Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture
John Seabrook
Alfred A. Knopf, $23 (cloth)

"Nobrow" is John Seabrook’s word for the reigning taste of our commercialized culture, and Nobrow is an effort of sorts to make sense of it. Of sorts, because it would be a mistake to set Seabrook’s book alongside the innumerable works of commentary and complaint that have been written over the years about our culture and its innumerable crises. Seabrook hasn’t written a tract or an expose or a work of analysis, though sometimes he suggests that perhaps he should have done something like that. Instead he has produced a story about, an intimate look at, what it felt like being a producer and consumer of culture in America in the 1990s.

The book pulls together a variety of articles–about MTV, George Lucas, and David Geffen, among other subjects–that were originally published in the New Yorker, where Seabrook is on staff. The real focus, however, is on Seabrook himself, on the development of his sensibility and the course of his career. Thus we learn that he comes from a prosperous provincial family (his father is a businessman with a closet full of bespoke suits and a cellar of fine wines; his mother puts polished silver on the breakfast table, loves the symphony, and has a lifetime subscription to the New Yorker). We hear about his time at Princeton and his subsequent sojourn at Oxford, and, finally, about how he landed a job at–but we already know that.

Except that this story of smooth ascent and easy gratification turns out to be more complicated. Seabrook, without exactly feeling discontented with his life, has qualms. For example, much as he respects his parents’ achievements, judgment, and taste (the mingled essence of which, we are led to understand, was somehow distilled between the covers of William Shawn’s New Yorker), their world does not seem to be his. Take classical music: he never really cottoned to it. Or suits: he prefers t-shirts, with logos. And yet, Seabrook confesses, even as he asserts his own tastes and interests, he worries that his preferences, by contrast to those of his parents and Mr. Shawn, seem deficient in gravity, even irredeemably immature.

But why should he feel that way? What really sustained the old distinctions between good taste and bad, high culture and low? What sustains them now? They can be, and have been, criticized. Once, when Seabrook put in a good word for judgments of taste during an Oxford seminar, a fellow student lashed out, "How dare you talk about taste when there are people in the world who don’t have enough to eat!" A non sequitur, really, but not to the impressionable Seabrook, who is shaken: "Even fourteen years later the acid drip of accusation in his voice brought me up short as I walked around my parents’ dark, quietly gleaming house." Indeed, as Seabrook presents it, the passing years have found for that puritan an ally, of sorts, in Tina Brown, Seabrook’s boss for several years at the New Yorker. Brown believed the business of America is business and to think otherwise is foolish sentimentalism; what mattered to her in culture was determining what was "hot"–that is, what sells–at a given moment. Finally, Seabrook expresses the view that the cultural distinctions of yore were merely "an upstairs downstairs affair … arranged to protect the real artists from the ravages of the commercial market place." A racket, in short, and like any racket only as good as its enforcers. "When old distinctions get in the way of power," Seabrook muses, "they appear a lot less real."

In the real world, Seabrook tells us, taste has been replaced by "buzz." The new currency of cultural capital, in effect, is who and what gets talked about among those who, at any given moment, are busy talking up and trading in culture. Seabrook is excited. Profiling MTV, one of the places where buzz is minted, he discovers a brave new "creative" world, where everybody dreams of being an artist and even the elders who run the business have to keep their ears to the ground to hear the rumblings of what youth wants next. Indeed, Seabrook assures us, in the music one hears on MTV, all the significant contributions of modern art music–the exploitation of noise and dissonance, the investigation of non-Western musics and instruments–have not only been assimilated but improved on. People like it. And this is the foundation of a new common culture of coolness.

For Seabrook, this is the appealing side of Nobrow: its freedom from elitism, its inventiveness, its unabashed energy, and getting in to it (Seabrook becomes a rap fan, a club-goer) gets you out of feeling like Allan Bloom. But though Seabrook celebrates this "new more democratic but also commercial culture … a meritocracy of taste," he also becomes conscious of its limits. He tells the story of a none-too-bright fourteen-year-old set up for pop stardom, then abruptly dropped by his commercial sponsors, and finds himself noting "the exploitative relation between adults and children that seemed to characterize Nobrow as a whole." Most disillusioning of all is his visit to the Marin County ranch where George Lucas puts together his Star Wars pics. Star Wars might be described as the perfect Nobrow product, a technologically innovative, kid-targeted product that also entertains adults while gesturing at the wisdom of the ages, and Seabrook appreciates the movies’ flashiness. But he is deeply depressed by Lucas’s headquarters, where the solemn tones in which both the boss and the workers speak of their product make them seem either brainwashed or desperate or both. It’s one thing to make a hit out of a Flash Gordon pastiche, and quite another to let it take over your life.

Here Nobrow seems unevolved, obtuse, enslaving, and the question of value, which the cornucopia of current offerings in the new cultural marketplace had seemed to render irrelevant, reasserts itself. And so Seabrook arrives at what he calls the essential problem, the one that, in his view, was Tina Brown’s particular genius to recognize–how "to create distinctions within the distinctionless wastes of the Buzz, rather than basing distinction on resistance to the Buzz." (Note how here, where Seabrook is trying to sound most reflective, the language of the resume–"create distinctions"–intrudes itself.) And yet, he concludes sadly, this "proved harder to solve than anyone had realized." Seabrook is disappointed–in the end he just can’t find it in himself to get it up for the latest thing just because it is the latest thing–and alone, bereft of the authority and confidence he envies in his elders, and without the hunger and energy of youth.

