HOW COULD any middle-aged man of the slightest dignity, or even a self-respecting schoolboy, write the following lyric: "When you give me that pretty little pout/You turn me inside-out"? Let alone sing it before crowds. James Taylor, being but sweet and 30 when he wrote it, is a spring chicken compared to many of the cutesy pies fluttering and cooing across America. Probably a majority of them are over 40, and many of them even worse than Sweet Baby James (the title of one of Taylor's albums). They make millions, some of them. Their spiritual guidance is sought. One of them is president of the United States.

To go by "Jimmy" -- not James or Jim but Jimmy -- is perhaps the most cutesy act ever committed by a sitting president. Well, why not? What could be more in tune with the spirit of our age? For that spirit, unless my eyes and ears deceive me, is not primarily hedonism or narcissism, but cutesiness. The business of America may still be business, but the business of business has become cutesines, i.e., an amazingly prevalent form of adult childishness, not to be confused with sentimentality or affectation, though the similarities are obvious.

Cuteiness usually takes the form of an affected archness that in certain susceptible roles -- those assumed by Avon saleswomen and game-show hosts, for example -- can easily flare up into cutesy-wootsiness, or the advanced stage of cutesiness. The cutesy-wootsy are not merely inane; they are infuriating.

If they were condemned to death -- and at the least they should be taken off the streets -- they would walk to the gallows wearing a fixed smile and a Have A Nice Day button. They honk because they love Jesus, but I doubt that Jesus is amused. I dare say He's as revolted as any other genuine adult. So, despite more wars and rumors of war, expect no Second Coming until society deals with this criminally inane class.

My point is that, far from trying to rid our society of this strain, we are simpering toward making it the ideal. Why the hell does cutesiness sell? To be sure, some adults have always remained children intellectually and emotionally, as everyone knows, and some have simpered and postured for money and attention. But have so many ever simpered so much, or adopted postures that should revolt the instincts of even a politician and phychologically impossible to anyone else? Surely not. Even the enormous appeal of smut palls in comparison. The cutesy pies, far from feeling ridiculous by what they do, leap at every chance to blabber away on talk shows about how wonderful and neat they consider one of their latest pieces of wit.

Let us not pistol whip Poppin' Fresh, the Pillsbury doughboy -- he's genuinely cute. Let us not pie the face of Joe Namath on account of his panty hose ad, because Joe, compared to the true cutesy pies, is almost refreshing. And let us show restraint even in poking fun at the innocent doltishness of a born-again Sunday-school teacher.

For cutesiness is not quite any of those things. It is the articially soft voices of mellow-music deejays, it is touchy-feeling phychologists, the schoolboy naughtiness that tries to add spice to TV talk shows, john Denver, moviemakes trying to be morally instructive, movie critics who feel morally instructed, Playboy bunnies thinking somebody cares that there are really so many things they really want to do, Cosmopolitan articles telling women how they can really do a lot of things and still look yummy, presidents of student bodies, Suzanne Somers, banquet speakers who try to be funny, Paul Anka, grinning yaps on TV commercials who love to eat biscuits, hillbilly guitar players, the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, a commercial for U.S. Savings Bonds urging Americans to "invest in the United States -- for sugar and spice and everything nice" (because bonds can pay for your daughter's wedding).

If TV advertising isn't the worst offender it is certanly the most visible. The TV blasts seven hours a day in the average American home and is probably as responsible as anything for the impression, voiced so often by foreign visitors, that we're a nation of simpering mules, fat and happy perhaps, but unbelievably dumb. I cannmot believe that we're the dumbest people in the world, yet why else would some ad agency assume that a good number of us fret that mouthwash might be "too mediciney"? The assumption is doubtless correct: not for nothing are millions spent in market research both to discover and to stimulate such things. The assumption, indeed, seems to be that imbecility of the audience is illimitable. Consider the ad in which a bulwark of a Babbitt of a husband beams into the camera and purrs and coos, "My wife -- I think I'll keep her," as the oh-so-sweet sweetie purrs and coos her gratitude. Is that off the air? Then consider the heroic character who now grins and chirps, "Squeeze and go from flat to fluffy!" The idea behind these things is that Americans not only won't retch and rage at them but will actually be inspired by them to buy the products being pushed. As I say, consider it, and see if it doesn't confirm P. T. Barnum's observation on the birth rate.

