In 2005, Lillo Brancato Jr. was involved in a robbery that left an off-duty New York police officer, Daniel Enchautegui, dead. Though Brancato was found not guilty of murder three years later, he was convicted of first-degree attempted burglary and was sentenced to ten years in prison. According to the New York Daily News, he is set to have a parole hearing sometime next year.
In 1993, Raymond Sharkey Jr. died of AIDS at Brooklyn’s Lutheran Medical Center after spending years denying he had the virus. Word has it that since 1987, he became so delusional that he insisted his strain of HIV couldn’t ever actually harm him or any of his sexual partners. This came as a result of a long, disastrous battle with heroin and cocaine addiction that also caused Sharkey to be involved in at least four car wrecks before his death at age 40.
These stories are noteworthy because of how attached their protagonists once were to the notion of promise. Before Brancato found himself on the wrong end of a New York City cop’s death, he starred opposite Chazz Palminteri and Robert De Niro in the latter’s directorial debut, 1993’s A Bronx Tale. In his late teens, Brancato’s performance was widely lauded for how much raw talent the kid seemed to have, even prompting some to note how he bore a tiny resemblance to the legendary De Niro, his onscreen father. The movie, an undisputed success both commercially and critically, would eventually be nominated for AFI’s list of the top 10 Gangster Films of all time.
Sharkey, meanwhile, won himself a Best Actor Golden Globe for his work as Vincent “Vinnie” Vacarri in one of the best forgotten movies of the ‘80s, The Idolmaker. He was 28 years old when he won the award and before the guy even reached 30, he had another Globe nomination under his belt for his role in The Ordeal of Bill Carney the following year. Without question one of the most promising young men in early-‘80s cinema, Sharkey practically had the world at his fingertips before eventually succumbing to the drug addiction that would take his life.
A few weeks ago, Justin Bieber smoked some pot and people took pictures.
OK. So, maybe it’s not that simple. Bieber is, after all, the most decorated teen heartthrob of a generation. He’s the quintessential pop star of the ‘10s: A rags-to-riches tale that could have never happened in, say, 1994 because, for instance, YouTube didn’t exist. His rise has been as meteoric as any gigantic personality of the last 50 years, and in an age during which it has become almost mandatory for us to chew up and spit out popular music faster than you could say “Jessie J”, the Canadian heartthrob has figured out how to consistently stay in the zeitgeist despite slowing record sales or sometimes-embarrassing lyricism (“Say you love me/As much as I love you, yeah/Would you hurt me, baby?/Could you do that to me, yeah?” he sings on “Die In Your Arms” as the defense rests its case).
That said, the fact that he decided to play a game of Puff The Magic Dragon a few weeks ago has been the most polarizing teenage drug story since Jessie Spano got hooked on caffeine pills. Reaction to photos of the singer holding a lit and presumably smoked blunt has been, in a word, outlandish. The reason for such is two-pronged:
1. All predictable cynicism aside, who doesn’t think Bieber’s own people planted these photos with TMZ to either help him appear grown up (an element to his persona that has been questioned and talked about in profile pieces over the course of the last year) or—and get ready for an almost disgustingly conspiratorial approach—take heat off his driver for playing a role in the death of a photographer days before these photos were allegedly snapped? It’s easy math, really. Two blunts plus an on-again/off-again girlfriend minus that obnoxious bang-filled haircut equals grown man. How do you make a teenager look like an adult? Have the teenager make adult mistakes. Think about it: No one took Justin Timberlake seriously until he exposed Janet Jackson’s boob to the world. All of a sudden, the same guy who once did some silly dance while singing the word “Bye” three times in succession was a man, and it was Britney Spears’ loss.
And 2. The dude will be 19 in March! Again, for effect: The dude will be 19 in March! Most boys spend their 19th year of existence at a university, ignoring science books and ... you guessed it ... seeing “what it’s like” to get high every now and then while playing the latest version of John Madden’s video game. You haven’t lived until you slept through your 8AM class because you couldn’t stop betting bags of Cheetos with your roommate on who could compile more yards in a single football game—Cam Newton or Robert Griffin III. Before you knew it, the incense had run out, your controllers were covered in powdered cheese and the sun was coming up. “Whoops,” you said as you woke up at 1:30PM the next day. “Guess I’ll have to settle for a C.”
“Everyday growing and learning. trying to be better. u get knocked down, u get up”, the Biebs tweeted after these photos “surfaced” (because that’s what superstars who made their bones by way of the Internet do to express remorse these days: tweet). “i see all of u. i hear all of u. i never want to let any of you down. i love u. and..thank u. #beliebers” (because that’s what superstars who made their bones by way of the Internet do to create a brand—turn their names into inspirational non-words in a completely narcissistic manner. What’s the you say, #mcguireadmirers?).
Things got serious, of course, when girls started posting pictures of their slashed body parts in honor of Bieber’s latest life decision and Miley Cyrus took a break from doing Salvia to chime in. News of those ridiculously serious and ridiculously unfortunate instances beg the question, “Is this really what people did when any of the Beatles were seen using hallucinogens 50 years ago?”
It’s a question that adheres to the line of idolization far more than anyone should be comfortable with. While we want to believe that pop stars are real-life super-heroes, we tend to lose sight of the very real fact that they are also simply just people growing up in front of our eyes. Not only should we begrudge hanging on their every move, but we should also be mindful of how difficult it is to mature as human beings, let alone how difficult it presumably is for uber-popular personalities who essentially have no choice but to develop underneath the glare of a white-hot spotlight on what has become a second-by-second basis (thanks, social media!).
“Just hours after pictures emerged of the pop star holding a big fat joint, Justin Bieber delayed his concert on Saturday so he could spend time with a seven-year-old girl who was forced to sell her tickets to the gig when her leukemia reemerged,” Mack Rawden of Cinema Blend wrote last Monday. “By all accounts, Justin and young Millie Flamm had a wonderful time together, and if nothing else, Saturday’s sequence of events illustrated what strange crosswords the Biebs is currently staring down.” (“Will Justin Bieber Suffer Any Consequences For Pot Smoking Pictures?”, by Mack Rawden, Cinema Blend, 7 January 2013)
Herein lies the core of what makes Justin Bieber’s story different from Brancato’s and Sharkey’s. All three of these men came into success early in their lives. Only two of them, however, were truly confronted with dire real-life decisions and dire real-life consequences. Despite how absurdly crippling some seem to think this admission of marijuana use actually is for the singer, Bieber is unquestionably light years away from the level of turmoil Sharkey and Brancato both endured. We know this from the constant (and trust me, they are constant) stories of how much good the singer does in the real world—the same real world where smoking pot still isn’t as bad as being involved with the murder of a police officer; the same real world where careless use of hypodermic needles can be the difference between life and death.
It’s a real world that doesn’t see differences in class or status. It’s a real world that’s as unforgiving to pop stars as it is to janitors. It’s a real world that is impossible to figure out. It’s a real world that has no interest in making things easier for those who collide with it head-on. And most importantly, it’s a real world that Justin Bieber is only now beginning to experience in its entirety.
You can do a lot worse than smoking a blunt in a hotel room on some night in January. Just ask Lillo Brancato, Jr. Just ask Raymond Sharkey, Jr.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.