Aaron Carter was a famous teen pop star in the early 2000s, when a famous teen pop star was a fairly common thing to be. Now 25 and in search of a comeback, Carter has launched his first tour as an adult, playing for the grown-up versions of the screaming girls who once bought his albums by the millions. His job each night: to perfectly, seamlessly re-create their childhoods, and, it would seem, his own.
This is how Aaron Carter describes an Aaron Carter show in 2013: "I perform all my material like I'm the same guy. I perform the same songs. I sing in the same key. I don't change anything, so when they come to my shows they get the nostalgia that they're looking for, they get the feeling that they're looking for. When I walk into a Kmart or a Target, I always look for a Ninja Turtle doll, but I can never find it. These girls, they get to get that. That's what I offer. I offer the nostalgia that they want."
Back in Carter's day, teen heartthrobs were bred like veal by impresario Lou Pearlman, who guided the careers of then-peaking boy bands 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, which housed Carter's brother Nick. The younger Carter had a record deal and a gig opening for the Backstreet Boys when he was 9.
"I wasn't terrified at all," Carter remembers. "I'd always loved to perform. I'd always loved to be in front of people, the center of attention kind of thing. That's how I've always been. That's why I got into it the way I did. I liked jumping around and singing and dancing and performing."
Carter sold millions of albums, scored several heavily sweetened pop hits ("I Want Candy," "Aaron's Party (Come Get It)"), and, with Hilary Duff and Lindsay Lohan, was involved in a notorious love triangle that was the Tiger Beat version of Brangelina. Carter, who hasn't released an original studio disc since 2002, views the teen pop stars of today as his direct descendants.
"I'm the one who started off doing that kind of stuff. I'm an original," he says with a laugh. "I was talking to my mom the other day, and she was saying, 'You know, Aaron, you're the original. All these other people are just clones of you.'"
Carter was certainly one of the first millennial teen stars to run into trouble: He was arrested for pot possession, went to rehab for what his then-manager described as "emotional and spiritual issues" and has visited every station of the Disgraced Celebrity cross, including an appearance on "Dancing With the Stars," a role in an off-Broadway musical, a stint on a reality TV series and an alleged brief engagement to a Playboy model.
"It's been really difficult to me to transition," Carter admits. "It hasn't been easy." Teen idols face a hard time in the grown-up world "maybe because of the scrutiny of people's opinions," he says. "When you try to start tailoring yourself toward the way people think, if you don't kind of let it go and realize that you're still a person, that what you do as a performer might be different than what you do as a person, (it creates difficulties)."
Given Carter's kinship with late-model pop gods like Justin Bieber, is he ever tempted to give Bieber advice, to tell him to go back to Germany, get his monkey and run?
"No, not really. You've gotta go through it to become an adult. If he didn't go through that kind of stuff … he'd just remain the little kid everyone wants him to. Everyone wants him to remain young. Only he can make the transition through his mistakes."
Still, Bieber's struggles seem to remind Carter of his own. "It upsets me. I wish I could sit down and say something, but there's nothing you can do to somebody who's dealing with pressure from people around them, looking at them under a magnifying glass. Trying to appease all of them and appease yourself, he's just got to figure that out."
Carter is headlining the After Party tour, which lands Friday at the Egyptian Theatre in DeKalb (he'll play an off-tour date Saturday at Another Hole in the Wall in Steger). He has hired an executive producer to work on a comeback album and predicts his new sound will pick up where his old sound left off a decade ago. "It's pop music. It's teen music. It's what I'm known for doing, you know, good, fun, energy stuff. Energy-packed stuff. It's gonna be me."
Carter lost 10 years of his career to personal struggles and shifting mainstream tastes, lost his childhood to fame. He regrets nothing. "I wouldn't be the man I am today. I would be somebody else, and I like the man that I am."
Nor would he object to letting his own eventual preteen children follow in his footsteps, even though the heightened scrutiny of celebrities has made fame even harder to navigate than it was in his day.
"It's all a part of the world, you know? It's gonna be there, regardless," he figures. "It would be fairly easy to do it, because I would know all the things to avoid."
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When: 7 p.m . Friday
Where: Egyptian Theatre, 135 N. Second St., DeKalb
Price: $22-$35; 815-758-1215 or egyptiantheatredekalb.ticketforce.com