Revisiting the itsy bitsy spider

Posted: Sep 04, 2003 12:00 AM

Mick Jagger is 60. He's still a Rolling Stone, but his audience has gathered more than a little moss. Some of them are still pondering the Beatles' famous questions: "Will you still love me when I'm 64? Will you still need me? Will you still feed me?"

The lyrics no longer sound quite so funny to the aging boomers, for whom the lyrics have taken on an edge of chilling seriousness.

Congress debates how to get less expensive medications to the elderly, a growing population divided by statisticians as the "young old" (ages 55 to 75) and the "old old" (over 75). The boomers, a segment of the voting population that grows statistically more important every year, are more interested in prescription drugs than in the "recreational drugs" of their youth. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" - with the not-so-hidden acronym LSD - requires a footnote for Generation X and Y.

Every generation separates its fashions, attitudes and popular culture from the generation that preceded it. The young always attract attention from marketers obsessed with the latest trends, the route to the big bucks. If the trendspotters are correct, the boomers, who only yesterday vowed never to trust anyone over 30, might as well be contemporaries of Father Time.

Now we have a new population segment for the pols and the marketers to ponder. The latest hip voters and consumers are the "rejuveniles," as in "recycled" children. The "rejuveniles" are not concerned with growing old. They're determined never to grow up.

"Rejuveniles come in all ages but are mostly a product of the urban upper classes (free time and disposable income being essential in their lifestyle)," reports the New York Times. "According to Nielsen Media research, more adults 18 to 49 watch the Cartoon Network than watch CNN."

Rejuveniles flock to pop concerts where performers help them look for the inner child by inviting them to sing along on "Itsy Bitsy Spider." They shop at Target for pajamas with feet, like the ones they wore as 4-year-olds. Not exactly like something from Victoria's Secret.

Marketing men on the scout for catchy products and salable promotions have come up with "Peterpandemonium" (a retro rock group), "Kidult games" (toys for the adult child) and "adultolescents" (a social-science for 20- to 30-year-olds who have moved back home to be with Mommy and Daddy.)

Here are a few more suggestions: How about "Sesamites" for the 30-year-olds who can't say goodbye to Big Bird? But that might create quite a few anti-Sesamites. A song-and-dance trio could call themselves the "Three Little Pubescents." With a huff and a puff, they could reprise Bob Dylan's hit, "Blowin' in the Wind." Hooked on Babar? Try "Babarians."

This is all very amusing, but underneath the humor lurks a serious problem. A large number of the most privileged men and women in our society are setting only juvenile goals. When they could be concentrating on how to make better places to live, engaging their minds in conversations of significance, they're frittering away their time in search of regressive escapes. For all their self-absorbed faults and indulgences, the boomers had passions and politics with a point.

But it's difficult to engage rejuveniles, whose attention spans are as short as the cartoons they fancy. Their obsessive "cultivation of immaturity," says Frank Furendi, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent at Canterbury in England, who began studying collective infantilism after he observed college students watching Teletubbies, is an extreme response to growing up in a culture saturated by media.

While the phenomenon suggests a fear of growing up, it reflects as well another facet of the dumbing down of the culture, an aversion to mature conduct and useful contemplation. When MTV interviewed Bill Clinton in his first campaign for president in 1992, a college student asked him whether he wore boxers or briefs. The question was not only dumb, but demeaning. Instead of putting the student in his place (a playpen?), the candidate answered it.

When Vice President Al Gore played himself, sitting in a hot tub in a "Saturday Night Live" skit, he thought he was being hip and witty, not understanding that he was merely degrading his office and mocking a lack of propriety.

Book publishers, television producers, moviemakers and other mavens of the media lust for the latest "edgy" notion to push the envelope. Such notions needn't be substantive as long as they turn on sensation to drive controversy.