Feature

The Teening of America

It used to be we couldn't wait to grow up. Now we strive for permanent adolescence.

By From the December 2011 - January 2012 issue

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A current fad tickling the nation's palate-comfort -- or "mommy" food -- has taken American childhood staples once taken for granted, reconfigured them at fancy prices, and fed them back to diners who gobble them down with glee.

There are now restaurants, entire chains, that specialize in grilled cheese sandwiches and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as entrees--not to mention former childhood favorites like mac n' cheese, s'mores, and root beer floats that now appear on serious menus across the land. Soon I expect to see Spaghetti-Os and graham crackers and milk at many Michelin Guide bistros. (The humble hamburger underwent a culinary transformation from childhood classic after celebrity chef Hubert Keller opened a string of Burger Bars featuring $60 hamburgers with foie gras. Corn dogs and cotton candy are sure to be liberated soon and turn up on prix fixe menus at Masa and Per Se.)

This rediscovery and elevation of grade-school cafeteria food is just the latest example of what appears to be America's second childhood, which I date from grownups wearing Levi's in the 1960s--hippies at first and then squares who hoped to look hip--when the country first split apart at the seams. Adults in sneakers, T-shirts, tank tops, and baseball caps followed later, attire deemed suitable for just about any and all occasions; it's not uncommon to see guys in Yankee caps and women in faded jeans at Broadway shows.

Michael Moore somehow still feels required to wear a ball cap and sweatshirt costume to identify him as a certified Friend of the Common Man, as if assembly line workers are not allowed to wear jackets and ties. Anyone today who dresses up is considered a dork; the only neckties you see are on CEOs and TV anchors, or at funerals.

This 50-year journey from adults in Levi's to up-market mac n' cheese has been gradual but unrelenting. It all happened after teenagers seized the country in a bloodless coup led by Elvis and the Beatles, holding first their parents and then everybody else hostage to 15-year-olds' tastes. It was such a total takeover that adults went willingly over the cliff into Teenland. A sort of Stockholm syndrome occurred--adults who resisted rock and roll, drugs, free love, and foul lingo finally just gave up the fight and began to emulate their kids in what a 1967 book called "Teenage Tyranny." Adults tiptoed away, vanquished, too exhausted to battle massive teen power, and finally caved in completely.

Once the country was seized by rock and roll (what Tom Lehrer referred to as "children's music"), every other adult barrier fell--fashion, food, four-letter words in songs, films, fiction, plays. The former youth culture became the reigning culture of the land, moving in where a grownup culture had long prevailed. So the onetime counterculture is now mainstream; I'm part of the silent minority counterculture.

 The teening of America picked up considerable speed after the pop music capitulation. Major newspapers, even the New York Times, now regularly review video games, most of whose players are 14 years old, don't read newspapers, and couldn't care less what middle-aged critics think of the latest hot version of Grand Theft Auto.

ABOUT A DECADE ago, I noticed that skateboarders and rollerbladers were often men in their 30s or even 40s. I had a hard time imagining my father skateboarding in 1958. In that era, before adults tried to emulate teenagers, the world was run by grownups who were content to act their age, and also look it. Men wore suits and ties to work and women wore skirts, not pantsuits and boots. Many women now seem to be dressing like their teenage daughters. Nobody felt compelled to pierce their eyebrows, lips, noses, or nipples, and facelifts were only for film stars and the rich or famous.

The 1980s introduced the plague of the Valley Girl, with its peculiar upturned sentences that end in question marks, still very much with us, only now there are Valley Women and Valley Men, all turning statements into questions. Two generations (X and Y) have produced lawyers and doctors, now in their, like, 40s, who talk like THIS?

The Valley Girls' daughters shriek, "Oh, my God!" every sentence, shortened now to OMG, part of the texting jabber that has infected the "social networking" population. To my everlasting shame, I once found myself using "OMG" in an e-mail and "diss" in conversation, but I've not yet been reduced to "rad," "WTF," "whatever" (or in Valley Girl-speak, "what-evuhhhh"), nor have I yet used a [smiley face], a :-) or other texting hieroglyphics; call me a 20th-century Luddite but I'm still partial to words.

The language itself may be regressing. Somber TV newscasters and pundits refer to America's enemies as "the bad guys." That's what, as kids, we called villains when we played cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. ("Kenny, I'll be the Lone Ranger and you be the bad guy.") It's hard to imagine newscasters of the past, Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, or Huntley and Brinkley, referring to al Qaeda leaders as "the bad guys." When did all that start? And "Duh!"--which I hadn't heard since high school--has had an odd resurgence. Everything in teen talk America is either (totally) cool, awesome, or sucks.

Part of the populace is into baby talk. Adults caught in a mistake now babble, "My bad!," and the greatest minds of the information age have let loose their inner toddler, naming their vast enterprises Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia, and Twitter. We don't write, we google, we tweet. It's as if Alexander Graham Bell had called his telephone company "Ringy-Dingy" or Henry Ford named his Model-T "Car-Car."

