Lou and His Dream-making Machine


On Music

Pearlman, center, with the finalists from O-Town.

Lou Pearlman, the slippery impresario behind the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, O-Town, LFO, Aaron Carter, and about a half dozen other agreeably vacuous late nineties pop acts, has died in prison. Yes, the Lou Pearlman. The guy practically invented boy bands. I mean, he didn’t—he just ripped off New Kids on the Block—but he invented the most lucrative boy bands, and as he’d be the first to tell you, that’s the more major achievement. You couldn’t turn around in 1999 without seeing one of his acts: massively telegenic, deeply ordinary, somehow memorable. They had branded lip balms, bobbleheads, and throw pillows for sale. I know this because I spent a lot of time hating them. 

My animus was an adolescent male prerequisite. I hated the Backstreet Boys because I was twelve, *NSYNC because I was thirteen, and Aaron Carter because I was fourteen and he was related to a Backstreet Boy. Of course, true hatred, the kind that really grips the pubescent soul, takes a lot of effort. To hate a boy band was to know all the words to their songs; was to know their members by name and maybe even by star sign; was to be fluent in their discography, videography, and choreography. In other words: hating the Backstreet Boys meant learning more about them than about many things I love. I remember watching an animated spoof called “Which Backstreet Boy Is Gay?” set to the tune of “I Want It That Way,” and thinking, Man, it sounds just like the real song! (In case you were wondering: by the end of the parody, they’re all gay.)

These were strange times to come of age musically. Nu-metal had traction on the charts. MiniDiscs were a viable commercial format. And Pearlman, a blimp obsessive and penny-stock investor, was the biggest pop kingmaker in America. Watching his reality/talent show Making the Band—as I had to, because I hated the band—I remember being struck, even then, by the irony that this crass, corpulent guy was commanding an army of sculpted, conventionally attractive young men. Guys with bleached tips, Oakleys, skate shoes, and hemp necklaces—guys who could be cool, were they not inclined to sing—were enthralled by this total slob just because he had demonstrated some capacity to make them famous. They revered Lou—at first, anyway. In one episode of Making the Band, a member of O-Town—a group named after Orlando even though none of its members came from there—tells the camera, “Lou looks at us, like, as sons. Because Lou thinks so positively, he just makes things happen. It’s just like magic, like, everything seems to fall in place whenever you’re around Lou. And I think that’s just because of his attitude.”

Later, when nearly all his acts had sued him for exploiting them and accusations of molestation had begun to surface, it would occur to me to question this “attitude,” but in the moment I took it at face value. Even though he was ugly and his bands pretty, and even though his brand of entrepreneurship required treating pop music as an assembly line, I would not have described him as cynical. And that was his real coup. Any old mogul can apply the logic of the factory to art production. Any slimeball mogul can put on a nationwide talent show, hire a few good-looking faces, and churn out some middling hits. It takes some skill, though, to put together bands using the most conniving and inimical methods at your disposal while convincing most of your target audience that you’re basically a stand-up guy. Look at the way Pearlman conducts himself in this clip from Making the Band, where he’s tasked with eliminating two performers from O-Town’s lineup. He’s like a coach, an uncle, a vice principal, and a pastor all rolled into one—a cuddly, catchall authority figure. 

What was the Pearlman formula? What was he looking for when he cast his boy bands? Not technical talent—obviously they had to have some of that, but not virtuosic amounts. Not magnetism—if any one member of the group were too charismatic, the whole thing risked blowing up. And not attitude—the boys had to be vanilla enough to pass the parental smell test. His bands were demographic experiments in absence, tests to see how little personality a band needed to thrive in the TRL era. The answer, it turned out, was almost none at all. With the right stylists and sponsorships, the groups could find prominence instead as tabulae rasae. Where the Spice Girls had made some attempt to individuate themselves, no one in the Backstreet Boys was scary, sporty, or even ginger. They were just, you know … dudes. If you wanted to love them, you could. If you wanted to hate them, that was fine, too.

To my ears, the apotheosis of Pearlman pop came with LFO—short for Lyte Funkie Ones, duh—a trio of terminally nonthreatening white “pop rappers” whose song “Summer Girls” was inescapable in the warmer months of ’99. You know this track, though you may have repressed it in an act of self-preservation. Its lyrics are sublimely evacuated. They read like the first draft of a schoolboy’s mash note, strung together with mall-brand copywriting and glib non sequiturs:

There was a good man
Named Paul Revere
I feel much better baby
When you’re near
You love Fun Dip and Cherry Coke
I like the way you laugh
When I tell a joke
When I met you
I said my name is Rich
You look like a girl
From Abercrombie and Fitch

Pearlman didn’t write those lyrics, but they’re a kind of distillation of his genius, if that’s the word. Few adults outside his empire would’ve stooped to recognize this basic fact: Abercrombie and Fitch was super fucking cool in 1999, and anyone who sang about it was cool, too.

I have to wonder what Lou Pearlman’s inner life was like. What did he hear when someone put on “Summer Girls”? Did he even bother to tap his feet? In his “dynamic business biography,” Bands, Brands, and Billions, he opens up about his dreams:

Since I was a boy, I’ve had the habit of taking some time right before I go to sleep to think about what I want to do the next day, the next week, the next year, and the next five and ten years. It’s Late Nite with Lou and his dream-making machine … They should name a Day Planner after me—the Lou Log. I’m notorious for always flipping my desk calendars ahead to the next day I’ll be back in the office—even if I’m going to be gone for a month. I also take a lot of ribbing because I check the expiration dates on everything I buy, whether it’s AAA batteries or a bottle of mouthwash. I’m always looking ahead, making plans, figuring out new approaches to problems, and looking for new projects to keep me busy. Dreaming, then, is the way I prepare myself for success. I recommend it to everyone.

He wrote those words in 2002. Six years later, he was in jail, having been convicted of money laundering, conspiracy, bank fraud, mail fraud, and wire fraud. His fall coincided with the weakening of the major-label system, its once mighty revenue streams thinned by piracy and the death of the compact disc. Lou Pearlman could only have come to prominence in the late nineties, when the music industry had the capital to fund his “dream-making machine.” His cynicism was perfectly realized. He was a boy from Queens who made millions on raw deals. Had he exercised even a modicum of caution, he could be running for president now.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.