We ignore what we consistently inhale, but all the same it transforms us, and to live in America today is to constantly inhale cutesiness. For too long I too tried to ignore it, until it dawned on me that unless I actively opposed it I could soon lose the capacity to distinguish cutesiness from genuine emotion, and could become cutesy myself. Something as superficially harmless as joining a poetry-reading circle could be the start of a subtle corruption of the soul and psyche that would end with me going on a game show to smirk about my sex life in the hope of winning a washing machine.

Laying it to greed merely begs the question of why cutesinesss is so lucrative. I suggest the prime wellspring of cutesiness is the desire for attention, almost regardless of what king of attention. A child will keep provoking his parents despite repeated punishment is the only attention he gets. The same motive, I fear, explains much of what Americans do as adults. The nature of most jobs makes it necessary for most of us to look for attention outside our jobs; the egalitarian orchestrators convince us that everyone, no matter how arrant a nitwit, is owed a share of the spotlight; finally, the worthies already in the spotlight prove to us that the more arrant one's nitwittery the larger one's share.

I don't presume to be able to trace all the cause-effect development of cutesiness. It's enough to warn that the thing is snowballing, that more and more of us are becoming either inane posturers or their devotees. Already we are a nation of people who don't have to be drunk to like "Little House on the Prairie."

The real peril is that emotion that is mature, honest and honorable will drown in the sugar. At the least, passion will yield to giggles, and one will always need the sneer or snicker, or perhaps an impersonation of Richard Nixon, to indicate that, after all, one is not so unwoldly as to be serious; at worst, nothing seriously describable as passion will even exist. Whose love letters, even now, would be worth reading? Certainly no cutesy pie's. Rod McKuens? Those of the PR wonder who thought up "Reach out, reach out and touch someone/Reach out, call up and just say 'Hi.'"? Is there a difference?

For the letters of the man who best represents our era, I'd choose, besides President Jimmy's, those of Alex Comfort, MB, PhD, editor of "The Joy of Sex"and "More Joy of Sex," for Alex's advice to lovers is oh so precious that I quote from it:

"So let him be a Roman or a dog or a woman or a gangster, and let her be a virgin, or a slave, or a Sultana, or Lolita, or someone you're trying to rape, or indeed anything which turns either of you on. You weren't self-conscious about this when you were 3 -- grow backward again in an adult context. The rules are only those of childplay -- it it gets nasty or spiteful or unhappy, stop the game: while it stays wild and exciting, it has a climax childrens' [sic] games lack; that is the privilege of adult play."

But beneath the sugar, concealed from Alex's glance, rage and rebellion are simmering and congealing into an army of rebel roughnecks who envision a climax rather different from Alex's. Some in this army want to attack the Pepsi Generation and Coke-Adds-Lifers right now, and maybe even hold the gee-whiz kids hostage and puncture their volleyballs right before their eyes. For it can hardly be disputed anymore that cutesiness causes crime, especially violent crime by the young. Of course it's not the chief cause, but there is no doubt that in violence, no less than in drugs, rock and sex, the young seek releases from the sickly sweet smiles that confront them at all turns. After constant exposure to all the gagging cutesiness of television, radio, movies, magazines and billboards, the young are soaked in the unctuous fuddy-duddyism of their parents and teachers. Uneable to run away from cutesiness, they are run amok by it. Properly channeled, their natural rebelliousness could begin to clear cutesiness off the scene. The torch is theirs.