It was a difficult moment in an interview ostensibly to mark the release of a new album, and, in searching for the right comment, the Backstreet Boys' AJ McLean turned to a lyric from a onetime boy-band rival.
"One of the radio stations asked us about this, and Brian and I started singing Justin [Timberlake]'s 'What Goes Around ... Comes Around.' I mean, you can't run from these things forever. You know if you're doing something bad from the very get, it's gonna come back around and bite you in the ass. There's no way around it."
The person in question — indeed, a guy Backstreet would just as soon not be talking about in 2007 — is Lou Pearlman, the impresario once known as "Big Poppa," the man who helped turn Orlando, Florida, into the late-1990s capital of boy-band teen pop-dom, and a man who has seen better days. Not only is Pearlman presently sitting in an Orange County, Florida, jail awaiting trial on charges of bank and investment fraud, accused of bilking investors nationwide of millions of dollars through what amounted to a Ponzi scheme, he is also the subject of a damning article by Bryan Burrough in the November issue of Vanity Fair.
The VF piece not only exhaustively chronicles Pearlman's years of financial shenanigans and tall tales that landed him in his current hot water, it also alleges that Pearlman was a habitual sexual predator — harassing, abusing or worse — the teenage boys in his charge.
McLean continued, "I mean we thankfully got out of that whole situation when we did, and you know we don't wish bad upon anybody, but karma's karma."
The karma that has apparently caught up with Pearlman on the financial front can hardly be considered surprising. His tendency to play less than fair — signing the teen groups he launched to awful deals from which they made next to nothing — has already been well-documented, most recently in Lance Bass' book "Out of Sync." Years ago, both 'NSYNC and Backstreet sued Pearlman in order to get money owed them and to finally be free from his financial grasp. Bass, in his book, called it a "stab in the back; Justin Timberlake has called it "financial rape."
Whatever other kind of grasping was going on behind closed doors in Pearlman's boy-band-chocked world is still anybody's guess. But the creepy allegations made in the VF piece are troubling — from former LFO singer Rich Cronin's saying that Lou had a penchant for "massaging" his young dudes, to an Abercrombie employee-turned-personal assistant named Steve Mooney alleging that Pearlman once full-on propositioned him and implied that sexual favors would land him a spot in a band. Mooney tells Burrough, "There was one guy in every band — one sacrifice ... who takes it for Lou."
According to a onetime singer and co-manager, Phoenix Stone, that guy was Nick Carter in the Backstreet Boys. Stone claims in the VF story that Pearlman was "inappropriate" with Carter, leading to a "big blowup." Nick's mother, Jane Carter, is even quoted in the article, saying, "Certain things happened" and calling the financial scandal "the least of [Pearlman's] injustices."
Needless to say, none of this is anything that now-27-year-old Nick Carter is keen to talk about, especially in what ought to be an interview heralding the release of a new record, but he did have a comment for those people speaking out.
"There's a lot of people who maybe were involved in our stuff in the past who want to take an opportunity maybe because they are a little bitter, you know, maybe because of where they are right now," Carter said. "And they tend to, like, throw us under the bus, you know what I mean? Because of where we are right now. I mean, I'm not naming anybody but ... any attack on any one of us in this group is an attack on the whole entire group."
When I suggested that if anyone is being "attacked" it's Pearlman and not Backstreet, Nick would only offer, "Well, not necessarily an attack, but it does affect the whole entire group. Because we've all gone through stuff together, and it just feels like, it's unfortunate that people have to talk, 'cause they have nothing else to talk about."
As for whether they knew of sexual abuse by Pearlman, McLean said Backstreet were somewhat out of the loop. "We were the first group that started with Lou, so once we kind of took off, there was so much going on in our lives that there was no time for us to focus on or really pay attention to what was going on, if there was anything going on, behind closed doors, and now, obviously he had group after group after us, and now it's like these things are coming up. And who knows?"
But if the alleged sexual harassment and/or abuse of these boy-band members was as habitual and widespread as is suggested in the Vanity Fair story, why have we heard nothing until now? Backstreet believe it may well have to do with the fact that "Big Poppa" is behind bars.
Says AJ, "I guess it's just the perfect opportunity now because of his situation and where he's at and people are like, 'Well, he can't really defend himself. He can't do anything, and so let's just go.' ... And maybe they feel comfortable saying whatever they're saying."
Brian Littrell agreed, and suggested it's also a case of time, and distance, emboldening Pearlman's alleged victims. "You don't necessarily come into this business with a backbone. You have to grow a backbone," Littrell said. "We love music, we've always been about music and touring and traveling and making the fans happy, and at the same time you can get walked all over in this business. Financially and in all kinds of ways. So people coming out now would be like somebody growing a backbone. You know, 'He can't do anything to me now, so it's the time.' "
It's the time, as far as the Backstreet Boys are concerned, for the group to focus not on unsavory stories about Pearlman, not on last year's departure of Kevin Richardson (who they insist they remain on "great" terms with) but on their fifth album, Unbreakable (which hits stores Tuesday), the one that certifies that they, alone among their vocal-group peers (please, let's not call 'em a "boy band" anymore), are still around.
"There's so much laundry that's been aired out in the past," Howie Dorough said. "I mean, everybody knows about us from lawsuits to, you know, everything that's happened, so I think we're at the point in our career where we're just trying to move forward, not look back."
A final rejoinder, AJ? "Again, what goes around comes around, and we've been the ones to not succumb to anything, and that's why we're still here because we've always focused on what's most important to the Backstreet Boys, which is the music."