Photo by Jake Lewis
Shock isn't the currency it used to be. There was a time when it was involuntary, like bruising after getting punched; you saw something shocking and you were shocked—it was reactionary, unbiased, and apolitical. But not anymore. Now it's arbitrary and targeted. If the British prime minister calls someone a twat, he's off the hook. If one of his ministers calls a pig a pleb, he's sacked. The media picks and chooses its bastards and its heroes with the arbitrary calculation of a freeway sniper. And because of this it's become very difficult to gauge what's going to rile people.
This week, One Direction—the North and South of the Ask.FM generation—discovered that not even the most time-tested display of rebellion can wind people up anymore. New footage has emerged of Zayn and Louis smoking a "cannabis cigarette" in a car, in Peru. It's an age-old trope, a rite of passage. These are young guys, in a band, bored, in South America. Let's face it—it could have been a lot worse. But it's still made the news and inspired reactions that range from the indignant to the preachy to the staggeringly unfunny.
The vid itself is a strange one, and after watching it several times I can't quite work out the true intentions that lay behind not only filming it but the seemingly all-too-easy leaking of it.
Is it an orchestrated attempt to give the rest of the band a bit of notoriety while Harry Styles carries on cuckolding the planet like the ASOS Byron he so wishes to be? Or is it an unintentionally leaked, primary document of the One Direction experience? The closest representation we'll see until Simon Cowell ghostwrites their version of The Dirt 30 years from now?
It's hard to say, really. On one hand the act doesn't seem forced or faked. But then again, why are they filming it so brazenly? After all, nothing really happens in it—it's a shitty video. And how did it leak when they're only really surrounded by their own people? Something fishy is afoot, and I think the motivations lay somewhere between scandal and accident. It seems like they want to get caught, like they're wilfully creating negative publicity.
Even if Zayn and Louis are trying to establish some kind of bad-boy status, in actuality they come off more like the stars of a dated anti-drugs video you might have seen in a ninth-grade health class lesson. Normal lads who think it's OK to smoke a bit of weed, only to find themselves selling their bodies for doobies a week later. The sort of thing some fat cop would come into your school and show you, before explaining that it's only a matter of time before the nuggets turn into needles.
Getting caught with weed is not just a long-established trope of British popular culture but a rite of passage for boy bands. In fact, it's practically a cliché. It started with the Stones and the Beatles, who were caught unawares and probably regarded to be quite subversive at the time, then actually got in trouble with the law.
But it quickly descended into a series of PR-managed wrist slaps for any pop groups needing an extra press push at the turn of the millennium. S Club 7, for example, was caught stinking of sticky green in Covent Garden at 4:30 PM—an act of public blazing so flagrant that even guys I know who wake 'n' bake on Christmas morning probably wouldn't risk it.
Then came Birmingham bad boys 5ive, who controversially told Sky Magazine in 2000 that "It grows, it's natural. And if you believe in God, how can anything that grows be illegal?" For that brief moment, they were British pop music's answer to Bill Hicks, had he believed in God and shaved lines into his eyebrows.
It was an era when smoking weed still was pretty shocking to the masses, as unlikely teen hearthrob Mikey Graham from Boyzone found out when he was dropped as the face of ASDA grocery stores for merely suggesting that the herb be legalized. But is that still the case in 2014?
The media seems to be unimpressed and relatively unshocked yet still aware that drugs and rock 'n' roll are two of the three things most likely to sell papers—and, as such, are happy to plaster it across their pages. Still, the tone of judgment has shifted, and smoking weed now seems to be regarded in the same way that being a bit of a ladies' man always has been: cheekily, with eyebrows raised. (At least Peter Hitchens is keeping it real.)
From Miley Cyrus to Wiz Khalifa to Rihanna, Bieber, and Snoop, smoking weed is still viewed as a way to set yourself aside from the suits and Scientology crowd. But why? Because it's illegal? Piers Morgan got done for speeding, and nobody thinks he's cool.
Smoking weed just isn't very dangerous anymore—I mean, it's practically legal in America. It's permeated culture so deeply—from the pop stars trying to get caught to the prime minister boasting of "perfectly normal university experiences"—that it seems bizarre how it can still raise any kind of scandal at all. Barack Obama admits he was in some weird Hawaiian version of a stoner gang, and we're still supposed to be surprised that two guys in a boy band are smoking? Unless you've got some kind of Kyuss-hating Eliot Ness on your case, the police don't even really care that much.
In a world where the “legalize it" debate still rages, watching the media reaction is an interesting way to gauge the moral stance on the leaf. And looking at the reception to Zayn and Louis’s Harold and Kumar moment, it seems like most outlets are almost proud of the naughty young men these boys are becoming, giving their tacit approval with a wink and awful jokes, like, "Looks like the only direction they’re going is higher."
The odd evangelical 1D fan aside, it’s clear that most people are a long way from being shocked by weed. I have my own reservations about the realities of a world where weed is sold illicitly in dingy liquor stores, but smoking it is now just part of our shared culture. It's an utterly predictable teenage rite of passage—something that we think is cool for a bit, before realizing that it’s not. So not unlike One Direction, really.
Follow Clive Martin on Twitter.