AAaron Carter was just 34 when he died on Saturday, but he seemed to have lived more lives than most. The singer and younger brother of Backstreet Boys member Nick Carter began performing at age seven and released his self-titled debut album in 1997 when he was just nine. By age 13, he had three hit albums to his credit and a slot to support Britney Spears on tour at the height of her fame.
At age 14, he was selected to perform alongside Liza Minnelli, Gladys Knight and Missy Elliott at Michael Jackson’s 30th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden. It’s an incredible list of accomplishments by anyone’s standards, but – as seems to be the case for so many who find themselves in the public eye from an early age – Carter’s adult life has been defined by his struggles.
Born in the small East Tennessee town of Rockwood, Carter’s bubblegum sound and mini-bad boy image made him the child star of the millennial. Just innocent enough to be family-friendly but just rebellious enough to become the number one idol of girls who grew up with dazzling headbands and reading J-14, her tousled blonde hair and Eminem-via-Dennis the Menace stood out even in an oversaturated landscape of manufactured pop bands and Mickey Mouse Club graduates. His music videos were eerie and memorable, set in the familiar worlds of movie dates, photo booths, street parties, basketball courts, clubs—typically adult settings that made tween years seem like a universe. unruly and insular.
In 2001, Carter moved into acting, making a guest appearance as himself in Lizzie McGuire, as well as guest appearances 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, contributing to his lore as a sort of teenybopper Lothario. In many ways, both good and bad, he was a proto-Justin Bieber – a buy-and-sell teenage dream, with what would turn out to be very little respect for his own humanity. “I am deeply sorry that life has been so difficult for you and that you have had to struggle in front of the whole world,” Duff wrote on Instagram after news broke of Carter’s death. “You had an absolutely effervescent charm. Boy does my teenage self love you deeply.
Like many poster boys of his generation, Carter’s career has come with a dark side – the extent of which was hardly known until the relatively recent realization of how we treat those in trouble. public eye – especially teenagers caught up in the mainstream American entertainment landscape.
Carter’s departure from the music industry came around 2002, when his parents filed a lawsuit against his former manager Lou Pearlman, the late disgraced pop mogul behind several boyband behemoths, including Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync. The lawsuit alleged that Pearlman failed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties on Carter’s debut album, which was released by Pearlman’s label and production company, Trans Continental. In separate lawsuits, Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync both asked to be released from their contracts. Carter’s lawsuit was settled out of court, but his legal troubles continued when Trans Continental filed a lawsuit against him in 2006, claiming he reneged on a recording contract described in contracts he he had signed when he was a minor. (Following an FBI investigation years later, Pearlman pleaded guilty to conspiracy, money laundering and misrepresentation in bankruptcy proceedings. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2008 and died in federal custody in 2016.)
The years that followed were full of career failures, 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 revive himself several times during the 2010s, making a return to touring alongside 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 made a widely publicized appearance on US talk show The Doctors, during which he tested positive for opiates and benzodiazepines. He checked himself into rehab for drug addiction later that year.
In 2018, he released Love, his first album in 16 years, and began making music under the rap name Kid Carter. However, the last years of his life were mainly defined by his troubled family life – he is estranged from many of those close to him, at one point alleging that they tried to place him under guardianship — as well as a turbulent relationship with his on-and-off partner, Melanie Martin, with whom he had a child in 2021. Carter checked himself into rehab for the fifth time in September 2022.
Decades after the excess and polish of the 90s and 00s, the underbelly of the era’s highly profitable entertainment industry continues to reveal itself through the tragic and often told too late stories of figures such as Britney Spears, Macaulay Culkin, Amanda Bynes, Lindsay Lohan and Demi Lovato, not to mention many more who defined their generation from a young age. Carter also falls into an age bracket that now compels a great deal of goodwill from those who grew up with him on their TV screens and bedroom walls, while also being too old a pop generation to having benefited from the kindness of greater mental health awareness. 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 isn’t easy,” said hit songwriter Diane Warren, but it shouldn’t be such a common narrative for the glory to come at the expense of humanity. It’s a miserable thing to hope for a day when our youngest stars can grow up to live long, full lives as a standard, instead of having the chance to avoid becoming a cautionary tale.