Try to pick Pearlman out
Ten years ago, Lou Pearlman basically ran the music business. He assembled and managed both the Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync, which, for a minute there, was something like owning both Coke and Pepsi. He also essentially owned half the Tiger Beat entities who made runs at TRL back when TRL was something worth making a run at: LFO, O-Town, Aaron Carter, the briefly revived former New Kid Jordan Knight, the fascinatingly horrible Orlando rap duo Smilez and Southstar. Last week, a US District Court judge sentenced Pearlman to 25 years in prison for running conning investors in his fake ponzi-scheme charter-plane company out of hundreds of millions of dollars, marking the apparent end of maybe the dizziest, most extreme fall from power in pop-music history. Since it began, the popular music business has never been a stranger to con-men and creeps and hustlers; just witness the ongoing media-circus R. Kelly trial. But Pearlman is a special case: a massively successful supervillain figure who may well have molested many of the kids who he made famous even while he was taking the money they were earning.
Back in his relevant years, I hated Pearlman and his products with a fiery passion. These days, I’m a bit more sanguine about the whole thing. Plenty of the products that Pearlman willed into existence were actually pretty great: “I Want It That Way,” the “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” video where they all dress up like mummies and vampires. And I have to admire the get-money acumen of someone who, by his own admission, had the idea to combine New Kids on the Block and Chippendale’s and then sell the resulting supremely crass mess to millions upon millions of twelve-year-old girls. Ten years later, it’s hard to even fathom the idea that these groups of dudes with elaborate facial hair and fireman-pants and goggles on their heads were packing stadiums full of screaming kids by doing actual chair-dances, though admittedly that’s not whole phenomenon might not be that much more bizarre than, say, Hannah Montana. Pearlman is also in some way indirectly responsible for the career of Justin Timberlake, possibly my single favorite pop artist working right now. Beyond the instantly sneery punk-kid gut-reactions I had to Pearlman’s creations when he first released them into the world, I mostly just feel a general sense of wonder that the guy actually pulled those massive schemes off. He’s probably one of the twenty or so most important figures in the past fifty years of popular music, even if he totally lucked into that position.
Last year, Vanity Fair ran this morbidly absorbing article, which details the criminal charges against Pearlman and which also basically accuses him of doing really nasty sex stuff with members of the boy bands he put together. In fact, the massive success of his whole enterprise may have been a complete accident; the article quotes one source as saying, “Basically this was an excuse for Lou to hang around with five good-looking boys. He was along for the ride. What he liked to do was take boys out to dinner.” Most of the victims of Pearlman’s advances haven’t really gone public with their accusations, but if any of the charges about Pearlman are true, he’s just about the most loathsome form of sexual predator imaginable. And even if all that stuff is wrong, it’s still worth noting that virtually every act ever associated with Pearlman eventually sued him and that virtually every one of those cases was settled out of court. This guy is not a good guy.
And so it’s been perversely thrilling seeing Pearlman’s sentence come down, even if the crimes he’s going away for didn’t actually have anything to do with his musical endeavors. All told, Lou Pearlman is a total Jabba the Hutt figure, a creature so purely vile that it’s actually really fun to hate him. I can’t wait until someone makes a movie about him.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 28, 2008