“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” -anonymous Elizabethan interpreting an anonymous bronze-age nomad’s wit
“But this “debate” is pointless if I can’t get you to agree that the terms “juvenile” and “adult” are ever, in any sense, useful or capable of making real-world distinctions…”-Grumpy Old Augustine to immature Academics
Once I was chatting with a musician about The Beatles. The musician was ambivalent about The Beatles’ significant place in his own musical history: does Beatles music stand up to the objective critiques of a working musician in the 21st century? He said that he was beginning to suspect that he might be a little embarrassed about having been a Beatles fan for half his life. To which I quipped: “The Beatles made the most sophisticated kids’ music ever recorded,” but then I thought about that and amended it, later, in my own head. The music The Beatles made in the early 1960s was adult material delivered in an adult style, with “adult” defined as anyone over a certain age forced into daily negotiations with Sex and Work (and between Sex and Work as they interrelate), which are mysterious to children.
The Beatles’ early R&B covers (You Really Got a Hold On Me, Anna, Money and so on) were all about the absolutely adult themes of Sex and Work/ Money. Lennon does such a magnificent job of embodying the horny violence of a blue-collar 20-something, who’s spent some hard-earned money on his ache-inducingly alluring date, in Twist and Shout, that he makes the (Black) versions of the song preceding The Beatles version seem insufferably coy in comparison. There’s a scene in the film A Hard Day’s Night that shows The Beatles hanging out in a noir-hip London discotheque, drinking and smoking and leering at pre-Sassoony girls, and it is, unarguably, the (fascinatingly documentary) heart of the movie. Four young working males, slick in dark suits, buzzing with adult success and desire, set loose in the dark, moody, anything-might-happen lighting of the early 1960s. There’s a good solid minute of compelling Cinema Verité to enjoy there before the whimsy kicks back in.
Thinking about The Beatles, I got to thinking about The Beatles in terms of Adulthood vs Childishness.
It was when The Beatles went Psychedelic (and Lennon went from being “old leather lungs” to the guy who often crooned in the nasally narcoleptic voice of a wounded, over-medicated child) that The Beatles’ music became, as a rule, twee, fey, precious and strikingly (albeit extremely entertainingly) childish. In the track listing for the original UK release of 1965’s Rubber Soul you can see The Beatles clinging to the cliff edge of their early (semi-authentic) mastery of working class notions, of the Adult, by a collective fingernail: Drive My Car is the last blue-chinned shout and leer (albeit delivered from a weakened, passive, third-person perspective) until 1968’s unpopular Revolution* and it’s the only thing standing between the heights of their former swagger and an increasingly paisley, slo-mo descent into the womby, padded playpen of distracted introspection.
As the Hippies took over in the US/UK (aka The virtual global Superstate of MediaLandia), Soul music lost its currency. As Tom Wolfe puts it, with boyish racism, in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test:
The whole old-style hip life—jazz, coffee houses, civil rights, invite a spade for dinner, Vietnam—it was all suddenly dying, I found out, even among the students at Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco, which had been the heart of the “student-rebellion” and so forth. It had even gotten to the point that Negroes were no longer in the hip scene, not even as totem figures. It was unbelievable. Spades, the very soul figures of Hip, of jazz, of the hip vocabulary itself, man and like and dig and baby and scarf and split and later and so fine, of civil rights and graduating from Reed College and living on North Beach, down Mason, and balling spade cats—all that good elaborate petting and patting and pouring soul all over the spades—all over, finished, incredibly.
Earthy, gritty Soul had lost its cred and so had that cool (not-necessarily macho) new male amalgam of middle class Edwardian and Blue Collar Afro American notions of the Adult: Work and Sex (and Working in order to get Sex) plus Ironized Reconciliations with the Harder Bits of Both: that was all now out. As The Beatles’ own relationship to Work/Money/Sex changed [suddenly, if you were a Beatle, you had to do, literally, no Work in exchange for large amounts of Money or Sex, an infantilizing development] Beatle Fans (naturalized citizens of MediaLandia) were consequently swept up in a delusional sense of Liberation into Childishness.
