Up Your Culture
John Seabrook's furrowed Nobrow
by Robert Lloyd / L.A. Weekly, March 3, 2000

The first and perhaps most important thing that needs to be said of Nobrow, John Seabrook’s book about life in the spreading ozone of buzz and hype, is that it is well-written. To those of us who believe language is the cornerstone of subtle thought, and who reel in wonder at an age that can entertain impassively the concept of a “post-literate” world, this is no small thing. As a staff writer for The New Yorker (“the only job I had ever wanted”), a magazine that has traditionally made a fetish of unmodified clarity, Seabrook embraces the old house style — the illusion of stylelessness — and his best sentences have the solid functionality, clean lines and admirable proportions of a Shaker chair. It’s a smooth read.

The book is part memoir, part social analysis, and partly a strategy to repurpose — to use the voguish term for selling something twice — some old New Yorker assignments (MTV, George Lucas, David Geffen) by linking them to an exploration of what Seabrook calls Nobrow, the consumerist arena “in which culture and marketing converge.” His thesis (first published in the magazine last September) is that in a classless society such as ours, social distinction is defined by taste; but that we have reached a point where traditional categories of taste — the good old high-, low- and middlebrow — have collapsed, like time and space within a black hole, leaving no easily discernible referents and producing such mixed-message, line-blurring goods as the $200 designer T-shirt and factory-made “quality” furniture. The upshot of this moment is both a kind of cultural anxiety (at least among those who have some actual or emotional investment in the -brow system) and unprecedented freedom to choose, to mix the subcultural, the mainstream and the high-cultural in one’s shopping cart of self. (“In Nobrow,” the author aphorizes, “subculture is the new high culture, and high culture has become just another subculture.”) Seabrook himself, a crew-rowing preppy alumnus of Princeton and Oxford, augments his “predictable diet of respectable culture — interesting plays, the Rothko show, the opera and, sometimes, downtown happenings at the Kitchen or the Knitting Factory” with hip-hop CDs and Chemical Brothers concerts. While implicitly nostalgic for and protective of the values of what he calls “the old Town-House world of High-Low,” he’s nevertheless a dedicated shopper in “the new megastore of Nobrow.”

Seabrook frames the book around his experience at The New Yorker during the advent and reign of Tina Brown, a woman of fearsome trend-spotting, power-courting energy, whose editorial vision was greatly at odds with the “tasteful, discreet and quietly snobbish” ethos of the old magazine. Brown plunged The New Yorker straight into the heart of the Buzz, the entity against which it formerly set and defined itself: “the collective stream of consciousness, William James’s ‘buzzing confusion,’ objectified, a shapeless substance into which politics and gossip, art and pornography, virtue and money, the fame of heroes and the celebrity of murderers, all bleed.” When the new New Yorker, which had hitherto seemed less of a machine for selling ads than most magazines, began to compete for the cooperation of the usual big names in order to sell more ads and magazines, the ivory tower began, if not to crumble, then at least to sway mightily in the wind. There is a point at which journalist and publicist become indistinguishable, and the author’s struggle with the shifting nature of his work, and his questioning and coming to terms with his place in Nobrow, form the real heart of the book.

“Taste,” writes Seabrook,

is the act of making the thing part of your identity. Your judgment joins a pool of other judgments, a small relationship economy, one of millions that continually coalesce and dissolve and reform around culture products — movies, sneakers, jeans, pop songs. Your identity is your investment in these relationship economies.

But is it? Even as Seabrook’s book seems to say something true about the times — we’re in thrall to stuff, victims of an economy based on the creation of desire — it begs questions. We live in a world glutted with brands and billboards, for sure, but within all that noise we continue to lead lives not all that different from the humans that came before us; we may shop in Nobrow, but it’s not where we live.

As for constructing identities out of what we consume, most of us do that some of the time, and some of us do that much of the time — and this was no less true 50 years ago, when it was called “keeping up with the Joneses,” than it is today — but there’s more to taste than accessorizing. To what extent do we choose a product, anyway, and to what extent does it choose us? We respond to things because they make us feel, not just because they make us feel good about ourselves. Taste, both as regards the individual and the crowd, is complex and unpredictable. The current polls-for-everything systems that Nobrow describes may help better the odds for the marketer, but there are no sure things — Seabrook’s recounting of the quick rise and fall of the teen-grunge band Radish makes that clear enough — and the title “tastemaker” can only be applied retroactively, to those whose projects have happened to succeed. The one irrefutable statement about taste is that there’s no accounting for it. De gustibus non est disputandum, baby. Chacun a son gout.

Like most systems, from Newton’s to Marx’s to Einstein’s, Seabrook’s Nobrow and Town House/Megastore analogies are both useful (to describe certain transactions within the increasingly overlapped worlds of publishing, art and entertainment) and ultimately limited, diminished by what they can’t contain. Life is sloppy that way. The signal irony of Nobrow is, of course, that the concept itself (underlined by the book’s sexily symmetrical slogan of a subtitle, The Culture of Marketing — The Marketing of Culture) is a kind of marketing point, the hook, the buzzword that will hopefully make this volume stand out in a time of “too many artists, too many film festivals, too many books, too many new bands, too many ‘new voices’ and ‘stunning debuts.’” The second irony is that Seabrook is more interesting as a reporter and storyteller than as a social theorist, best when reflecting upon himself, his family — the chapter on his father’s closet and their sartorial relationship is one of the best — and the behavior of the people he meets in Buzzworld. He’s got something interesting to say about nearly everything upon which his attention falls, an eye for the telling detail, an ear for the revealing quote. Yet the (restrictive) logic of the marketable package dictates he tie everything back to his Big Idea, give names to behaviors, classify.

Ultimately, something about Nobrow struck me as strangely provincial, and I can only think that it’s because here in suburban, sandal-clad Southern California, a place that for years could not rustle up an opera or ballet company to save its life, Nobrow is old news — it’s the air we’ve breathed since the movies claimed the town about 80 years back. The film business, in which intellectuals and illiterates collaborate in works that can be high-, low- and middlebrow, serious and popular art all at once, annihilated the Eastern distinctions of class and culture and taste Seabrook grew up taking as given. (“The day you found yourself putting on black tie and going to enjoy the opening night of Aida as a subscriber to the Metropolitan Opera was the day you crossed an invisible threshold into adulthood.”) And it isn’t just the movies: The presence of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, George Barris and Angelyne has meant as much if not more to the community than that of Schoenberg, Brecht and Isherwood. The false front, the tinsel, the customized car, the inflated bosom — we are used here to things not being what they seem, and accustomed from an early age to take the artificial as something potentially better than real. Forget culture. I’m going to Disneyland.

© Robert Lloyd 2000 and 2011