Aaron Carter has been through a lot, no one can deny. But he plays more shows and has millions more Spotify streams than you might think — and he's not planning on going anywhere: 'If something is broken, I’m going to f--king fix it.'
Some musicians pregame their concerts with a bottle of Hennessy or shots of Jägermeister, but backstage at New York City’s Le Poisson Rouge, hours before a headlining show in February, Aaron Carter is looking for some Ensure -- yes, the chalky nutrition drink you’re more likely to find in your grandmother’s fridge than on an artist’s rider.
If you have read any headlines about Aaron Carter in the past few years, they have probably been about his health. There was his weight, which fluctuated to the point that his fans expressed concern and the less sympathetic made unkind comments about AIDS and meth. (Carter says he suffers from a hiatal hernia that can make eating uncomfortable, hence the Ensure.) There was his 2017 DUI arrest, which prompted big brother Nick Carter to offer support on social media. There was his appearance that year on the Dr. Phil spinoff The Doctors, which Carter says he went on to “shut everyone the fuck up,” though it did him little favors: In the episode, a gaunt, antsy Carter admits to occasionally buying drugs like Oxycontin and Xanax off the street and seeing multiple psychiatrists to get various prescriptions, but he also shows photos of himself -- dancing with his niece, playing the keyboard, doing backflips on the beach -- and asks the audience: Does the person in these photos look like a meth user to you? Shortly after, he went to rehab for two months. When he was out, he posted a triumphant photo celebrating his weight gain.
Carter, 31, is aware you’ve probably read this kind of thing about him, too, so it’s perhaps not surprising when, right after explaining his current drink of choice, he asks an assistant for one. When she says they don’t have any Ensure in the green room, he asks her to go make a run for some right then. It doesn’t seem like it’s enough for Carter just to tell you he is taking care of himself and turning things around -- he wants to show you, he wants you to believe him.
Fifteen years ago, Aaron Carter was synonymous with family-friendly pop, a rare age-appropriate heartthrob for horny pre-teens everywhere. He opened for Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys; he made a cameo on Lizzie McGuire; he two-timed reigning teen queens Hilary Duff and Lindsay Lohan; he released four albums before the age of 16, one of which went three times platinum in the U.S. Then his once-glittering profile started to dull thanks to a series of setbacks -- some his own doing (drug-related arrests, eyebrow-raising tweets), some completely out of his control (see: aging).
What you might not know is that he is still working -- touring respectable venues (with dates currently scheduled through September) and making good music (yes, really!) that gets millions of streams on Spotify, like last year’s LOVE, the bulk of which he wrote and produced himself. It’s a cliche to say that to know where Aaron Carter is now, you need to know where he’s been. But it’s also true that if you’re trying to understand what Carter wants to tell you, you need to understand what people are saying about him. The stories he tells suggest he’s acutely aware of his own mythology -- sometimes leaning into it, sometimes pushing back against it, as if he and the public are editing his Wikipedia page at the same time.
“The craziest thing is, I lost it all,” Carter says matter-of-factly as the smell of pot lingers in the air. (Okay, so maybe he pregames with a little more than just Ensure: “I surround myself with good people, people who don’t do drugs and crazy stuff,” he says. “We smoke weed, that’s it.”)
“It all” refers to money, which Carter lost to debt; he filed for bankruptcy at age 25 with less than $1,000 to his name. It refers to family: Sister Leslie Carter died in 2012 of a drug overdose, and his father, Robert Gene “Bob” Carter, died in 2017 of a heart attack. It refers to his reputation, which took a nosedive once he became an adult and was no longer the Disney Channel-approved baby face that fans grew to love.
“Labels were like, ‘We don’t want to touch you, you’re dead and gone. There’s no more Aaron Carter,’” he recalls. “And I’m like, no! That’s not how it’s going to be. I’m not going to give up. I’m not going to stop. I’m going to succeed. If something is broken, I’m going to fucking fix it.”
So that’s what Aaron Carter is trying to do now: fucking fix it.
