesn't even take clear aim. He is angry that this happened, but he doesn't resent his parents, or anyone else, it seems, for not preventing it. According to Aaron, he could have sent his parents to prison for violating "statutory laws and labor laws," but he never considered it. "I love my mom. I love my father. They gave birth to me, and they gave birth to my career. I have the ability to make millions of dollars—they don’t. They’re not my managers. So, I’m not gonna do that." Aaron tells me he went into court ready to pay off his debts—"you know, 25 cents off of every dollar that I make"—and told the judge that, even if it would free him from debt, he didn't want to send his parents to jail. "And he says, you know what? I’m giving you a Chapter 7. You don’t have to pay a debt and neither do your parents, because of what you just did. Now get out of my courtroom."
Aaron has a gigantic neck tattoo now.
"I’m always chasing after love, and that’s why I got 'love' tattooed on my jugular, you know what I mean?" he told me before I could even ask about the ink. He'd gotten it—the word "love" in cursive, placed atop a flame—only four days earlier, and the event was picked up by TMZ. Aaron didn't quite understand why TMZ gave a shit about his neck tattoo—it’s not a face tattoo, he reasoned—but he appreciated the coverage and mused about maybe trying to prank them with a fake face tattoo in the future.
“Love”—or, more precisely, LØVË—also happens to be the name of Aaron's forthcoming album. When we spoke at Guitar Center, he was about five songs in with a goal of 15, and planning to release the album sometime later this year. It's about an on-again, off-again girlfriend (he tells me about her at length, catching himself sometimes—“the less the better, with the girlfriend talk”—only to continue unprompted) and the title's pictographic flourish serves to reflect the pain that comes with attempting to maintain a relationship. "The whole idea of love with the circle and slash through it, the whole idea of that is that you get hate with love. You know? You’ve got to understand the two. So that’s why there’s like—it’s like stop the hate, with love. So that’s what my album’s gonna be called, that’s what I stand for."
More often than not, our conversations circled back to the idea that, with this new album and with his life in general, Aaron is now running the show. He's funding and releasing LØVË himself. He makes his own beats. ("I went to Guitar Center on my 18th birthday and I spent over $500,000 in one hour. Because I wanted to learn how to be a producer and make beats, so I could prove myself.") He designs his own merch. He directed the music video for his upcoming single, “Fools Gold.” He "figured out how to be a businessman."
“i'm always chasing after love. that's why i got 'love' tattooed on my jugular, you know what i mean?”
This, he says—his drive to redeem himself by himself—is what separates him from "everyone else."
And by "everyone else," he means Justin Bieber.
"Justin Bieber might talk about that, but bro, let me tell you, man. When you lose everything, and you’re in debt $5 million, and you have nobody wanting to believe in you—that’s a phoenix rising from the ashes.”
It would be surprising if Bieber weren’t on Aaron’s mind. Like Aaron, Bieber experienced the troubles that can come with childhood stardom, and he’s currently enjoying the redemption Aaron hopes to achieve. Bieber’s rise came a little later in his life, however, and his fall was much less precipitous. His redemption was more easily won.
Aaron's beef with Bieber originated with a question posed to Bieber’s music attorney, Aaron Rosenberg, in a November 2015 Billboard interview. "How did Bieber not turn into Aaron Carter? What went right?" He's brought up the question in other interviews, and he brought it up with me twice over the course of the day. He's also tweeted at Justin Bieber about it, saying, "can't knock this but watch what YOUR people say/answer @justinbieber all questioned are approved i'm not an idiot ;).”
(Rosenberg's answer was "family, faith, friends, fans and the formula," which probably has something to do with it, though I suspect he omitted "luck" and "a team of adults who more adequately understand how to look out for their own financial interests.")
After explaining his umbrage at the Rosenberg question, Aaron leaned in close to my phone, which I was using to record. He did this to, I guess, make sure Bieber heard him as he addressed him directly: "Justin Bieber, can I ask you a question? How did I turn out? Do you pay attention? Maybe you should open your eyes. Or wear my glasses, ‘cause they’re really dope."
As we pulled into the parking lot of Asbury Park's Stone Pony, where Aaron would play later that night, Justin Bieber's "Love Yourself" blared from the speakers of an open-doored van. The world is ceaselessly cruel, but at least it's got a good groove.
Backstage, in a dim room with a number of mismatched, unsavory looking brown couches, Aaron set up what he told me was a $300,000 Logic rig. He said he gets inspired on tour and likes to be able to compose beats whenever that inspiration strikes—last month alone he made 66.
"It’s so funny, I did this DeadMau5 remix, I did a remix to one of his beats, and he found out about it and called me to Canada and he, like, mentored me," he told me.
In reality the beginning of the story is a bit dicier—Aaron posted the remix on Instagram and many of his Instagram followers accused him of trying to pass off the beat as his own, which caught DeadMau5's attention—-but the end result was all love, baby. "He was, like, my mentor, in a real short period of time." I asked what DeadMau5 taught him about production, but Aaron refused to spill the beans. "I can’t tell you all that. That’s exactly what he told me."
"He told you that you couldn't tell anybody?"
"Yeah. That I couldn’t tell the secrets that I learned, yeah. Quote me, please. I would love for him to see that, ‘cause he’ll probably respond. ‘Cause that’s exactly what he did."
Damn, Deadmau5. Will we ever learn your secrets?
