Oh my GOD!"
The young girl is not the only one spooked by the sight, enough to intimidate any casual observer. Wrapped around the second level of the Virgin Megastore at Downtown Disney's West Side, about 2,000 teen-age girls are jostling in various stages of wide-eyed pandemonium. The crush becomes even more surreal as the object of desire becomes apparent: It's a rather lucky 10-year-old boy, signing Sharpie-stained autographs and holding pop-star court.
Even upon explanation (that this is Aaron Carter, that he does in fact have an album available, and that he is uncoincidentally the kid brother of one Backstreet Boy, Nick Carter), it seems a little hard to believe that a relative unknown, especially one this young, could draw this kind of crowd.
Booming overhead in random-play repetition, Carter's record sounds like a karaoke version of teen-pop abandon -- unthreatening puppy-love advances and slightly humorous assertions of toughish street cred packaged with sterling dance-pop production. High-pitched renderings of The Jets' "Krush on You" and New Kids on the Block's "Please Don't Go Girl" ooze their requisite saccharin while the girls shuffle for a glimpse at the youthful interpreter.
It's a scene that's as cleverly conspired as it is harmless.
This is the world of Trans Continental, Orlando's own epicenter of universal pop appeal. While others ramble here and there about the Orlando Rock Renaissance, Trans Con is pulling in millions through the well-orchestrated sights and sounds of its two main hitmakers, Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync -- each currently selling upwards of 100,000 recordings a week, nesting them easily in the Billboard Top Ten -- and in the process, making O-Town in the image of the classic hitmaking machine, Motown.
Louis Pearlman was once 10. It was about that time that he first looked up to his destiny. A self-professed "helium-head," Pearlman stood in awe of the powerful presence of the blimp and its inflated, looming promotion.
At 12, as legend has it, Pearlman approached a blimp pilot in Flushing, N.Y., in hopes of a chance to fly along. Only stockholders and members of the press were allowed, however, and Pearlman was neither. But that didn't stop him. He masqueraded as a member of his school newspaper and was able to attain the coveted ride under parental supervision. It would be Pearlman's introduction to the sky, where he would spend much of his professional career.
Pearlman went to work in 1975 for Trans Continental Airlines, where he helped to manufacture jets and charter planes leased to other airlines. He caught the business bug, and would later incorporate travel, import and hospitality companies (including NYPD Pizza and the famed Chippendales name) under the Trans Continental banner that he now waves as the company's mastermind and president. In 1979, Pearlman achieved his lifelong dream of owning a blimp, acquiring Airship International, and floating business logos like Met Life over greater Orlando.
The music crossover is a fabled one. Lou's cousin is pop singer-songwriter Art Garfunkel. In the late '70s, Trans Con moved into the rock & roll charter plane industry, decking out four 727s in full tour regalia. The list of luminaries who rented the aircraft included Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Madonna and, of course, Lou's cousin Artie. On one particular occasion, New Kids on the Block, at the peak of their frenzied prime, were on board.
"How can they afford to rent an airplane?" Pearlman asked his cousin.
"They've made $200 million in record sales and $800 million in merchandising and touring," Garfunkel replied.
What happened next is history. Garfunkel jokingly said, "Why don't you start a group like that?"
And so the Backstreet Boys were born. Following the New Kids' template, in 1992 a series of auditions and referrals produced a well-rounded package of tough and sweet, blond and brunette, ethnic and Aryan, and a combined harmonious vocal compatibility. (It even included two cousins). A.J., Howie, Nick, Kevin and Brian immediately underwent a grueling process of vocal training, dance classes and rehearsals until finally making their debut at Sea World's Grad Nite in 1993.
The concept was simple, of course: Market them while they're young and capitalize on the global youth-pop fantasy. There was no disputing that the package was attractive. The challenge would come in laying the path for an entire corporation of similarly talented -- albeit acquiescent -- performers.
It was about this time, just as the Backstreet Boys were coming together, that Pearlman hooked up with Johnny and Donna Wright, a married management team recently relocated to Orlando. Johnny Wright had experienced success as tour manager for none other than New Kids on the Block, and impressed Pearlman with his extensive knowledge of how the whole teen market operated.
The Wrights set up camp with Pearlman and Trans Con and began operating as a three-pronged team of mass promotion. Loosely, Pearlman would do the scouting and business, Johnny Wright would handle the management, and Donna Wright would deal directly with the artists, creating an assumed family tree beneath which all would succeed.
