By Christopher Noxon
New York Times News Service
It's fair to say that the singer-songwriter who calls herself Gwendolyn never thought her band, the Goodtime Gang, would appeal to anyone older than, say, 7. A typical performance includes covers of the preschool standards "Bingo" and "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" and original compositions that tackle topics such as human anatomy, the importance of sharing and bugs.
So it was with some surprise that Gwendolyn, who is 28 and performs in a Raggedy Ann dress, cartoonish pigtails and knee-high socks, found herself one recent evening in a packed Los Angeles nightclub performing for a crowd of fans whose idea of a stiff drink extends beyond undiluted o.j. Many in the audience sat cross-legged on the floor, cocktails perched on bobbing knees. Some sang along.
The performance was part of a bill that began with an elaborate puppet show and ended with an appearance by the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, a "conceptual art rock band" from New York, which includes a 9-year-old girl on drums. For Gwendolyn, who has no children of her own but who says her songs for children are inspired by "a 4-year-old kid inside me," performing children's music for an audience of grown-ups was more than just a hipster lark -- it was liberating.
"All the inner children of these adults are suddenly speaking up and saying, 'Hey wait -- what about us?'" she said. "'It's our turn to have some fun.'"
From childless fans of kiddie music to the grown-up readers of "Harry Potter," inner children are having fun all over. Whether they are buying cars marketed to consumers half their age, dressing in baby-doll fashions or bonding over games such as Twister and kickball, a new breed of quasi adult is co-opting the culture of children as never before. Most have busy lives with adult responsibilities, respectable jobs and children of their own. They are not stunted adolescents. They are something else: grown-ups who cultivate juvenile tastes in products and entertainment. Call them rejuveniles.
Evidence of their presence is widespread. According to Nielsen Media research, more adults 18 to 49 watch the Cartoon Network than watch CNN. More than 35 million people have caught up with long-lost school pals on the Web site Classmates.com. ("There's something about signing on to Classmates.com that makes you feel 16 again," the "60 Minutes II" correspondent Vicki Mabrey reported.) Fuzzy pajamas with attached feet come in adult sizes at Target, along with Scooby-Doo underpants. The average age of video game players is now 29, up from 18 in 1990, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Hello Kitty's cartoon face graces toasters. Sea Monkeys come in an executive set.
And a big hit on Broadway this summer is "Avenue Q," which stars googly-eyed puppets grappling with career disappointment, maxed credit cards and failed relationships. Part of the show's pleasure -- besides the puppet sex -- is the "rediscovery of the real attachments we had to creatures like this as children," said Jeff Whitty, the librettist. "It awakens the kid in us."
No single word has emerged to describe the phenomenon, but a few phrases in the marketing lexicon describe some of its aspects. The San Francisco advertising firm Odiorne Wilde Narraway &; Partners calls the resurgence of retro brands among 18- to 34-year-olds "Peterpandemonium." Toymakers now take aim at "kidults," defined by the Italian company Kidult Games as "adults who take care of their kid inside." Researchers at the MacArthur Foundation are studying "adultolescents," those 20- and 30-somethings who live at home and still depend on their parents for support.
Though some marketers court rejuveniles directly -- "Who knew you and your daughter would have the same best friend?" asked an advertisement for a revived line of Strawberry Shortcake dolls -- others speak to the rejuvenile soul by simply selling to kids. The Honda Element, the Tonkalike mini-truck introduced by the company as a "combination dorm room/base camp for active young buyers," has been marketed mostly at extreme sports and surfing events, said Andy Boyd, a spokesman for the American Honda Motor Co. But the average age of Element drivers, Boyd said, is 40.
"That's exactly what we anticipated," he said. "It's a new definition of the family buyer -- someone who doesn't want to give up their individual character even though they're getting older."
Although there is nothing new about adults reveling in kiddie culture -- Shirley Temple, Roald Dahl and Pee Wee Herman all had plenty of adult fans -- market researchers say an especially strong wave of childishness began about two years ago. Milk and cookies, macaroni and cheese and meatloaf began appearing on the menus of highchair-free restaurants. Puma, Converse and Keds sneakers leapt from the schoolyard set to the fashion-conscious crowd. And then there is Harry Potter, whose cross-generational popularity prompted the British publisher Bloomsbury to release an edition of the books with so-called grown-up covers.
"We're seeing this phenomenon worldwide," said Debra Joester, president of an independent licensing company that handles Care Bears, one of the lines of discontinued toys and merchandise recently reintroduced in part because of pent-up demand from grown-ups. (Other resurrected brands include He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, My Little Pony and Rainbow Brite.) A 2001 market research study by American Greetings, the creator of Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears, showed that "purchase interest" was identical among women who wanted to buy a doll for their child and those who simply wanted to rekindle a love affair of their own.
"This consumer wants Care Bears in their life," Joester said. "And not just to share with their children."
A type of therapy
In part, researchers say rejuveniles are simply seeking comfort in jittery times. Who better than a character like SpongeBob Squarepants to relieve free-floating anxiety? According to Nickelodeon, a full 26 percent of SpongeBob's regular audience is older than 18.
Some social scientists, however, see signs of a deeply troubling trend. That so many adults expend so much time and energy pursuing the thrills of youth just proves how significantly "adulthood has lost its appeal," said Frank Furendi, a professor of sociology at the University of Kent at Canterbury in England. "Adulthood has got nothing attractive about it anymore. That's actually quite sad."
Furendi began researching what he calls "the self-conscious cultivation of immaturity" after spotting college students watching "Teletubbies" in a university bar. The scene stuck in his mind, and he came to think of it as representative of a wave of infantilism sweeping Britain and beyond. What is happening, Furendi maintained, is a natural if extreme response to a media culture that equates being old with being square and being young with being relevant. "Today, the way you demonstrate your worth is the extent to which you still go to rock concerts, you're still groovy, you're still a player," he said.