We're all children now, says Andrew Calcutt
Pop goes adulthood
'I thought "I'm a middle-aged man now. I can't carry on making exploitation films for the youth market". And I walked away and I have no regrets.' Widely regarded as 'Britain's greatest exploitation film director', Peter Walker made a rare public appearance in London in March, to mark the publication of Making Mischief, a book about his life and work. During an on-stage interview with author Steve Chibnall, Walker explained how he stopped making films in 1983 when he felt he had grown too old for it. Nowadays, he added, 'every picture' is an exploitation film for the youth market.
Walker's refusal to allow youth culture to dominate his adult life makes him something of an exception nowadays. Contrast his attitude with that of Tony Wilson, founder of Factory Records and overlord of the Haçienda nightclub: nearly 25 years in the music business and still looking for the next big thing to make the kids go ape. Presiding over a panel discussion on pop at the recent LM/ICA Free Speech Wars festival, Wilson silenced somebody who kept asking why music now sounds so boring with the reply: 'Because you have grown up, sir.' The loud applause which followed suggests that Wilson is not alone in thinking that 'grown up' is the ultimate put-down.
In order to avoid the awkward consequences of Pete Townshend's rash declaration 'Hope I die before I get old', most of us seem to be acting out Bryan Adams' rock anthem, '(I'll be) Eighteen till I die'.
Youth culture is now middle-aged. It is more than 40 years since a new generation of Hollywood stars (Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Marlon Brando) attracted attention with the unprecedentedly pre-adult persona which they developed in roles like Jim Stark, the Rebel Without a Cause. Their literary contemporaries were the Beats (Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg), who also preferred to continue in a pre-adult frame of mind rather than allow themselves to be integrated into the failed models of adulthood personified by figures such as president Eisenhower, TV anchorman Walter Cronkite and Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball's husband in life as well as in I Love Lucy.
Even in the sixties when people called themselves 'flower children' they knew that this would mark them out as a 'counterculture', separate from the masses and the adult roles which the masses identified with. The counterculture gave up on the world of work and the adult aspirations associated with it. The hippies, like the Beats before them and the punks afterwards, retreated to an arena of 'playpower' ('playpen' would be more accurate), and put their faith in the allegedly subversive effects of seeing the world through the eyes of a child.
With pop music as its primary medium, the childlike sensibility associated with the counterculture is as mainstream now as it was exceptional then. The cult of the pre-adult has spread across society horizontally, and vertically through successive generations. In the four decades since the fifties, those brought up on youth culture have increasingly refused to grow out of it. In the eighties there was talk of ex-hippies making 're-entry' into the adult world; but now there is nothing to go back to. In the media today, the pre-adult persona is everywhere, and adulthood is hardly represented.
When Peter Walker started making films in the late sixties, children were hardly ever seen on TV or heard on radio. Even Children's Hour was dominated by avuncular adults such as Blue Peter's Christopher Trace. Nowadays, instead of talking down to their audience, children's TV presenters tend to lower themselves to the child's level - and they keep the same tone of voice when they move on to adult TV. Meanwhile, on radio phone-ins designed for adult audiences, the voice of the child has acquired the status of holy writ.
The same hierarchy operates in the adverts. Cars, which used to be marketed with speed-loving, power-hungry adult males in mind, are now presented as vehicles for the safety of children and even fetuses. In an article on children's increasing influence on what their parents buy, Financial Times reporter Victoria Griffith quoted advertising executive Paul Kurnit: 'More advertising these days is what you'd call cross-over advertising, aimed at both parents and kids' ('Small in Size, Big in Influence', 21 July 1997).
Some adverts now invite parents to think of themselves as kids. Grown-ups are exhorted to satisfy 'the kid in you' by eating Frosties. A recent ad for British Airways comprises an image of a mother and child with the head of a middle-aged man grafted onto the baby's torso. Previous generations of businessmen would have recoiled from the suggestion that they were childlike in any way. But today's corporate culture has adopted the pre-adult sensibility which used to be exclusive to the counterculture, and in their joint adoration of the child there is no longer any distance between them.
In the past few years there has been something of a fashion for old people. After a protracted period of silence, Jarvis Cocker's Pulp released a critically-acclaimed single, 'Help the Aged'. Before his death in 1997, the geriatric William Burroughs was invited to appear in a couple of MTV-style videos, including one with the late Kurt Cobain's Nirvana. The juxtaposition of Cobain and Burroughs highlighted the similarities between the pre and the post-adult. Likewise, with 'Help the Aged' Cocker has gone from proudly identifying himself as 'imma' [immature] at 31, to worrying about getting old and helpless. In one fell swoop he has jumped from the art school dance to the old people's home, from Rebel Without a Cause to Krapp's Last Tape, leapfrogging over the adulthood in-between. Even if old people briefly become the new rock'n'roll, it will only confirm the current inability to conceptualise what used to be called 'the prime of life', and underline our readiness to identify with images of childlike dependence and vulnerability.
While so many over-21s are acting below their age, real children carry on trying to pass themselves off as adults. They are almost the only people who still want to grow up.*
Andrew Calcutt is the author of Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood (Cassell, £14.99 pbk). Steve Chibnall's Making Mischief: The Cult Films of Peter Walker is published by FAB Press (£12.95 pbk)
Reproduced from LM issue 109, April 1998