Before there was Aaron, there was Nick, his older brother by eight years. Nick joined the Backstreet Boys in 1993 when Aaron was barely a first grader. In 1997, Johnny Wright, the Backstreet Boys’ manager at the time, saw potential in the youngest Carter, then 10, and got him onstage opening for his big brother’s band in Berlin. Carter has described it as “kind of like a joke” -- he performed a cover of the Jets’ “Crush On You” -- but his stage presence was promising enough that he ended up signing a record contract with a German label, releasing his debut in Europe (where BSB first found an audience as well) that year and in the U.S. the next. A solo career was born.
Despite being almost a decade apart in age, the brothers’ careers were nearly intertwined for a while: The Backstreet Boys’ highest-selling album, Millennium, dropped in 1999, while Aaron’s Aaron’s Party (Come Get It) arrived a year later, followed just months later by BSB’s Black & Blue, then Carter’s 2001 album, Oh Aaron. Since those years, his and Nick’s relationship has at times been publicly tumultuous -- fans of their short-lived E! reality show, House of Carters, will remember the two getting into a particularly vicious spat over Aaron bumping music late at night -- but Carter insists the two now “keep it strictly, strictly love.” As Carter turns to talk to someone else in the room, his collaborator Lake Street Louie -- a songwriter-producer who wears aviator sunglasses the entire time we’re sitting in the windowless green room -- tells me, “They love each other to death, but the competition is so gnarly.”
At first, it seems like Carter is over talking about his brother. The conversation turns to “Fool’s Gold,” his catchy-as-hell electro-pop single from 2016 that’s reminiscent of Purpose-era Justin Bieber. The track came together the first time he and Louie met. “This guy I had been living with for a year who I barely knew kept saying, ‘I know Aaron Carter,’ and I was like, ‘You don’t know Aaron Carter,’” Louie recalls. “One day, sure enough, this BMW comes ripping into our driveway and some kid hops out. He asks if I’m Louie and is like, ‘Get in my car, we’re listening to beats.’”
Those beats, it turned out, were ones Carter came up with himself. “I expected him to say, ‘Yeah, I got this producer,’” Louie continues, “and he’s like, ‘I made these.’ I’m like, ‘You have to be nuts to not think this is gonna work.’”
The result was Carter’s comeback single, which BuzzFeed later described as “so good it’s confusing.” It’s a backhanded compliment, sure, but it’s one familiar to any former child star who dares to grow up. Sell millions of albums before you turn 15? Good for you. Try to do it again once you’re an adult who can actually make decisions for yourself? Well, that’s embarrassing.
And it’s while discussing that song that Carter shows he isn’t done talking about his brother after all. He points to “Fool’s Gold” as proof that he shouldn’t be evaluated alongside Nick and other ‘90s boy bands coming back for another round. “Here’s the difference between all of them and me,” Carter says. “I’m making my own music. I’m an actual, real artist, like they used to be.” It’s not exactly clear what he’s referring to -- the Backstreet Boys have never been songwriting powerhouses exactly, and the writing credits they do have didn’t start popping up until several albums into their discography. But Carter’s gripes come into focus nonetheless: It is one thing to be in your older sibling’s shadow; it is another to also be written off as a novelty act before you even have your driver’s license.
For years, Carter stuck to performing his old hits while he worked on new music behind the scenes. When he got access to his trust fund in 2005, he says he went to Guitar Center and spent “a million dollars” on gear. “I took a lot of time to learn music, and the thing I did that was clever was I never released any music, because I knew it wasn’t up to par,” he says. He actually did put out some music during this time -- it’s floating around on the internet but isn’t available on iTunes, Spotify, or his official channels -- but his point still stands: Carter knows credibility is an uphill battle for him, so his standards are high. “I’m very particular,” he says.
By 2016, he was getting serious. First he debuted “Fool’s Gold” without any label support, then followed it with “Sooner or Later” in early 2017. That track, a slick ode to an on-off relationship, now has over 85 million streams on Spotify. The two singles preview what would become a genuinely solid album full of mid-2010s pop hallmarks -- pitched vocals, trop-house beats -- that demonstrate Carter’s grasp of this moment in music. He’s not reinventing the wheel, but he’s showing that he can at least recreate it. And it is him doing the creating: He takes out his phone and plays me an early version of the song “Champion,” and its staccato synths aren’t far off from the final track.