"We run it like a family business," says Pearlman. "We take care of them."
So far it's working. The Backstreet Boys' self-titled debut is the third-best-selling album of 1998, behind only the double-punch of Celine Dion and the "Titanic" soundtrack. 'N Sync, a boy band of similar means that includes two veterans of Disney's "Mickey Mouse Club" and three others of chance meeting, are close behind, making them RCA Records current biggest seller. New acts cultivated by Trans Con such as Solid Harmonie, Take Five, C-Note, LFO, Imagica and Innosense are all either signed or under heavy bidding for future success. Trans Con is a bona fide phenomenon.
So why, then, has nobody ever heard of them?
"Traditionally, hometowns don't support their acts," says Johnny Wright. "There was a USA Today article on the Backstreet Boys a while back, and I remember 104.1 `WTKS` asking, ‘Who the hell are the Backstreet Boys?'"
At the time, it was an understandable inquiry. The Backstreet Boys' Cinderella story got off to a predictably awful start in the United States with the release of a debut single, "We've Got It Goin' On." But 1995 wasn't exactly a prime time for pop radio, with alternative rock and rap formats dominating market consciousness and attempting to squeeze anger and integrity into shoes where disposable grandeur once reigned supreme.
"It was hard at that period," Pearlman says. "Record companies wouldn't take us seriously."
It was in Europe, where manufactured boy-acts like Take That, East 17 and Boyzone were experiencing stadium-packing response, that the Boys managed a top-10 hit with their debut. The management team reacted in kind, pulling back on U.S. promotion and aiming towards the European markets where musical perception more suited the Backstreet Boys' easily palatable pop-soul and R&B-lite sound. The band hit pay dirt first in Germany, then in British, Canadian and southeast Asian markets, all the while gaining ground in both performance skills and popularity that would assist them on their eventual reintroduction to American listeners. And when they emerged again -- boasting, to the startled reaction of the local music community, of their Orlando roots -- three years of credibility backed them up.
Indeed, Pearlman and Trans Con seem to have mastered the practice of exploiting a world market from the outside in, of pushing things beyond their organic means as a way of later expanding the center.
In its few years of operation, Trans Con has been able to determine its target markets with an eerie clarity. Pretty girl bands, like current crooners Solid Harmonie, fare best in Eastern markets, where the ideal is beauty that is challenged only in rare moments of sexual innuendo. Boy bands are more likely to succeed in European markets, where libidinous poses from shirtless stars feed a more guttural response from a more liberated culture.
Edel Records, a label known for its teen successes as well as for its alliance with Trans Con projects, helped to put 'N Sync on the map with its high-energy European release (notably different from the more low-key U.S. debut), and has likewise been instrumental with new bright hope Aaron Carter. It's getting to be a routine.
But what about the kids? With a roster of artists that now dip well below the age of consent (new signees Take Five range from 14 to 18), isn't there a fear of burnout, or at least of psychological erosion?
"They all know it's a lot of hard work," says Pearlman. "If you look at it from a work ethic, it's a few more hours than your Long John Silver's or McDonald's job. It's a lot of training. It's a lot of hours. But the rewards are also significantly greater."
And the kids aren't complaining. At a pool party at Donna Wright's Orlando residence on Memorial Day weekend, nearly all of the current roster are in attendance, frolicking about in expected youthful abandon, give or take a few million dollars on the line. Justin Timberlake -- at 17, the youngest member of 'N Sync -- is in a wetsuit chasing a couple of Solid Harmonie girls around the pool, threatening imminent submersion. A couple of other labelmates play basketball on the compound's outdoor court. Kevin Richardson of the Backstreet Boys is keeping a low profile, sitting shirtless and talking to a couple of friends. Most present, however, are in some way involved with the Jet Skis and paddleboats hanging off the dock in the backyard. It's like summer camp, really, and Donna Wright holds court as a sort of den mother, entertaining whims and concerns of her assumed family by the pool.
"We've built a family and it's working," she says.
Occasional proof that this also is a business pops up here and there, as when the girls from Diamantes (now operating under the name Sensual), sitting Indian-style on the grass, are directed to sing on command. But all goes well. A wet bar remains relatively untapped given the ages of those involved, and for the most part everybody seems extremely, even painfully, well-adjusted. It's probably not much different from the planned excursions of competitive gymnastics teams. Except that here the goal is a controlled hysteria, encouraged by personalities who aren't even in control themselves. This is the nature of the teen star.
