Somewhere in Hollywood, a music industry bigwig is looking out his office window, Macallan scotch in hand, and somberly reflecting on how he could have made prodigious strides in his career had he acted on a business opportunity he initially declined.
“This is terrible,” says the music executive to himself. “Things would be much better if I had just signed Aaron Carter.”
This is a scenario that Carter seriously imagines is happening, as evidenced by the stage banter he made at his Prophet Bar show Sunday night. Without a hint of irony or self-awareness, he told an audience of no more than 100 people, “A lot of people didn’t think I’d come back.”
Members of the audience, bless their hearts, applauded in response to such a remark, seemingly taking Carter’s word for it that people at Capitol Records and William Morris Endeavor are shaking their fists at the high heavens upon noticing Carter’s career trajectory of late.
As hopeful as this narrative is, it shouldn’t inspire mockery nearly as much as it should inspire sympathy. Fact is, Carter is a victim.
If there was any divine justice in this world, his former manager, the late Lou Pearlman, would be locked in a carnival funhouse and force-fed MKUltra-grade LSD while the music of Throbbing Gristle plays on an infinite loop. Before being shipped off to federal custody for operating a massive Ponzi scheme, Pearlman promised Carter the same insurmountable success he was able to provide his older brother Nick, from the Backstreet Boys. With stars in his eyes, Carter took the famed talent scout at his word that he would have his back. His parents were none the wiser.
In the years following the release of his 2002 studio album Another Earthquake!, Carter's life spiraled into a long-term tailspin that was only exacerbated with a lawsuit against Pearlman and a waning relevance he has not been able to resuscitate since. It was of no help that Carter declared bankruptcy in 2013, was twice arrested for possession of marijuana and once admitted to rehab to recover from addiction to opioids and benzodiazepines. To add insult to egregious injury, his sister Leslie died in 2012, followed by their father, Robert, in 2017.
Suffice to say, Carter has lived a turbulent life, and to mock him for maintaining this delusion that he is making a comeback would be kicking him while he is down. Plus, he admirably epitomizes the adage, “Fall down seven times, get up eight,” and this became abundantly clear as he took the Sunday night show in stride and treated a room of 100 people like one of 4,000.
But even with his showmanship and lively interactions with the audience, it was clear from the get-go that his life is permanently confined to the rearview mirror. He kicked off his set with his cover of the Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy,” a 2000 single that he saw fit to remix in 2017. Carter played only one other hit from his childhood, and it was “Aaron’s Party (Come Get It).”
It was rather strange hearing Carter sing these two songs in his pubescent voice, a fact he joked about toward the end of his set. He clearly played these two crowd-pleasers to prevent the inevitable deluge of requests that would come his way if he decided to shelve them. No part of his performance gave even a whiff of indication that he wanted to cater to the nostalgia that most people in attendance sought to experience.
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The lion’s share of the set list consisted of cuts from his 2018 full-length LØVË, a project he seems genuinely passionate about. He told the crowd stories about how Max Martin inspired him to go to school to learn music production, and how he honed his studio chops in anticipation of this album. To his credit, these newer songs are remarkably well-produced and take notes from deep house and electropop music. Had he released these tracks five years earlier, they might have actually generated respectable buzz.
Still, the show persisted on an uncomfortable note given Carter’s idea that he is coasting up a redemption arc. The small audience was as indicative of the contrary as was his decision to sell T-shirts at the merch table with the album art for his second album Aaron’s Party (Come Get It).
When your career reaches its peak, you can either shoot for an even higher echelon of celebrity like Justin Timberlake, or you can coast downward for the rest of your life and enjoy the ride. When you make the latter decision, spending the rest of your life trying to correct your way upward is futile, as the ephemeral nature of child stardom is a force as real as gravity itself.
Should Carter be discouraged from ever performing again? Of course not, but his audience is doing him no favors in being an accomplice to what is ultimately an unhealthy misapprehension about the state of his career. On the other hand, obscurity hasn’t deterred him, so why should we?