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The Boston Phoenix Buzz Fill

John Seabrook dives into the new pop culture

By Jason Gay

MAY 1, 2000: 

Nobrow: The Culture Of Marketing, The Marketing Of Culture by John Seabrook. Alfred A. Knopf, 225 pages, $23.

Once upon a time, John Seabrook reminds us in Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture, there was order to cultural taste. You had highbrow taste, of course: great books, fine art, classical music, the opera, and so on. You had lowbrow taste: comic books, pulp novels, TV sit-coms, etc. There was something called middlebrow, too -- a commingling of highbrow's intellectual weight and lowbrow's guilty pleasures -- but by and large, taste had order, category, class.

Now, Seabrook posits, those definitions are pretty much out the window. The old hierarchy of taste no longer applies: with increasing fervor, the rich are listening to the same things as the poor, white kids are trying to imitate black kids, and the buying habits of urban youth are virtually indistinguishable from those of their rural counterparts. Elite cultural institutions chase hype with sexier exhibitions and productions, and once-highbrow arbiters of taste like the New Yorker have become relentless (and at times, craven) buzz seekers like the rest of us. Looking down one's nose at anyone is out.

What happened? Seabrook argues that the classic definitions of taste have collapsed under the weight of unprecedented advertising, marketing, demographic targeting, and the continuing rise of media partnerships -- "synergy," the ickiest word of the new economy -- that are eroding the traditional borders between art and commerce. These factors have supplanted the old developers of taste -- a person's upbringing, class, home town -- in creating a slicker, more universal, profit-driven cultural standard, or what Seabrook cleverly terms Nobrow.

Although Nobrow culture can be pleasingly populist and unsnobbish, Seabrook argues, it's also worrisome. After all, in the world of Nobrow, what matters is not cultural immortality (who cares about that anymore, really?) or even talent -- what matters is buzz. And though buzz may be commercially appetizing, it's also terribly fleeting. With buzz, what's happening now matters far less than what's happening next. Buzz culture can feel like an endless race to appoint the Next Big Thing, and despite numerous failed predictions (as a cautionary tale, Seabrook offers up the story of Ben Kweller, a 14-year-old rock prodigy who went from corporate-rock darling to the cutout bin in a matter of months), there are few signs that the tastemakers are tiring of the chase.

Worse, the buzz is near-impossible to avoid. Seabrook's book does a service to anyone who's felt overwhelmed by the cultural marketing machine -- if you wonder whether there isn't an international conspiracy to make you listen to Ricky Martin records, watch The Sopranos, and read People In-Style magazine, Nobrow makes it clear you're not alone. Seabrook also recognizes that Nobrow culture has its attractions. Sometimes, it's okay to let down your defenses and buy that pop CD, or a $200 T-shirt (as the author, after much hemming and hawing, finally does). In Nobrow, the guilty pleasure feels less guilty.

Seabrook's book is a pastiche of personal observations (many made during a trip to the center of the Nobrow media universe, Times Square) and excerpts from some of his previous work in the New Yorker, where he's a staff writer. There's a profile of David Geffen (who compliments Seabrook on his $200 T-shirt), plus musings from the buzz factories at MTV and George Lucas's Star Wars empire and some dishy behind-the-scenes dirt from Tina Brown's stay at the New Yorker. At times, the transitions between Seabrook's old work and his new observations feel a little wobbly, and the material seems a bit dated. (With so much of its attention devoted to the likes of Brown, Lucas, and the Notorious B.I.G., Nobrow feels trapped in 1998, which is hazardous for a book that's supposed to be ur-of-the-moment), but Seabrook's access to the buzz world's inner sancta makes up for the occasional lack of focus. I was worried that Nobrow might turn out to be some kind of arch intellectual treatise, but Seabrook's a talented writer, not to mention an unfailingly honest one (he does not attempt to disguise his own privileged upbringing, and that makes for some marvelous contrasts between his tastes and those of his father), and he realizes that even the cheesiest of pop culture can be fun. Yes, Nobrow can feel like an empty calorie experience, but sometimes the empty calories are the most enjoyable ones of all.


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