Aaron Carter was just 34 when he died on Saturday, yet he seemed to have lived more lives than most. The singer, and younger brother of Backstreet Boys member Nick Carter, started performing at seven and released his self-titled debut album in 1997, when he was just nine years old. By 13 he had three bestselling albums under his belt and a slot supporting Britney Spears on tour during the height of her fame. At 14, he was selected to perform alongside the likes of Liza Minnelli, Gladys Knight and Missy Elliott at Michael Jackson’s 30th anniversary celebration at Madison Square Garden. That is an incredible list of achievements by anyone’s standards, but – as seems to be the case with so many who find themselves in the public eye from such a young age – Carter’s adult life became defined by his struggles.
Born in the small town of Rockwood, east Tennessee, Carter’s bubblegum sound and mini-bad boy image made him the definitive millennium child star. Just innocent enough to be family-friendly but just rebellious enough to become the number-one heartthrob for girls who grew up wearing bedazzled headbands and reading J-14, his dishevelled blond hair and Eminem-via-Dennis the Menace look stood out even in an oversaturated landscape of manufactured pop groups and Mickey Mouse Club graduates. His music videos were lurid and memorable, set in the familiar worlds of movie dates, photobooths, street parties, basketball courts, clubs – typically adult settings that made preteendom look and feel like an unruly, insular universe of its own.
In 2001, Carter transitioned into acting, making a appearance as himself on 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 smash-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 teenage dream to be bought and sold, with what would turn out to be very little regard for his own humanity. “I’m deeply sorry that life was so hard for you and that you had to struggle in front of the whole world,” Duff wrote on Instagram after the news of Carter’s death. “You had a charm that was absolutely effervescent. Boy did my teenage self love you deeply.”
Like many poster kids of his generation, Carter’s career came with a dark side – the extent of which was scarcely known until the relatively recent reckoning around how we treat those in the public eye – particularly teenagers caught up in the mainstream US 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 multiple boyband juggernauts including Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync. The lawsuit alleged that Pearlman had failed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties on Carter’s debut album, which was released through Pearlman’s label and production company, Trans Continental. In separate suits, Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync both asked to be released from their contracts. Carter’s lawsuit was settled out of court, but his legal troubles would continue when Trans Continental filed a lawsuit against him in 2006, claiming that he reneged on a recording deal outlined in contracts he signed when he was a minor. (Following an FBI investigation years later, Pearlman pleaded guilty to conspiracy, money laundering and making false statements during a bankruptcy proceeding. 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 blips, controversies and struggles with money (Carter filed for bankruptcy in 2013), drug addiction and poor mental health: in 2019, he disclosed that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He attempted to relaunch himself several times throughout 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 reported appearance on US talkshow The Doctors, on which he tested positive for opiates and benzodiazepines. He checked himself into rehabilitation for drug addiction later that year.
In 2018, he released Love, his first album in 16 years, and began 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 is estranged from many of his relatives, at one point alleging that they tried to place him under a conservatorship – as well as a turbulent relationship with on-and-off partner, Melanie Martin, with whom he had a child in 2021. Carter checked into rehab for the fifth time in September 2022.
Decades on from 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 others who defined their generation from an incredibly young age. Carter similarly falls into an age bracket that now compels a vast amount of goodwill from those who grew up with him on their TV screens and bedroom walls, while also being a pop generation too old to have benefited from the kindness of greater awareness about 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 a curse than a blessing and surviving it is not easy,” said hit songwriter Diane Warrenbut it shouldn’t be such a common narrative for fame to come at the expense of humanity. It’s a miserable thing, to hope for a day when our youngest stars get to grow up to live long and full lives as standard, instead of being lucky enough to avoid becoming a cautionary tale.