Seabrook’s tale of innocence and experience moves along in smart fashion. Describing his various subjects, he displays the knack for observation that the old New Yorker pioneered, but he also has the new New Yorker’s gift for the sharp phrase: a great brand, he writes, "was something to be that was also something to buy." He has, finally, a special quality of his own: an eager, ingenuous, unassuming manner that invites criticism the better to insure a kind of comfortable complicity. Haven’t you felt like this too? Had these embarrassing doubts? Aren’t I owning up, without showing off, to our common anxieties? It is a very savvy mask of openness, a smoothly updated version of the New Yorker’s old editorial "we."

But when it comes to putting the story in perspective, Seabrook is a good deal less successful. He tries out ideas as one might try on clothes in a store. Sometimes he echoes the supply-side arguments of such cultural optimists as Tyler Cowen, author of The Triumph of Commercial Culture. Later he offers the Frankfurt-tinged pessimism of the Baffler. But in passing from one to the other, he shows an odd indifference: he hasn’t changed his mind, really, just his lines.

It’s as if no one were really there, and indeed in the book’s most striking section Seabrook confronts just such a vacancy. He describes a Saturday morning shopping excursion–in search of a good tomato–through Soho. He walks up Broadway, moving from the cheap T-shirt outlets around Canal to the sleek name-brand boutiques–also selling T-shirts–near Houston. He contemplates how, in an ironic reversal of past patterns of style dispersion, fashion now migrates from the lower classes to the upper classes. Then he considers the chains that have bought space in this once resolutely un-mass-market neighborhood during the 1990s–Banana Republic, Pottery Barn–and worries over their wares the way the fabled little old lady from Peoria might have over a drag queen. What are they? Good taste? They are, so far as he can see, something indistinguishable from it, for though they are mass-market products, they don’t announce their cheapness in the reliable way that such things–bought, for example, from K-Mart–used to do. Though nothing is wrong with any of this stuff–this Indonesian coffee table or that Bauhausy one–nothing seems quite right either. And as Seabrook contemplates the choice before him–and his inability to know how such a choice might be made–he is overwhelmed by a sense of vertigo. He feels erased–his class, education, profession, identity itself as expendable as this furniture that solicits his attention.

Seabrook does a nice job capturing the mirror-moment when the shopper catches his eye in the shop-window and realizes that it is he who is the passing illusion, when the consumer realizes that he is the one being consumed. He captures it all the better because he really doesn’t know what to make of it. For Seabrook does not see past the assumptions that have landed him in this spot. He takes from the advertisers the idea that culture is above all a zone of individual choice, an arena in which he is supposed to realize his individuality, which is why he is confounded when instead he finds it slipping away. But culture, in reality, has very little to do with individuality. Individual choices, individually considered, are no more interesting than our favorite colors, and to the extent that a culture defines itself as offering such choices it is sure to prove trivial. It will be manic and it will be depressing, since only the urgency of choosing will compensate for the indifference of the choices. But it will be forgettable, like last spring’s fashion or last fall’s political campaign.

By contrast, culture’s claim on our attention is instead a matter of collective, and in a fundamental sense unchosen, affinities and beliefs, those attachments we feel are undeniable, though not of course unrevisable (to that extent culture appears in its purest form when people say the same thing, as in churches and courts). Indonesian or Bauhaus have distinct formal properties–one handmade, the other machine-made, one ornamental, the other austere–and these may or may not appeal to one or another person. But these two looks acquire significance, in their own right and for the person drawn to them, not as options but as they appeal to a stance–moral, political, and aesthetic–toward a larger world. Culture is not a matter of the accomplishments you display but of the premises that allow you to accomplish anything at all. Thus it is always partial (and not, as Matthew Arnold, imagined, "the best"), and fallible–which is why we must go out of our way to defend it.

Nobrow is a real phenomenon, pervasive and pernicious, as Seabrook demonstrates all too well. But it would be wrong to mistake it for a juggernaut. As it happens, people in Nobrow do form real attachments to a whole range of cultural occasions and properties; these outlast the vagaries of buzz, or were never really part of it in the first place. Seabrook, though, appears strikingly free of any strong attachments of his own to any particular cultural products. He tells us he likes some rap, but he never tells us what he enjoys in it, or how he does, and one suspects that it will soon join the ghostly company of his previous fads (the Eagles, MTV, the New Yorker). American philistinism and know-nothingism, in commercial and uncommercial, low- and high-minded forms have been around for a very long time, and for all that extraordinary works have been accomplished and are still remembered. How? For better or for worse, culture survives not as a bland assurance of correctness, nor through the "created distinctions" of tastemakers, but always as a matter of concern and uncertainty, through anyone’s determination to resist the things he hates, and to care for those he loves.