Facebook, of course, is just junior high school run amok, where everyone is your "friend" or even "best friend" (we're now urged to rank them). At 13, my kid sister would announce every week, "Arlene [or Jenny or Nancy] is my new best friend!" On Facebook, people officially anoint all their overnight pals by "friending" them. Much of America has moved into Mr. Rogers' neighborhood: "Will you be my friend?"

MOVIES HAVE PRETTY MUCH turned into comic books in the form of action films, sci-fi epics, and animated features, often all in one. What used to be confined to comics and fairy tales has swallowed Hollywood whole, from Batman XII and Superman VI to The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid--and onward and downward to Avatar, Lord of the Rings, and, to be sure, Harry Potter, a children's book that adults somehow felt compelled to read lest they be left out. Out of that mindset, it seems, emerged "graphic novels"--hardcover comic books. TV's longest running hit comedy show (23 years) is an animated cartoon, The Simpsons.

Meanwhile, real-life action heroes Arnold Schwarzenegger and ex-pro wrestler Jesse Ventura were elected to major offices. Imagine Johnny Weissmuller as governor of California and Strangler Lewis in the Minnesota governor's mansion. This trend began--movie stars playing political leaders--when Shirley Temple ran for office and people half-imagined her tap-dancing up the Capitol steps. The teening of America got a huge boost after 1954, when Disneyland became the nation's vacation capital. Even Las Vegas, the last haven of grownup sin, has been forced to cater to families.

Then, too, there's the entire Alien genre of gory horror movies and vampire films (indeed best-selling novels), once the province of drive-in spook shows. The rage for sequels, which began with Star Wars, is a version of the old cliffhanger Saturday matinee serial ("Next week at this theater: Part 16--Batman Meets the Monster!). It's rare to find a genuinely scary adult suspense film not splattered with guts, calculated to thrill pop-eyed teens. Ninety percent of all comedies--all movies, really--appear to be aimed at teenagers. "Adult" films equal hardcore raunch and "adult content" is code for graphic sex. The very word "adult" is now thoroughly corrupted, passé, almost quaint.

Staid old Broadway, once the last bastion of civilized pop culture, is attracting crowds to its comic book extravaganza, Spider-Man; Avenue Q, a hit show about naughty Muppets from Sesame Street, won a Tony. We've hopscotched a long way from Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Lerner & Loewe. No wonder Stephen Sondheim's shows, which dare to deal in adult feelings, are so revered going up against musicals like Hairspray, Mary Poppins, and Wicked, or countless "jukebox musicals" that rerun teen classics of the '50s and '60s in shows that enshrine ABBA, Frankie Valli, Elvis, Little Richard, et al. Was our pop culture permanently stunted at 16?

Network television has long been notorious for catering to the 12-year-old mind, so nothing new there. I suspect one reason Mad Men made such an impact is that it's about actual grownups (however messed up), with real jobs and serious problems, all dressed in business clothes, who inhabit a seemingly long-ago adult world; the series is light years from giddy sitcoms about 20-somethings still stuck in teenage love lives. There's a lot of buzz over an upcoming TV show, Extreme Musical Chairs. I can't wait for survival show versions of Spin the Bottle and Extreme Kick the Can.

Comedians who used to dress up like maitre d's, in tuxes, bow ties, and French cuffs, now look like delivery boys on stage, wearing rumpled T-shirts and torn jeans, sporting a three-day stubble, toting the obligatory water bottle and liberally sprinkling monologues with sixth-grade "potty mouth" jokes that were already pretty lame in the fifth grade.

AND LET'S NOT leave out the two major pop figures of our day--Michael Jackson, a troubled Peter Pan of pop who never grew up and even called his ranch "Neverland," and Lady Gaga, who looks like a bad little girl playing dress up in mommy's party clothes--again, a long downhill road from former adult pop idols: Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, et al. The biggest pop phenomenon of the last few years? Justin Bieber, a national icon at 14.

Everyone's favorite childhood holiday, Halloween, has got sort of taken over by gays, at least in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, where it's celebrated like St. Patrick's Day in drag, an excuse for grownup guys to dress in goofy outfits, strut through the streets, and get roaring drunk. Speaking of which, pro football and baseball games are excuses for aging frat boy beer parties, even gang fights, and every televised game reveals alleged adults with garishly painted faces garbed in trick-or-treat getups. Tattoos, formerly found only on young sailors, are suddenly plastered all over sagging bodies--some sort of bizarre "branding" exercise? Graying women now routinely go blonde at 50, trying for 25, if not 15, a clear signal that they've hit middle age.

And so the teening of America proceeds apace, part of the nation's post–World War II youth fetish that gets increasingly adolescent every year. It's almost as if much of the country's grownup population can't wait to grow down. 

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About the Author

Gerald Nachman is the author of Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, Raised on Radio and Right Here On Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan's America. He is currently working on a book about the great Broadway musical show-stoppers.