African Americans simply weren’t not-poor enough to pretend to be rich enough to get away with staring with theatrical (or LSD-aided) wonder at a flower, or their own dirty navels, all day. African Americans were able to resist the Infantilization for a generation longer than their White Suburban counterparts: the infantilizing siren that finally hooked Black Youth wasn’t Whimsy but the hyper-masculine Childishness of “Gangster,” which one could perform (or try to) on any budget. A shuffling, hair-trigger thirty-five year old man with a sneaker-fetish and a Mama-fixation is not an Adult.
Not that I’m arguing for the Goodness of the stultifying late-Capitalist inhibitions and “responsibilities” of The Square, in this essay; I’m arguing that we should have somehow managed to outgrow corrosive Materialism, and gotten rid of Bronze Age notions of Women-as-chattel/cattle, without becoming twee, fragile, self-obsessed Children in the process. If Women are slightly safer, now, it’s the safety of the padded playpen that “men” and “women” are now crawling around, on all fours, screaming and crying and raging and giggling and appealing, to the ersatz Adult of MediaLandia’s faceless hierarchy, for justice/ approbation/ guidance and sugary pseudo-nourishment. We have dumped out the Grownups with the bathwater. The Beatles in capes, epaulets and feathered headgear helped to lead the dumping, way back in the 1960s. Some would claim (I among them) that Higher Manipulations/ Social Engineering (detected in the ambiguous figures of the Tim Leary, Aldous Huxley and even Buckminster Fuller type) was involved; some would say it was all done to scupper a nascent, powerful, permanent (and very Adult) anti-War movement. But that’s for other essays to expand on.
Most of The Beatles albums Sgt Pepper’s, Abbey Road and The White Album are childish, or child-like, fantasies complicated by a lingeringly grownup Artiness that is, itself, childish and self-coddling compared to the stark working class obsessions of 1963’s Meet the Beatles and before. Those whore-befriending, street-fighting, speed-gobbling Liverpudlian expat shoplifters in 1960 Hamburg wouldn’t have recognized the fragile, mustached fops of eight years hence. Although, it’s not as though actual children would recognize the wonderfully Freudian thumbsucking of The Continuing Story of Buffalo Bill (from The White Album) as a fun singalong, either. If anything has ensured a continuing Beatles relatability, to every subsequent generation of kiddie fans, ironically (or not), it’s The Beatles-related cartoon Yellow Submarine, with which The Beatles had nearly nothing to do, beyond having trained the film’s writers and voice-actors (along with all the rest of us) in Beatlesoid whimsy.
When the whimsy really kicked in, from shore to flickering shore, across MediaLandia, calling from the covers of Time and Life, Lewis (“I am the Walrus!”) Carroll was the Victorian face on the funny money of The Hippies. The Hippies and The Mods (the dirty versus the preening) were very pointedly brats; Bratism as Regression and/or Arrested Development… as ineffectual, tantrumy Resistance. Never Trust (or Be) Anyone Over Thirty. Die (or go Dorian Gray) Before You Get Old. God Bless the Beasts and the Children.
The emotional landscape of the hit MediaLandia TV shows of 1965-1968 was a Surrealist battleground topology of power struggles between armed cowboy/military/law-enforcement father figures (Bonanza, Dragnet, the FBI, Star Trek, Mannix, I Spy, Man from Uncle) and child-like monsters (Herman Munster, Uncle Fester), Monkees, talking horses, child-like Hillbillies and quasi-orphans (where/who is the dad of The Partridge Family? Family Affair?), child-like Queers (Dr. Smith, Uncle Arthur, Charles Nelson Reilly) and sexualized, child-like witches, extraterrestrial dancing girls and a stripper-shaped genie who lived in a pillowy, womb-like crib in a bottle; when the Master wanted her, he just rubbed the bottle… (and I just now, after half a century, got the metaphorical genius of those old Arabic genie-tales).