It was 40 years ago, in 1958, that a young black entrepreneur named Berry Gordy began to act on his vision of a songwriting empire. Motown Records, oft referred to as the most viable representation of quality American rhythm-and-blues music, if not pop music altogether, was born of Gordy's own frustration with forcing his songs through the difficult machinery of the music industry. In 1959, Gordy borrowed $800 from his parents to foster Motown Records, run initially from his family home in Detroit. Tellingly, "Money (That's What I Want)," recorded by a then-unknown Barrett Strong, became the first of many Motown successes.
Through the '60s, Motown grew into one of the most productive and revolutionary components of the industry, launching lasting careers for Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Supremes, The Temptations and The Jackson Five, among others, based on a simple policy of home-grown talent and grass-roots promotion. And the early Motown machine, like Trans Con, aggressively instructed its acts in the appropriate manner of dress, choreography and behavior for public appearances.
But one heated moment, a Birmingham, Ala., stop on the 45-act National Motor Town Revue, perhaps best depicts the true worth of the Motown enterprise to its time.
In effect, what Gordy was slowly accomplishing with his Motown successes was an unexpected racial discourse. Blacks and whites together attended the Revue shows, blacks and whites together appreciated the catchy, universal appeal of the new soul movement, but blacks and whites were still caught in political opposition. In Birmingham, that meant an exchange of gunfire and a near race riot following the performance.
Motown was changing the world.
With Trans Con the motivations are decidedly different. The middleman's ability to influence any actual, real-time antagonism is gone; all that's left is an exploitable market. Sure, people hate the Backstreet Boys (whose faces graced a recent cover of Entertainment Weekly as a "guilty pleasure"), but it's not because of any race, creed or persuasion. People hate the Backstreet Boys because they're teen stars, disposably innocuous and gleefully rich.
The links between Pearlman's vision and that of Gordy are tangible. Johnny Wright worked extensively with Dick Scott, one of Gordy's right-hand men in Motown's heyday, through his tenure with New Kids on the Block, and cites him as a heavy influence. "He used to have breakfast every day at 7 a.m.," says Wright. "I learned a lot about being disciplined from him."
But the comparisons necessarily stop there. Since Motown's illustrious reign, many a business-type has sought to promote an artificially inspired pop agenda. The Monkees, those lovable television hooligans of the late '60s Beatles wake, were fruits of an open casting call. Similarly, David Cassidy, he of "The Partridge Family" TV show, found himself stretched thin over the entire nation's teen consciousness through the early '70s; a recent VH-1 documentary depicts a weathered Cassidy, embittered by the pressures of a market based purely in its moment, without any respectable talent beyond its moment's sparkle. Cassidy went for the big tell-all, stripping naked for Rolling Stone and recounting the realities of a misbegotten youth, but nobody wanted to hear it; by then, they were tuned into Leif Garret.
Historically, teen sensations have a shelf life of about three years. In that time, most reach levels of success far beyond actual justification, and then typically flail about in varying stages of speculation, decline and puberty. New Kids on the Block, the final product of '80s entrepreneur Maurice Starr (following his success with the black version, New Edition), marked up fantastic sales and imaging with absolutely no artistic integrity. If you were 40 or had no kids, you might not have even known they existed. But if you were 12, they were in your every dream, and on your every gift list. After three albums -- five if you count the obligatory Christmas LP and the cred-pushing, NKOTB after-the-thrill release -- they were nobodies, resigned to joke status even among those who secretly held their records.
The life of Trans Con's roster may indeed be different. The operation is virtually air-tight, with all aspects of business, promotion, travel, even food falling under the company's fast-expanding umbrella. There has even been a Backstreet Boys blimp flown a time or two, in some oddly transcendent meeting of Pearlman's inflated empires.
"We move very cautiously as we move forward," says Pearlman. "We want to make sure that we maintain a 100-percent success level."
True, image carries great clout in the international targeting of its acts. But the music is hardly secondary, and this year saw the completion of Trans Con's state-of-the-art recording complex on Sand Lake Road at a cost of nearly $6 million. 'N Sync, Backstreet Boys, Aaron Carter and Kool and the Gang (a recent Trans Con acquisition) all have recorded there. Trans Con VP and chief engineer Joe Smith has even helped engineer mixes for Mariah Carey and Ginuwine. "Since our doors have opened, we've been at it for 24 hours a day," says Smith, who got his start as engineer for the Backstreet Boys and who was instrumental in the planning for the studio.
