When Aaron Carter kissed Hilary Duff on an episode of “Lizzie McGuire,” Nicole Vaiasconi cried. The 14-year-old Vaiasconi has been “obsessed” with Carter since fourth grade. She thinks he’s only gotten cuter with age.
She’s not alone. It’s 4:30 in the afternoon when I head over to Toad’s Place to attempt to deconstruct the mystique of Aaron Carter — a solid five hours before the pop sensation is set to take the stage — but three young girls with pink flowers in their hair are already there, teetering precariously on their platform shoes as they creep around the back of the bar, searching for a sign of their beloved icon, any sign. Strains of a melodic male voice drift through the air, and the girls wheel around with glee.
For the girls, the earth has stopped revolving. They squeal with ear-splitting delight, rushing to slam their ears to the back door, eager to catch every sugarcoated note.
But in a bitter twist of fate, the soaring, bubbly voice doesn’t actually belong to Carter. The crooner is Wil Heuser, Carter’s carefully coiffed opening act. The girls remain plastered to the door as I nod to the bouncer and walk inside. Carter isn’t even in the building.
As I sit at a table and wait, I am entertained by another opener, Jeff Timmons, a former member of 98 Degrees, who will be performing tonight for the first time since the bursting of the boy band bubble. Timmons and Heuser are immaculately dressed and styled, trying hard to impress. When Carter finally arrives, the contrast is striking.
Carter is rumpled. The gleaming blond hair of the boy on his album cover has been replaced by a lusterless mop, flattened against his head from being under a cap all day. He’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and he looks like he’s just rolled out of bed. He looks, amazingly, like any 17-year-old kid.
He shakes my hand and mumbles a salutation of some sort, before taking a seat opposite me in a booth.
I start off small, hoping to build up to what makes a pop icon tick.
His favorite book? “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”
Fair enough. Surely he knows which magical powers he would like to possess.
“I’d want to be able to spontaneously make someone’s voice change into…” He stops and ponders this for a moment, his eyes fixed on some distant point over my shoulder, before finishing the sentence. “A frog’s voice.”
I had expected something about flying on a broomstick or turning people into strange animals, but this answer, somehow fits. Music is the most important part of his life. Singing like a frog is, well, akin to death.
As we talk, he’s always in motion. His energy level is frenetic. He shifts positions constantly. One second he’s facing me, the next he’s sprawled across the bench, looking completely at ease. He absently plays with my notes, twirling the loose leaves of paper across the tabletop, mind blissfully unaware of what his hands are doing. And he’s gesturing, always gesturing, emphasizing each important statement with physicality. At one point he punctuates a story by leaning forward and jabbing my arm emphatically with his index finger.
Despite the hysterical adoration of his middle-school fan base, Carter is easygoing and low-key: more of a kid than a showman. Neither overly suave nor condescending, he answers my questions simply and easily, making the whole encounter more like a conversation than an interview.
I admit, I expected Carter — someone who has been building his career since the tender age of eight — to be a spoiled child star convinced that all other people merely orbit around him. But he doesn’t seem fussy or overly-demanding. Nor does he appear concerned with projecting any kind of image. He is far more interested in describing the scariest scene from “Hellraiser” than the future of his musical career.
But it’s obvious he’s picked up some survival skills in the industry. When a kid in a red leather jacket wanders in, Carter greets him like an old friend.
“Hey man, sweet jacket!” Carter says, giving him a high-five. They banter for a few more seconds before the newcomer heads backstage. After he leaves, I ask Carter who he is.
“I have no idea,” he answers, shaking his head in bewilderment.
The guy in the red leather jacket, it turns out, is Justin James, a new artist who has the same manager as Jeff Timmons. James seems to know far more about Carter than Carter does about him.
“He’s got the three C’s: cool, calm and collected,” James confides. “That’s not a front, that’s how he really is.”
But Kenny Waymack, one of Carter’s backup dancers, describes Carter as uninhibitedly and spontaneously goofy, the kind of guy who has walked around an airport making turkey noises. “He’s just a kid, a kid with a lot of money and a lot of toys,” Waymack says, shaking his head and laughing.
He has a point. Carter is wearing a watch encrusted with 27 carats of jewels. The Jacob & Co. timepiece shows five time zones on continents constructed from varicolored diamonds. Retail value of this stunning bit of bling: $101,000.