When the blobby fonts and Hippies/Mods faded, a new kind of ambivalent grownup briefly took MediaLandia’s stage in the form of “ethnic” (ie dark-haired) socio-politically mature anti-heroes of the early 1970s (the lugubrious-Cohen-blessed Warren Beatty in McCabe; the frighteningly Adult Auteurist Cassavetes; Pacino in Dog Day; the semi-childish Nicholson in Cuckoo), just in time for The Watergate/ ‘Nam debacle-catharsises. Imagine a ballroom, rented out all morning and afternoon for an extravagant kiddy birthday blow-out, until a bunch of vets and bikers start showing up for a scheduled 6 pm meeting of the local union of electrical workers: the striking overhead view of lean young guys in leather vests, and well-groomed beards, blending on the ballroom floor with towheads in pastel jumpers: that was 1970-1975. One last bittersweet cultural recurrence of the Adult or “Adult”.
Which was soon enough swept away, in 1977, by the proto-punk crypto-child Travis Bickle (aka Taxi Driver). Punk and the New Romantics: Hippies returning as anti-Hippies in the return of Pop Hit Childishness (after that interval of dirgey Jackson Browne/ Paul Simon/ Carol King “Adultness” which was really just rotting Youth). In 1980 the (deposed and reinstated and re-deposed and reinstated) King of the New Romantics/ Punks (who even wore a diaper onstage on Broadway that year) had a hit singing a song with a simple nursery rhyme in it, sing-songing “My Mama said…” in the voice of a child, dressed as a clown. Madonna/ Cindy Lauper/ The Bangles: the ragamuffin waifs. Kate Bush, Nina Hagen: the whimsical-yet-tantrumy changelings. Pee Wee Herman: the perfect kid’s show host for irony-stunted 20-somethings.
Consider: Prince and his schoolgirl spellings, pre-pubertal falsetto, pre-school overalls and big-eyed, Keane-painting look. Much was made of the so-called “androgyny” of Prince’s falsetto but I don’t know any Women who speak in that register; the people I know who speak in that register are, on average, five. Oh yes and there’s always demonic-ten-year-old-voiced Michael Jackson and his fucking Ferris Wheel.
The 1990s: Billy Corgan, Kurt Cobain, Axel Rose, Björk, Alanis, Tori, Michael Jackson and Thom Yorke; the Child-voiced Kings and Queens of MediaLandia. Leading directly to Antony and the Johnsons, Sam Smith, James Blake, Thom Yorke 2.0 et al. 2005: Harry Potter-as-adult-lit; grown men on skateboards; grown women on scooters; Celebrities Weeping on Television; Asking Permission to Kiss; Pokemon Go; Furries; Bronies…
…and the Global All-Ages Blockbusting Cultural Super-Triumph of Batman.
In 2008 I argued, for a week, online, with a gang of grad students, TAs and actual academics about The Batman movies. The argument blazed a crackling swathe across The Valve and one of the grad students’ blogs. Mine was the only rhetorical voice unwilling to take Batman seriously as adult cinematic fare; certainly not the modern “realistic” Batman, which chronicles the ups, downs and sky-scraper-leveling explosions in the life of a po-faced millionaire who dresses up like a codpieced bat.
Surely, anyone who dresses up as a codpieced bat should have a sense of humor? The expansively tongue-in-cheek 1960s Batman series, with its meta-fictional winks and flourishes (and occasional spooky asides, as in the episode in which it is mentioned that Batman’s great-grandfather founded Yale’s Skull-and-Bones society, decades before the average audience member could possibly get that reference) was an adult’s idea of Op Art fun. Fun.
The “realistic,” post-9/11 Batman was both blatantly jingoistic pro-NATO propaganda and preposterously self-serious kitsch. And, yeah: childish.
I wrote (among other things), in the heat of battle, with these over-25-year-old academic super-fans of the Batman franchise:
What renders the super hero films juvenilia is the *nature* of the fantasy they present: the liberated revenge scenario underwritten by cartoonish magnitudes of power.
