Backstreet babies

In the new world order of pop music's machine, where artifice usurps sincerity to the beat of a drum machine, it's hard to imagine anyone holding down a soul, much less a family. Take the dysfunction of the legendary Jacksons, where the toils of familial connection drained the pigment from Latoya and Michael, and rendered Janet a permanent black sheep. And look back to their contemporaries, the Osmonds (exposed in the recently aired "Inside the Osmonds"), and try to explain away Marie's recent press-buried breakdown. Family and music make strange bedfellows.

But the absence of artistic and personal freedom may well be the best place to enforce a familial hierarchy. Jane Carter should know. She's mother to one of the biggest pop stars in the world, Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys. She's also mother and manager (via her Johnny Wright subsidiary, Spectra Management) to his siblings Aaron and Leslie, both of whom have been clawing and cloying their way to grasp a piece of Nick's international pop pie. At ages 13 and 14, respectively, the celebs-in-training require guidance by law. Who better to provide it than mom?

Jane Carter and her husband, Robert, who have a total of five in their brood, began their management trek five years ago when "Aaron started to show promise," she says, "and Nick began having parental issues." The Carters sold their retirement-home business in Tampa and set out to incorporate parenting into a full-time occupation. They established home bases in the strategic locales of Marathon, Fla., and Los Angeles, Calif., which in-vokes some suspicions as to their exact motives. Are they minding their kids' best interest or exploiting their pop fertility?

According to Jane, family life in the suburbs of Tampa was a "bohemian experience, with lots of bare feet and creativity." The kids were smart, although she allows that they weren't classically book smart. She told Yahoo! that she discovered Nick's talent when he was sitting on a stump in the yard singing "Bridge Over Troubled Water"; Aaron showed his charm in the bathtub mimicking the Backstreet Boys.

All of this doesn't seem so strange, until you factor in that all of the Carter kids will lack any real academic foundation or freedom. "I have a teacher who comes on the road with me," Aaron says. "She's also my makeup artist." Both parents split touring duties, and manager mom says she's not retiring until Aaron hits 18. "Sometimes they don't want my input," she says. "But as their manager, it's my job to give it."

Leslie Carter is a normal 14-year-old, give or take a couple of megahit siblings. She talks in age-typical "yeahs" punctuated by an occasional "like." So it's no surprise that her first single is called "Like, Wow!" ("Ooooh, yeaaah/ What?/ Like wow!" goes the chorus), as is her DreamWorks debut, due in March.

What sets Leslie apart from other girls her age is clearly nothing -- except a heritage of young celebrity. She doesn't charm during an interview, nor does her voice bounce off of a record. When I ask what happens at the family dinner table, she blankly recounts, "Nick usually talks about fishing, and Aaron usually talks about water guns or something -- something funny." And what does she do? Roll her eyes? "Somewhat."

In addition to extensive touring with Aaron, including a recent Christmas jaunt across Germany (a regular launching ground for Wright/Pearlman hopefuls), Leslie is taking guitar lessons to add more credibility to her three-song opening sets for Aaron. And "Like, Wow!" was just added to Radio Disney's teen-targeted playlist -- perhaps its only suitable outlet.

Aaron isn't quite as normal. Arrangements to meet him are buried in the red tape of publicity campaigns and tight schedules. He's just released his second full-length on Jive Records, "Aaron's Party (Come and Get It)," and has been a pinup darling for more than half of his life. He's in town a week before his touring gig with Leslie (Sunday, Feb. 11, House of Blues) to record a Disney Channel "In Concert" special to air March 30. The footage is to be interspersed with candid Aaron moments -- palling around with Nick (snorkeling, fishing) and Leslie (making a CD) -- as well as the punchy bratty wit that he's come to be known for.

In person, Aaron seems a little scared, dressed in shiny denim from head to toe and perfectly coiffed, all at 10 in the morning. He's constantly surrounded by people more than twice his age. "I don't know what an average teen feels like," he says. "I'm just like, yeah, whatever."

Just like the average teen, though, puberty is a bitch on the rising teen star, and he's experiencing the awkward voice-change issue. "My songs are getting more mature, and my voice is changing a lot, so that has a lot to do with it," he says. He's also got a lot at stake for such a young age. His first record barely made a ripple in the American market, perhaps due to its too-soon revisitation of the ill-fated New Kids on the Block candy pop. He's been toughened up on his second outing, with razor-cut messy hair and a slightly more street-smart edge. It's working. "Aaron's Party" is platinum.

Three years ago, in his bowl-cut years, Aaron drew some 2,000 fans to a Virgin Megastore signing despite his low profile. It's a feat peculiar to the pop machine, wherein grass-roots acts traverse lowest common denominators and come up with masses in submission. By now he's be-come accustomed to it and grown from his cute lapdog image into a rehearsed, professional composure. "A lot of people call it work, but I just like to call it fun," he says, a little warily.

At last week's Virgin in-store, Jane Carter cut the perfect stage/soccer mom image, sporting daytime casual and platinum-perfect hair. It was almost like her afternoon cocktail party, and Aaron was her new coffee table. Is there pressure on Aaron from up the family tree?

"We always have a good business relationship," he offers. "She's not really pushing me, she's just guiding me."


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