There are times when you find yourself questioning things about your life: what you’re doing, how you came to be doing it, the places you’ve been, the people you’ve met. What it all means. You recall your childhood, your adolescence, your hopes, your dreams, your view of the world then and now. You retrace the events of your 20s, how apparently unrelated events weave into a strange and inscrutable thread of causation that led you to this exact moment, this exact place. And you find yourself thinking about how and why it is that on a chilly Sunday morning in March 2013, nearly 35 years after you came into this world, you are chasing Aaron Carter’s open-top bus around Times Square.
By way of explanation, Flavorwire was invited on Friday afternoon to join “international pop star Aaron Carter on a tour of his favorite New York city spots.” The tour is the result of some sort of Twitter contest, whereby 20 faithful fans have been “hand-selected by Carter through CitySights New York’s #AaronlovesNYC social media contest” to climb aboard an open-top bus and drive in circles around midtown Manhattan. We’re invited to come along and, well, how could we say no to such an invitation?
But the thing is, I’m running late. In fairness, it’s the damn L train’s fault, but still, by the time I get to Times Square, the Carterbus has loaded up its cargo of excited contest winners and set off on its journey around the tourist sites of midtown Manhattan. I’ve texted the publicist from 14th Street to let her know I’m en route, and the plan is that I’ll rendezvous with it somewhere along the way, which is fine in theory, but in practice turns into what shall henceforth be referred to as the Aaron Carter Midtown Endurance Race:
“Hey, it’s Tom from Flavorwire. Just got to Times Square.”
“We are on 48th and 8th heading north toward the Snapple Theater on 50th.”
“Are you nearby?”
Um, OK, running.
“We are going over to Radio City. I tried to hold the bus but we were blocking traffic.”
“At Radio City.”
“We are at 55th and 6th. Heading toward Rock Center”
“Maybe stay near Rockefeller Center.”
Contemplating throwing it all in and going to the Lego shop instead.
Wait, is that the bus? Driving south along 5th Avenue?
SUCCESS. GODDAMN IT. WE MADE IT.
The Carterbus turns out to be, yes, one of those open-top buses that ferry tourists to all those strange places to which people who live in NYC never actually go. Carter himself is standing atop the bus, sporting a baseball hat set at a professionally silly angle, a matching branded jacket, and women’s leather gloves. He’s apparently playing the role of tour guide with panache — he’s waving his arms and gesturing flamboyantly at his flock of contestants and at various passers by (including me, once he spies me waving frantically from the street corner.)
There’s a flurry of activity from various publicists and minders and etc, and then I am finally invited aboard the magic bus. Woo. Hoo. I catch my breath and then climb the stairs up toward the top deck. Carter greets me halfway up with a handshake and an expectant look. His publicist asks, “Shall we do it now?” Christ, apparently everyone expects me to interview him. I demur and start to explain that the idea was that I’d sit in on the bus tour and write about, y’know, what it’s like to go on a bus tour with Aaron Carter, because the whole thing is hilarious, right? Right?
There’s an awkward silence that’s thankfully broken by someone from the bus company observing that they always thought Aaron Carter looked like Eminem. Carter giggles and says something to the effect that he really likes Eminem. He pauses. “But I was never allowed to like him,” he continues, conspiratorially. “Because of my image, you know. So I said once in an interview that I liked him but I didn’t like all the cussing! But I guess Eminem didn’t like that, because he came backstage after a show and put me up against a wall! Like, he lifted me up!” He demonstrates vigorously, so much so that I nearly go tumbling back down the stairwell. “And he told me that he would blow my head off with a shotgun!” He giggles again. “So that was fun!”
(Everything Aaron Carter says basically concludes with an exclamation mark.)
I smile and take this as my cue to sit down. The contestants look at me with a mixture of curiosity and latent hostility. So, anyway, for the rest of the grand tour! Only, we’ve barely gone a block when Carter turns to one of the People In Charge…
“Only two more minutes, otherwise I’ll get catch a cold, and we’ll have to cancel a bunch of dates!”
“Oh, Aaron, baby. Let’s get you downstairs.”
We pull in at Times Square again. And that’s it. Tour’s over. At least I got more exercise than the contestants, eh?
It turns out that the other part of the contestants’ prize is a photo with AC himself, and so begins the slow process of sending them downstairs, two by two, to be furnished with new Facebook profile pictures. About five minutes in, the inevitable happens — three 20-something girls pass by, glance at the bus, and do a complete double take at the sight of the smiling pop star in the doorway of the CitySights™ bus.
“Oh my god, it totally is!”
Within a couple of minutes, perhaps 20 or 30 people have gathered behind us, all whispering and pointing and giggling. It’s not quite Beatlemania, but it’s mildly intimidating nonetheless. I’m suddenly rather glad it’s Aaron Carter who’s the international pop star and not me. The man himself, however, looks entirely unperturbed — he’s still posing for photos and signing various curious items of memorabilia. (As an indication of what we’re dealing with here, one girl has brought along a piece of lurid green cardboard with “AARON CARTER’S LITTLE ONE IS ALL ABOUT HIM” written on it. In glitter.) He is at pains to hug and kiss each and every one of the contestants, and does so with gusto — so much so (especially the kissing bit) that his de facto kissing booth could be construed as mildly creepy. I record this observation in my phone, and as I’m doing so, I realize that one of the fans who’ve gathered in the crowd behind me is reading over my shoulder.
“It is NOT creepy. And who the fuck is this guy, anyway?”
This guy moves awkwardly to another vantage point and watches as the hugging and kissing continues, and thinks about what it must be like to be Aaron Carter. He has been a performer since he was seven years old, and globally famous since he was ten. He is now 25, which means he’s been famous for his entire adult life, all of his adolescence, and a decent chunk of his childhood. And it shows. The public images of people this famous — and especially pop stars — are essentially constructs, tabulae rasae onto which producers and executives project personae and whatever else is going to keep the cash rolling in. I wonder what Aaron Carter is like when he is not being professionally nice to his fans, when he isn’t performing. I’ll never know, of course, and neither will anyone else on this bus.
There’s a theory that people stop growing when they get famous, becoming essentially suspended in their development at the age they achieved renown. It’s meant to be why rock bands are stuck in perpetual adolescence, why child stars have such a hard time adjusting to the adult world. I’m not sure I buy into this idea, but there’s definitely something childlike about international pop star Aaron Carter, a certain cast to his demeanor. It’s hard to explain. The way his publicist calls him “baby.” The way the Michael Jackson used to always come across like a sort of pop-tastic Peter Pan.
The last contestants are in the doorway now, and the guy driving the bus is keen to get going. He gestures at the crowd, members of whom are now discussing how they’re going to go about getting pictures for themselves (most ingenious theory: “Tell them we’re making a music video!”) He tells me, “This is just going to grow and grow, and we won’t be able to get out.” As if to demonstrate his point, one girl lunges toward Carter, camera in hand, and has to be ushered away.
The publicist walks over. “You have everything you need, right?” Oh yes, indeed. Everything and nothing more. I watch as the bus company guy and the driver and assembled record company types assemble for one last photo in front of the bus. Carter is front and center, of course — one more smile, one more professionally idiosyncratic pose with head at a slight angle and indeterminate hand symbols. Yeah, I have everything I need. The bus drives off and the crowd disperses. I walk back to the subway ruminating on the nature of fame and the cult of celebrity and all the other things about which people like me write lengthy, erudite thinkpieces. But really, I guess, it all boils down to this: do you want to be the person chasing the bus or the person on top of it? I’m pretty happy with being the former. At least you can always just stop and walk away.