Without having seen Dark Knight (but, having audited tons of Batman product in my life; I was a serious collector of comix as a young man, my favorites being the Berni Wrightson-era Swamp Thing and Jim Starlin-era Captain Marvel), I nevertheless know that the franchise presents a fantastically rich and very buff man who has mastered exotic fighting techniques and combines this martial arts expertise with an array of fantasy gizmos (power toys) in order to battle whomever, driven by the need to avenge his parents’ deaths whilst dressed up like… a bat.
This fantasy, strikingly, is liberated from the common real-world constraints of money, law, technology, Newtonian physics and fashion sense. Would a ten year old boy feel ridiculous dressed up like a bat? Not necessarily. The amusing paradox: would a ten year old boy, liberated, by the death of his parents, to dress like a bat (and otherwise do as he pleased) really dedicate his life to avenging the act that freed him?
For an “adult” take on the Dark Knight armature as you sketch it, consider Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with Randall McMurphy fulfilling the Joker role, and nurse Ratchet, obviously, as Batman (forgive all proper noun spelling errors, as it’s been years and I haven’t the time to fact check); maybe the Indian “Chief” is Alfred**.
What makes Cuckoo an *adult* meditation on Batmanly themes are the *limits* imposed: McMurphy’s triumphs are not of super strength but of wit and cussedness; the struggle between Batman/Ratchet and McMurphy/Joker doesn’t involve a Chinese Opera of thrillingly improbable mega-violence; the cinematic technology (lighting, camera angle, editing) is used to glamourize wit, the triumph of the imagination, the curative value of empathy… rather than sell us on a juvenile fantasy of Kevlar sixpacks, etc.
Further, Cuckoo presents the McMurphy/Joker as juvenile (McMurphy refers to himself as “fifteen going on thirty five) in a politically valid (then-au currant), anti-authoritarian way… without the bells- and-whistles (or tics-and-whistles) of madness-glamourizing lunacy.
To claim that the psychological (and acting craft) niceties that you cite in Dark Knight define, rather than enhance, the chief effects of the film, is to, again, flout the financial lore and thematic essence of the Hollywood blockbuster as a committee-controlled artifact to serve the needs of your own fandom.
Again: to claim that I need to see Dark Knight in order to categorize the genre it springs from is as disingenuous as claiming that the film invents its own genre. I’m not “concerned” with Dark Knight, per se: my comment is about how current masspop has seduced, coopted and infantilized an entire generation of intellectual fandom (as I see things).
When you write:
***One of them asks “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t have [my henchman] tear your head off,” to which the Joker replies, “How about a magic trick? I will make this pencil disappear.” The Joker makes the pencil disappear when the henchman moves towards him — the Joker slams the man’s head against a table, killing him instantly when the pencil slices through his head. In other words, the conversation about why the Joker shouldn’t be assaulted happens as the assault is actually being attempted and then foiled***
….it’s the hint of relish, or admiration, I perceive in your response that makes me think your sober powers of analysis are short-circuited by the fandom; the scene you cite is silly; a ten year old boy’s *power fantasy* that peaks the Cool-o-Meter. In real life, as we know, a couple of teenagers with kitchen knives could easily kill the Joker. Likewise, when you write:
***The Joker can’t kill Batman, because, he says, “you’re just too much fun.”***
Anyone really familiar with the conventions of the genre recognizes this quippy panache not as deep psychology but as an authorial trick: it’s used for explaining why one’s nemesis doesn’t merely sneak up on one with a handgun and put the tale to a simple conclusion about ten minutes into the book/film/cartoon. Even Bruce Lee used such crypto-exposition in Return of the Dragon (handguns, apparently, were banned from the island; therefore, 90 minutes of numchucks).
But this “debate” is pointless if I can’t get you to agree that the terms “juvenile” and “adult” are ever, in any sense, useful or capable of making real-world distinctions between products/behaviours/attitudes. Do you think these words are ultimately just *too* contingent to use in a rational argument?
And that was years before the Totalitarian Suzerainty of “the Marvel Universe”.
Things are so much worse now: when Marvel’s Black Panther film debuted, Black Intellectuals discussed the ins and outs of that silly action film as though they could somehow take nationalist “pride” in the film’s imaginary “Wakanda”. As though Malcolm X himself had written it.
