There are countless stories about the escapades of Lou Pearlman, the Florida record producer who created the American boy band as we know it while trapping artists in predatory contracts and perpetuating a massive pyramid scheme on the side. But have you heard the one about his NASA collab?
This week’s episode of Underunderstood, a podcast that covers questions you can’t find the answer to on the internet, started with a Trivial Pursuit question: “What boy band did NASA admit they'd hired to write a song about the ‘international space station and perhaps microgravity’ in 2001?” In the course of answering it I discovered yet another Lou-Pearlman-screwed-us-over tale with a bizarre twist.
Natural, a lesser known boy band managed by Pearlman, was the answer to the Trivial Pursuit question. If you, like me and the people I was playing with, don’t remember Natural, their big hit was called “Put Your Arms Around Me.”
Songwriter Steve Kipner (Genie in a Bottle, Hard Habit to Break, Physical by Olivia Newton-John) told me he wrote the song in a day before shipping it off to Pearlman, without knowing who would eventually sing it.
“There are certain songs that I feel a little bit more proud of than others, and I remember every detail about them,” he told me. “This one, not so much.”
Still, the song hit the top of the Billboard singles sales charts because Claire’s Accessories bundled their CD with a regular purchase.
Of course, I wanted to hear Natural’s NASA song, but I couldn’t find it. There were a few news articles that confirmed the NASA-Natural partnership, however. Apparently Daniel Goldin, NASA administrator from 1992 to 2001, was hoping to reach new young space fans through pop culture, and he decided a boy band was the right move to stay hip.
“The space agency plans to commission a song from new US boy-band Natural and is also considering further music projects including possibly a rap song, which Coolio may be asked to compose,” wrote The New Scientist.
“NASA is updating its rather fusty image - and, to shift it into a new orbit, the space agency has commissioned Down to Earth, a pop song about how small the Earth looks from the Moon,” wrote The Times of London. “The song is performed by Natural, America's hot new teen band.”
OK, so a song was commissioned. But I still couldn’t find it. Wikipedia says Natural had two albums and nine singles, but “Down to Earth” is not listed.
I filed a public records request to NASA and emailed their press office. Was the song taken down? Did it ever exist? Did Lou Pearlman decide that NASA could not pay enough? The Washington Post said the agency was paying around a $2,500 honorarium to artists at that time.
A week later, I got a disappointing reply: There was no song.
“I had to do some digging (this was before my time), but it ends up that song never came to fruition,” NASA public affairs specialist Dustin W. Cammack said in an email.
So what happened?
Michael Johnson was born and raised in Orlando, the center of the boy band explosion. Disney attracted young talent, and when Johnson was 15, it seemed like everyone around him was trying to start a band. He described a frenzy of teenagers singing a cappella to each other at parties or the monthly teen night at House of Blues, constantly scouting their fourth or fifth member.
“It was just kind of a weird moment in time,” he said. “It's so hard to understand what was going on in Orlando, Florida in the age of Lou Perlman and the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, Britney Spears, all that stuff. People were moving from all over the country to just get together.”
It was at one of these parties that Johnson and his friend Patrick King met Ben Bledsoe, a vocalist and actor who had recently joined up with Michael Horn and Marc Terenzi. They became Natural, a name that Terenzi had been kicking around.
The Natural guys also played instruments, rare for a boy band in the late 90s. They were discovered by Veit Renn, Bledsoe said, an Orlando producer who produced songs for Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC. But at some point, Renn lost control of the band and Pearlman took over. (Renn declined to be interviewed for this story until he could consult with his lawyer; Pearlman died in prison in 2016 after being convicted of defrauding thousands of Florida investors in a $300 million pyramid scheme centered around a fake airline.)
For Natural, things started to accelerate once Pearlman got involved. They knew to be wary of the manager, who was known for cutting devastating contracts with young artists. (Some of these artists later said publicly that Pearlman came on to them sexually or took videos of them without their knowledge, but Bledsoe has said he has no direct knowledge of that behavior.)
Natural hired their own lawyers to negotiate a fair deal, but Bledsoe and Johnson said Pearlman ambushed the band with a contract right before the start of a tour.
“We’re like, ‘wait, we've been negotiating for like two months already,’ and he was like, ‘yeah, well, that doesn't matter. if you want your career to continue, this is what you're going to sign.’ And so we signed it,” Bledsoe said.
Still, Pearlman was always hustling for Natural, even if he sometimes exaggerated the size of his deals. And somehow he got the band in with NASA.
“I remember one day Lou was talking to us, and he was like, ‘Hey, I'm working on something really cool. I met somebody from NASA,’” Bledsoe said. “I don't know who his point person was, but basically we started getting deeper and deeper with NASA.”
The band started going to NASA events, including launches. Sometimes they would play; sometimes they would just hang out with astronauts at the afterparty. And Pearlman started telling them they were going to write a song for NASA and they were going to have their band logo on the side of a rocket. And then he told them that NASA wanted them to train to go to space and be the first musicians to perform at the International Space Station.
NASA originally wanted Aerosmith, Pearlman told Bledsoe, but he persuaded them to go in a different direction.
“Some of this is from Lou, so some of this could be fabricated, but they were talking about how they were already testing instruments in like zero gravity terms to see if the strings would resonate the same as with gravity or not,” Bledsoe said.
He’s aware that NASA may not have been as serious about this trip as the band assumed at the time. “They were humoring the possibility of that not being not a reality,” he said.
The band, with the exception of Horn, were super excited about this possibility. “The rest of us were like, are you kidding me? This is the greatest opportunity of all time,” Bledsoe said.
Bledsoe, Johnson, and Danny O’Donoghue, a songwriter they’d worked with in the past, started writing lyrics and a tune. The plan was to write a rough version and show it to Will McCool, one of the astronauts on an upcoming space shuttle trip, who loved music and would help them finish it. On January 16, 2003, Natural sang the national anthem at the launch of the space shuttle Columbia, which carried McCool and six other astronauts.
Two weeks later, Natural was on their way back from an international tour when they caught a glimpse of the news on TV and saw Columbia explode on re-entry.
“I'll never forget being in that airport and seeing that on the television,” Johnson said. “The guy that we were supposed to write this song with, or finish this song with, first of all, he was dead. And everybody that we had sung the national anthem for … they were dead. It rips my heart out every time.”
He knew the song was done.
“Nothing that we were trying to do, or us going to space, as exciting as it would have been, none of that mattered,” he said. “And that's where that project just ended.”
NASA shut down the space shuttle program for more than two years after the Columbia disaster. The program restarted only to be decommissioned in 2011, and NASA has since then ceded human spaceflight to other countries and private corporations.
And what happened to the band? Johnson said it started to unravel when Terenzi got a tattoo, a girlfriend, and was set to have a kid — all major boy band no-nos.
At the same time, the guys started talking to other artists and realizing how underpaid they were. “Up until then we had been isolated from the rest of the industry,” Johnson said. “Everything was going through Lou.”
This was the realization that caused *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys to end up in court against their former manager. But unlike those bands, Natural did not survive: Its members went their separate ways without ever having gone to space.
This story was adapted from an episode of the podcast Underunderstood. To hear it and other stories the internet forgot, go to underunderstood.com or search Underunderstood in your podcast app.