Warning signs 

The truth hurts.

Recently, in an unprecedented flush of celebrity awkwardness, four of the five Backstreet Boys interrupted your typically brain-numbing dosage of "TRL" to hold a bleary-eyed press conference regarding the brain-numbing tendencies of our beloved A.J. McLean. The Backstreet bad boy, we were told, had checked himself into rehab following a moment of clarity afforded him by fellow B-Boy Nick Carter's unfortunate basketball accident. Nick had broken his hand.

"That hand wasn't broken," gossiped a San Fran teen columnist over the phone a few days later, trying to pry me for my own dirt. "That was an ACE Bandage."

A lie hurts even more.

Which, of course, begs the question: What truth is it that we're all looking for?

"I can't write that for teen-age girls ..." continues said columnist, following speculation about just what substances, beyond the admitted alcohol, might be involved.

In a profession that more often than not involves a self-parodying tendency to lament your teen years and make mincemeat of those who are seemingly stuck in them, odds are that the truth will sooner be found in the bottom of a cocktail glass than through the screen of your rundown computer.

At the bottom of A.J.'s cocktail glass -- Jack and Coke, for the gossip-minded -- his own truth even seems a little blurry. While out for cocktails with him a few months ago, I watched A.J. swerve in and out of his spectrum of personal manifestos, revealing a little too much along the way.

"You see, I'm like three people," he slurred. "Sometimes I'm Alex, sometimes A.J., and sometimes Johnny," referring absurdly to his rock alter-ego, that rage against his own machine, Johnny No Name. When someone has two personalities, we drink, laugh and try to ditch them in the bathroom. When it's three, we giggle and pray.

Regardless, McLean cut the figure of a lonely man, struggling to understand, well, whatever people in their younger 20s struggle to understand. That night, he even took us out to his plush ride to debut some new Backstreet demos, sing along and beg for credibility. It was all quite sad, really. Even sadder when you realize that most nights out with A.J. end up with parties at his house, watching a TV wall that rattles with, you guessed it, videos of himself. Warning signs, anyone?

"A.J.'s the most giving person I know," counters a mutual friend. "He's got no real support group. He's really alone."

So with the questionable fact of his rehab admittance comes a flurry of attempts at perspective, most notably that of the Backstreet Boys themselves. While the "TRL" appearance soothed with age-appropriate nobility, it also screamed of an obvious, age-appropriate cover-up. Who's gonna give up 30 days of a sold-out arena tour over such self-concern? Moreover, who's gonna check themselves in?

"I had friends out there with them on the last day of the tour," angles the San Fran writer. "There was definitely an intervention."

And while the mind swims with just how much choreography is involved in a Backstreet intervention, it's still a little painful to hear. The industry and band management have turned a blind eye thus far to a problem that involves more than a few synchronized haircuts (sniffle sniffle). With A.J.'s tough-guy, facial-hair issues, he seems to have the shortest distance to fall. They have him scheduled to go back on the road the day after his 30-day, in-patient treatment ends. Sure, they care.

"What do you think triggered him?" asked another reporter, this time from the glossy People magazine. "Was it the death in the family?" That would be the adult angle.

No. More likely it's the hollow screams of pudgy girls coughing their pneumonias in the winter chill of Times Square, and the loneliness of producing relative pap just a short time after you yourself are of the age to appreciate it.

What's worse, said pudgy girls are being manipulated into sympathy pacts, with local pop radioheads XL106.7 going so far as to erect a giant get-well card in the food court of the Altamonte Mall. Prior to that, station rep Darby Collins held a local news conference to say this issue is "good" for the Backstreet audience. And Carson Daly furrows his brow daily as he introduces the still No. 1 Backstreet vid, prophetically titled "More Than That." He even asked a completely unrelated P Diddy to chime in with his condolences for the scruffy crooner. "We're all behind you," he Puffed. "We want you back real soon!"

Have we nothing better to talk about? Um, just wait a minute.

Anyway, as the revelatory ooze continues to seep out of the mouths of strippers and dealers alike, the A.J. affair starts to settle into its actual (in)significance. The Boyband world will never be the same (gasp!). Only, by all appearances, it never was. Nothing is that shiny.

The truth hurts.

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