In the beginning of this essay I defined “Adult” as “anyone over a certain age forced into daily negotiations with Sex and Work (and between Sex and Work as they interrelate), which are mysterious to children”. This is an intentionally broad definition to cover a broad range of variations among “Adults” (the adult word for adults as opposed to “Grownups,” the childish word for adults). To keep the cast of the net of the definition broad, I restrained the urge to include non-value-free (positive) concepts such as “wisdom” or “savvy” or “strength,” but since this essay is not merely a neutral rumination on Adulthood but the blatant advocacy of it, the answer to the question of what’s so good about Adulthood would necessarily include the virtues “wisdom,” “savvy,” and “strength”. Adding up to the psycho-social (political) version of the essential animal difference between Child and Adult: the Adult’s capability of Self-Determination. And now, as they say, we are getting to the Nitty Gritty.
Taking the notion of “Adulthood” as performed in The Beatles music of the very early 1960s and filtering out the grind of cog-in-the-machine working life and the macho code of contempt and abuse that kept Women “in line” for much of recorded (or reported) History, we can arrive at a kind of Ideal. Along the lines of which I would suggest:
The truly grownup Adult is not naive, unaware of Her/His genuine needs, easily bamboozled (armored as he/she is with Experience) nor easily seduced into acting against Her/His own best interests. Likewise is She, or He, not easily distracted by cultural trifles (eg shitty, time-consuming, award-winning TV series or idiotic toy fads such as “spinners,”). He/She would not idolize or worship concocted MediaLandia avatars nor ever put such avatars before Her/His own friends/ family/ acquaintances in every day’s Hierarchy of passions. A truly grownup Adult doesn’t cry when total strangers (say, Bowie) die relatively old and wealthy in bed. A truly grownup Adult is not excited about (nor “happy for” the participants in) a “Royal Wedding”; neither is She/He gulled into identifying with the irrelevant defeats or victories of the uniformed millionaires of MediaLandia’s Bread-and-Circuses Sports Teams. Adults don’t eat, drink, smoke, snort or inject like undisciplined fools nor act (speak, purchase, ejaculate) in absolute denial of the various Laws of Consequences. Adults don’t Hate, simply because they are told to, any more than they Love, or Believe, simply because they are told to. Adults are capable of understanding the need for, and the organizational methods of, Self Determination.
That last paragraph is very nearly a manifesto, isn’t it?
And, to a child, certainly: a baffling one.
*Lennon’s sneering Revolution (fast version) was so adultly world-weary in its outlook, yet balanced and insightful in its prescriptions, that it made The Beatles seem, temporarily, outmoded to the swept-up-in-the-Now kids of ’68. Lennon’s Revolution was a grownup turn-off, eclipsed by The Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man, which was childish not in a Carrollian way but in the manner of stones-throwing bad boys on the playground; just read through Lennon’s not-bad advice in the text of Revolution (in which he even went so far as to give counsel on the topic of the young revolutionary who hopes to get laid): that’s a grown man’s sincere attempt to teach.
**Tossing in the “maybe the Indian Chief is Alfred the Butler” riff was a joke, though an academic hopped on it with a snarl. But now I think that reading can be a fruitful one, in the media metaphysics of narrative comparisons. Whose side is Alfred, the most mature character in every panel, in Batman, really on? Batman’s or Reason itself? Like any good Parent, I might add…
-If you’re under 40 and aren’t a hi-fi fanatic you may not know that the image with which I illustrate this essay is a blown-up silhouette of a 45-rpm-record adapter, which was usually black, red or yellow plastic and fit in the hole (perhaps two and a half inches in diameter) in the center of the record. The adapter itself had a tiny hole in its center for threading the adapter/record configuration down the spindle of the record player and onto the turntable. Curiously (and perhaps it really was the optimum design to have curving, flexible arms with curved outer edges make up the circle for filling the hole in the 45-rpm-record) these adapters… as you can see… resembled rounded Swastikas. Which is nearly as suspect a symbol of the “youthquake” of the postWar ’60s as the Volkswagen.