So you made a commitment when you were young that you would never, ever, become the sort of adult who turned purple at the sight of Elvis's pelvis. Nor would you ever ask a Beatle, "What do you call that haircut?" You would stay cool. You would, at any cost, understand.
Up to now, all things considered, you've done pretty well. When your daughter bought the $30 ripped T-shirt, you didn't cut off her allowance. All you said was, "Do you think that's your best color?"
When your son came home with a pierced ear, you didn't go into your mother's fainting routine. You offered him rubbing alcohol and then stayed awake all night trying to remember which ear meant gay.
And when the 10th-grade English class you taught went punk, you didn't ban the Mohawks. You went ahead teaching "Romeo and Juliet" to the girl in the front row, just as if she didn't have pink hair and a safety pin in her left nostril.
Indeed, at no time did you ever utter a threatening or humiliating word to a skinhead, although you practiced your yoga breathing a good deal. You and your friends would tell each other that behind every mace bracelet on the street was a fragile adolescent ego searching for identity. The worst thing you ever did was utter the parenting mantra of the child psychologists: "I love you, but I don't love what you are doing."
So what did it get you? What was your reward for all this understanding? I'll tell you what it got you. Madonna.
Madonna of the belly button. Madonna of the "virgin" T-shirts. Madonna of the blonde hair and black roots. Madonna of the black lace bras under see-through shirts. Little Madonnas to the right of you and the left of you.
Now you ask me, where did you go wrong? Well, don't look for an answer in the stars. Look for it if you must, where I found it, in the movie "Desperately Seeking Susan." I promise you that this is not a demented teen film. It's a terrific farce about a bored housewife, Roberta, who fantasizes herself into the amoral, anarchistic, sleazy life of Susan. Susan -- if you live beyond the circulation of the planet Earth -- is played by Madonna, who is actually playing herself.
This movie is more than a vehicle for the rock star; it's a subtext for the whole Madonna phenomenon. The heroine, Roberta, feels about Susan the way a groupie feels about Madonna, which is the way a middle-class adolescent feels about the rebel. She is in awe. Are you beginning to get it?
Roberta, standing in for every good girl, is the delayed adolescent whose naughtiest act is finishing a birthday cake after her husband tells her not to. By contrast, SusanMadonna is pure ego, unencumbered by guilt, family, conscience and certainly unencumbered by class, middle or otherwise.
If you study this subtext, Madonna's black lace bra and white lace stockings become the 1985 female version of Brando's leather jacket and Ringo's bangs and Elvis's bumps. The middle-class life that's being mocked is updated (in this movie, boring adults star in their company's television ads and slip copies of "I'm Okay, You're Okay" onto the night table), but the theme is an adolescent classic: one generation rebelling against its elders.
This is where you find the truth about the plague of Wanna Be's, those Madonna groupies now playing to highly critical reviews in your neighborhood. The same old adolescent need to rebel has run up against an escalating adult wall of tolerance. The more accepting the adults, the more outrageous the young until you get the Wanna Be's. These are the freaks who evolve when you raise the freak-out threshold.
I mean, think about it. Think about how hard it is for kids to shock the sort of elders who once played in college productions of "Hair." Imagine rebelling against today's parents who accept rebellion as a normal stage of life. Try being outrageous in front of a teacher who refuses to notice that you have waxed your eyebrows off and are wearing black lipstick on the upper lip and white on the lower.
The results of all this are that you are left to grind your teeth and suppress your horror while the terminally tacky young talk like helium addicts and wear black lace training bras to the breakfast table. The one thing you misunderstand is how the young long to be misunderstood.
So, the next time you see a girl jiggling her belly button down the street, take my advice. Stand still, look her straight in the eye and scream. Go ahead, fake it if you have to. It's all for the sake of the children.
Copyright, 1985, The Boston Globe Newspaper Company