"Nobrow" is John Seabrooks word for the reigning taste
of our commercialized culture, and Nobrowis an effort of sorts
to make sense of it. Of sorts, because it would be a mistake to set Seabrooks
book alongside the innumerable works of commentary and complaint that
have been written over the years about our culture and its innumerable
crises. Seabrook hasnt 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
Shawns 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
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 dont 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, Seabrooks boss for several years
at theNew 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
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
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 Warsepics. Star Warsmight 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 Lucass 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. Its 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 Browns 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 cant 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.
Seabrooks tale of innocence and experience moves along
in smart fashion. Describing his various subjects, he displays the knack
for observation that the old New Yorkerpioneered, but he also has
the new New Yorkers 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. Havent you felt like this too? Had these embarrassing
doubts? Arent 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 Yorkers 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
hasnt changed his mind, really, just his lines.
Its as if no one were really there, and indeed in
the books 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 dont 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
doesnt 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 springs fashion
or last falls political campaign.
By contrast, cultures 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 doform 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
anyones determination to resist the things he hates, and to care
for those he loves.
is an editor at New York Review Books.