Between excitedly showing me beats that may work their way onto his new album, Aaron explained that he's been quiet these past few years mostly because, for a while, he sucked. "I made such shitty beats. I have beats I could play you from ten years ago. You know, I haven’t monetized one time off of making beats, because I couldn’t. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t practice. Just because, it’s almost like—What’s the ice skating movie, with Will Ferrell and what's-his-name?"
“Blades of Glory.”
"It’s like, just because you’re banned doesn’t mean you can’t go and find a different way to do it. So, that’s kind of how it’s been for me."
“[Michael jackson] gave me a glove. I have a jacket from him. I spent so much time with Michael—so much time. He taught me how to dance.”
For the entirety of the post soundcheck and the pre-show hang out backstage, three women sat on one of the gross brown couches, staring at their phones. They told me they were fans of Aaron’s who had purchased VIP packages that included pre-show admittance and a post-show meet-and-greet.
One of the women stressed to me that Aaron treats his fans better than any other artist, spending time with them, paying attention to them, and learning their names. The woman seated next to her, a dance teacher, chimed in and said that her first experience with Aaron came after she tweeted at him a video of her dance class performing a routine to one of his songs. "My students fell in love with him. They saw his pictures, they were dancing to him. So he actually FaceTimed my students and I.” She showed me photos of the FaceTime. It was very cute.
According to Aaron, social media plays a large role in maintaining this close relationship with his fans. It has also gotten him into trouble numerous times—an idea he immediately disagreed with. "How would you look at it like trouble?"
Aaron uses the social media platform much like presidential hopeful Donald Trump does, tweeting a million times per day, talking about his feelings, retweeting fans, creating controversy and responding to it. It seems appropriate that his most recent flare-up happened after he declared his allegiance to Trump, tweeting, "Does America want to have a president who FOLLOWS or someone who leads? I vote For @realdonaldtrump." If Aaron Carter's Twitter followers function as an admissible sample group, it seems America would enthusiastically prefer a president who follows. He was quickly met with a large backlash—Trump is a maniacal bigot, after all—and news of his endorsement popped up almost immediately on websites like The Hollywood Reporter and Gawker.
Just as he was surprised that anyone gave a shit about his neck tattoo, he seemed surprised and confused about why anyone would give a shit about which presidential candidate he endorsed. (It is a good question.) He discussed the backlash in a Periscope video, clarifying that he supported Trump's "business sense," "attitude," and "mind-frame," but not his stance on things like gay marriage or immigration. Mostly what he seemed to support is his own right to tweet. "Why can't I jibber jab?" he asked. "You can, so why can't I?"
He has since all but reneged his support, tweeting, “also already said if Donald Trump doesn't support the LGBT community I'm not voting for him so get off my dick about it and shut the fuck up.”
Aaron’s largest pre-Trump Twitter fracas came after he tweeted that Michael Jackson had “passed the torch” to him as a pop star—a boast many saw as off-color in light of Jackson’s death, and one which many believed to be untrue. Unlike his unconditional support for Trump, though, this he maintains. “He gave me a glove, I have a glove from him. I have a jacket from him. I spent so much time with Michael—so much time. He taught me how to dance.” He opened for Jackson at Madison Square Garden on September 10th, 2001, he told me, and planned to meet him and Macaulay Culkin at an amusement park “in, like, Minnesota” the next day, on September 11th.
“So I was in a limo going by myself with my guardian and my security guard, and my mom and my dad were flying back home. And on the way to the airport across the Hudson, going to Newark, our limousine got a flat tire. We pulled over to the side of the road while we were waiting for our flat tire to be fixed. And—I’ve never really stared at the towers before, even though I recorded all of Aaron’s Party, and tons of albums there. I never really looked at the towers. I was just staring at them while they were fixing the tire and—boom. I saw it happen. Like, you can polygraph me and I would pass. Every polygraph in the world.”’
The Stone Pony was a little over half full for the concert, and the crowd was mostly visibly excited women. Tour manager Doug, who also serves as Aaron’s DJ, introduced him to the stage with a now-familiar refrain: “Aaron Carter made the music, he produced the beats, he sang the songs, Aaron Carter did everything on these fuckin’ songs tonight!”
This serves as both an introduction to the independent producer version of Aaron Carter as well as a warning that tonight Aaron would not be playing the hits that made him a famous. Understandably wanting to distance himself from songs he sang as an eleven-year-old, he performed only a very short medley of “I Want Candy” and “Aaron’s Party.” He bopped around slightly while singing along to lyrics about pining for a nice girl in a sweater and throwing a party while his parents were out—a man, up there on stage, acting as if he were a kid. Though he raced through the medley as if singing the songs were physically painful, it was, very clearly, the crowd’s favorite part of the night.
After the show, Aaron was happy that his fans seemed to enjoy his new stuff. He noted that they picked up on the words to songs they’d never heard before and sang along, which he thought was a good sign. Though the process of bringing this album into the world will be far different from what he’s done in the past, and although it's unclear how it will all shake out, Aaron seems relentlessly hopeful and confident. Earlier in the night, I asked him how he would proceed if this album failed. What would failure even look like to him?
"There would never be any failure. Because I did it myself and I’m proud of what I’ve done. I have a statement that I’ve come up with: I’d rather do what I feel is right—or, what's the statement. It’s: I’d rather do what feels right for me and fail than do what everyone expects me to do and succeed temporarily. Because at the end of the day, you’re left with yourself. You see?"