While most of the album deals with romantic relationships, “Champion” is a loving tribute to Bob Carter’s powerboating career. Carter went to work building the track immediately after learning of his dad’s passing, toying on his computer for 20 hours straight, he says, as a way to cope.
Carter’s spoken before about having a troubled relationship with his father, who once allegedly threatened his son with a gun. But “Champion” focuses on another family legend with a far happier outcome: When he was four, Carter says he drowned while swimming in a pool. Once EMTs arrived, they told Bob his son was dead. Bob wanted one last look, though, and when he saw Carter's body, he felt compelled to try to resuscitate him. It worked, but a doctor warned that Carter would have severe brain damage and no motor skills. “Now I’m here,” he says, shrugging.
It’s unclear just how much of this story Carter believes is true, but he at least embraces the metaphor. “I made it happen for myself after people were giving up on me,” he says. “I made it out of my 20s. I was able to be broke and then make money again, be broke, make money again, be broke, make money again, and then learn how to keep my money.” The day before we met, he tweeted that he’s just purchased his very first home, a three-bedroom in Lancaster, Calif.
There’s perhaps no realm where Aaron Carter, the celebrity, and Aaron Carter, the human, clash more dramatically than in his dating life. Carter loves love: He says it’s his favorite word, it’s the name of his last album -- and it’s tattooed in looping, shaded script on his neck, which led to a fight with his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend at the time. “I got it and she got all pissed off. ‘Oh my God, you ruined your neck,’” he says. “I’m like, ‘Bitch, you ruined my life!’” He’s laughing, but it doesn’t sound like a joke.
“My therapist told me I have a bad picker. I get too caught up in that shit,” Carter sighs. “I keep trying to get these girls to understand me, and they act like they’re going to in the beginning. And then their mask comes off, and all the sudden, I’m stuck in a relationship with someone I didn’t fall in love with.” He pauses. “And they’re the ones always sliding into my DMs!” It seems his 2000 ode to email romance, “My Internet Girl,” has become reality. (And it is indeed women in his life: In a since-deleted 2017 tweet, Carter wrote that, as a young teen, he experienced attraction to both boys and girls; many outlets described this as Carter coming out as bisexual, but he later told Hollywood Life he felt his experience was misconstrued and that he ultimately saw himself “being with a woman.”)
This perceived disconnect is a problem that extends to his own fans, who sometimes struggle to accept the older version of the star they grew up watching. “They want me to live in this nostalgic little toy store,” he says. “They want me to stay in their attic like an ornament so that when it’s Christmastime, they can put their old ornament back on the tree. I’m not an ornament.”
He goes on to point out the hypocrisy he sees in fans wanting him to still be 12-years-old. “Sometimes you’re screaming at me, ‘I Want Candy,’ but first of all” -- he’s addressing them directly now, shaking his head, his voice rising -- “you’re only doing that because you’re drunk. You used to drink Capri Suns and now you’re drinking beer. I’m not judging you for that. I’m not telling you, hey, go drink a Capri Sun, motherfucker! Go eat a fuckin’ Dunkaroo, bitch! I’m not doing that.”
It’s true: He never tells me once go eat a fuckin’ Dunkaroo throughout the interview. His frustration is warranted, though. Imagine if your parents insisted that you broke out the tap dance you did in the fifth-grade recital each time you visited home. Imagine if everyone assumed that your sibling was the real talent, that you were just the sibling getting in on the action. But paired with Carter’s exhaustion is a real appreciation for the fact that fans still show up to see him, even if the “him” they want to see is a version that doesn’t quite exist anymore.
Hours later, Carter is onstage performing his new music in a black turtleneck and thick diamond necklace. During a break between songs, someone yells from the crowd, “‘Aaron’s Party!’” Tinkering with his keyboard, Carter responds with the slightest hint of impatience in his voice: “Don’t worry, I would never do a show without doing one of my favorite songs.” And in that moment, as he flashes the audience the same smile that melted teenage hearts 15 years ago, you believe him.