Carter has other toys, too, including multiple luxury cars and a Wellcraft cigarette boat that he races with his friends. Oh yeah, and Beanie Babies.
A hobby from his younger days, Beanie Baby collecting has taken on almost spiritual importance. Carter estimates that he owns nearly every Beanie Baby ever made. I smile at the idea that the teen sensation holds a place in his heart for the soft, furry creatures. Then he goes on to describe what a great monetary investment they are, and how he could probably sell them for lots of money. But I doubt he’d ever part with them.
Carter is blessed, sure, but he’s also had to contend with the drawbacks of precocious superstardom. Carter has been privately tutored since he was seven, and spent most of his formative years developing a career. While his peers were playing four-square and tetherball, he was touring Europe. He admits he relates easier to adults than to kids. Most of his friends are his dancers, he tells me. His eyes brighten. Especially her, he says, pointing.
Her name is Brittney, she’s walking towards us and smiling, and when she shakes my hand she apologizes for the coldness of her own. The pair has been together four months. It’s Carter’s first serious girlfriend. He can’t take his eyes off her.
“I plan on being a very good boyfriend for her,” he tells me earnestly. He pauses. “I won’t cheat on her. I did that to Hilary, but this is different. This is very serious.”
Hilary, for the uninitiated, is Hilary Duff, the “Lizzie Maguire” star who smooched Carter on the Disney Channel and caused Nicole Vaiasconi to weep with envy. Carter was pilloried for his transgressions. His image was splashed all over the pages of teen magazines in the aftermath. Carter says the bad press doesn’t bother him as much as the bad karma.
“I worry she might get taken away from me,” he says without a hint of a smile. “I’m a very jealous person.”
Every time Brittney looks like she might leave the room, Carter turns away from me mid-question to ask her where she’s going, when she’ll be back, and occasionally to plead with her to stay. He seems worried every time she walks through the door that he’ll never see her again.
I wonder if she cares about the legions of newly-minted adolescent girls who burst into hysterical tears whenever Carter walks by.
“Yeah,” he admits. “She doesn’t like it, but she’s coming around.”
That’s when I first notice it. The screaming. One hour before the doors open, ecstatic girls are standing outside of Toad’s, pushing their vocal cords to the max. They are banshees with body glitter, and they successfully end my interview with Carter. Seeking refuge, I head backstage to where Carter has already begun wolfing his dinner, chicken parmesan from Yorkside. After eating, Carter begins preparing. He warms up thoroughly, makes plenty of bathroom jokes with his dancers and spends an impressive amount of time dangling from overhead pipes.
The floor has already begun to fill up with young girls and the few fathers and brothers that they’ve dragged along. I watch them come. Their average age is about 15 (except for three girls I spot wearing Pi Phi shirts). They nearly all have long, carefully straightened hair, lots of make-up and hip-huggers. They arrive in flocks of five or six, and their entrances follow identical patterns. Each group of girls runs through the doors, shrieks and dashes to the stage. Then it’s every girl for herself as elbows fly in an attempt to get as close as possible to the stage. The girls who arrived early clutch at the planks of the stage where the darling of their hearts will soon tread, and they refuse to let go. They seem ready to faint with joy.
Carter’s show is loud, colorful and as full of energy and motion as Carter himself. The lighting is nearly psychedelic. The girls love it, but they love it even more when the dancers leave the stage and Carter sings slow ballads just for them, taking care to look a girl straight in the eyes every now and then. Occasionally he kneels down at the edge of the stage and reaches a hand into the audience and allows them to touch him, the messiah of love. They go wild.
But there is something strange going on, despite the ever-present shrieks. Toad’s isn’t even half full. It used to be that the Backstreet Boys (a group that features Carter’s older brother, Nick) sold out stadiums. But these days it seems that the tastes of tweens are changing. Last semester, it was Something Corporate, a moody, talented emo band, that drew scores of youthful fans to Toad’s. The place was packed. I look up at Carter, springing and crooning on stage, dispensing scrubbed, sugar-coated pop with every breath, and I can’t help but think that these are dying gasps. Carter says he hopes he’s still making records five years from now, and he very well could be. But it won’t be as easy as it was five years ago.
As the last note fades, Carter and his dancers bounce off the stage. Just before Carter passes through the stage door, he takes off his shirt. The girls convulse, overwhelmed. Several break out into fits of hysteria. I can’t say I have any idea what’s going on, but these fans aren’t going anywhere.
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