The resulting complex boasts the South's first SSL9000T Console, a little bit of hardware that alone cost nearly $1 million. "It's the best of the best," says Smith. There is also a rehearsal space that includes a stage mockup complete with professional concert lighting, plus in-house producers, writers and musicians -- and, for the artists-in-training, instruction in choreography, vocal performance and classes in how to handle media interviews and press conferences.
What else sets Trans Con apart from major industry recording houses? Smith replies in true Trans Con fashion: "We're the first to have a full-time chef."
Indeed, around every corner is a crossed market, under every idea an upsell to another Pearlman enterprise. The operation may well be immune to the trappings of the music industry's fickle laundering, if only for the fact that Trans Con isn't reliant on it. From all appearances, Pearlman already has his seconds planned, even his thirds.
Take Five, who heavily resemble both Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync right down to their skin tones and hair cuts (blond boys always part down the middle), are a few years younger. But their marketing schedule already has begun. A full page ad in Billboard boasting of credentials already gathered (MTV Mandarin's Artist of the Month for August!) and a radio and retail campaign with Edel overseas are clear hints by now, the third time around.
And Aaron Carter already has sold 1.2 million records worldwide, regularly gracing covers of Euro-teen rags, and quickly infiltrating domestic ones.
"It's cool," grins Carter to UK teen mag Smash Hits, "and it's good that there are other young pop stars like Hanson so it doesn't seem so weird. I would like to meet them -- we could talk about being young and stuff."
But Hanson, despite probable pressures of homeschooling stage-parents and Midwestern malaise, are actually a band of musicians who write in addition to performing. One gets the impression that they might not have much to say to little Aaron Carter, who got his pop-start as a whim of Pearlman's to appease lonely older brother Nick's homesick moping on the road. Carter now tours as The Backstreet Boys' opening act around the world.
At the Virgin signing, Carter seems about as in charge of his own destiny as one might expect any 10-year-old to be -- not very -- as he dances in the middle of a circle of industry adults on command, glowing the way a dog might while doing tricks at mom's cocktail party. In Carter's case, mom's his manager, and she doesn't seem the least bit displeased with the overflow of attention being cast in her direction. That's two rich offspring. What more could a mother want?
Today, Trans Con continues to add new projects to its thriving empire. That's because, says Pearlman, "Donna and Johnny have no ownership in the company. They can do things on the side."
Donna Wright currently is undergoing distribution talks for her own proposed label, Diva records, with which she hopes to corner still another market. "Diva is going to be a pop label with a lot of Latin influence," she says. "I want to be able to bring it over to Latin America." And Pearlman himself talks about a new venture that will focus on urban genres. "It's gonna be called O-Town," he told the industry publication Music Business International.
Meanwhile, on the homefront, the machine does its best to keep quiet discussions of the pending Backstreet Boys lawsuit against its management. A separate company, Backstreet Boys Inc., representing the interests of the Boys in merchandising and royalties, has hit upon some expected distress. Independence was never supposed to be an issue, but it shouldn't come as a surprise; it is people who make up Trans Con, and the Backstreet Boys are people, too.
The dispute actually is over the process of electing a chairperson for the company. Pearlman and the five lads are the only stockholders, and Pearlman has ultimate override of each band members' vote. Clearly that would pit Pearlman as the obvious chairman. But with no real say in a corporation that is supposed to represent the interest of the Boys as business people, their actual control can at best be nominal. Why incorporate yourselves at all?
"I think the big thing is that the artists are ‘what you see is what you get,'" says Pearlman for now -- even when a situation built on a facade, especially one involving potential litigation, can't possibly allow that.
Here where perspective comes in. For all the in-house quibbles, and all of the easy criticisms levied from beneath the glowing display, there's a real simplicity, and a real inevitability, to what is happening here, just as there was with The Monkees, David Cassidy, New Kids on the Block, and even with Motown. These are byproducts of art and industry, and they operate like any other corporation rife with power struggles and personalities -- except that, in this case, most of the personalities involved are beneath the age of consent.
But few are simpler than Pearlman himself, still living that dream he had as a child, staring up at blimps headed for the sky and never even acknowledging the ground. It's even a little charming to hear him refer to his extended family -- the one that affectionately refers to him as "Big Poppa" -- with a father's glee.
"It's like having a whole bunch of kids," he glimmers. "Nothing pleases me more than to watch girls chase them."