'Nobrow' : A book and concept probe what's now about now

On Books

February 27, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

'Nobrow" is a new concept word, being touted as a major addition to the lexicon of popular culture: a tag for understanding a shift in values and tastes that are fundamental to everything from entertainment and fashion to choosing presidents and to core moral principles.

The term is an epitaph for those generations-old established pigeonholes: highbrow and lowbrow -- and, later, middlebrow. John Seabrook has written a book that argues that the distinctions that made those terms useful have disappeared from mainstream culture, in America and worldwide. It is "Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture" (Knopf, 227 pages, $23).

In a year or two, we'll know if Seabrook is on track. I have wandered, groping, in too many fad alleys to discount anything. But even though I found Seabrook's book deliciously provocative and substantial, I still have my doubts.

The book's core strength is as a roadmap to contemporary culture. On that basis, it is studious and eminently readable. That overview is nourished by sharply honed, bright reporting on American fads, fashions and fixations. It contains the best-reported material I have read about pop icons George Lucas, David Geffen and MTV.

Seabrook has proven his credentials with articles in the New Yorker, and his book "Deeper: My Two-Year Odyssey in Cyberspace." He has also written for Vanity Fair, the Nation and Harpers.

He makes his case with an intricate examination of data, myth and countermyth. He analyzes market research techniques. He plumbs critical conclusions. Perhaps most importantly, he acknowledges the inarguable impact on popular culture of everything Andy Warhol (rising from the influence of Marcel Duchamp) wrought or was taken to stand for: Essentially, that everything is is art and everybody makes the stuff -- that a soup can has the same aesthetic standing as the Mona Lisa.

"Nobrow," he writes early in the book, "is not culture without hierarchy, of course, but in Nobrow, commercial culture is a source of status, rather than the thing the elite define themselves against."

Later, clarifying the definition, he writes: "With the end of the distinction between elite culture and commercial culture, concepts like 'going commercial' and 'selling out' became empty phrases. ... Selecting 'the best that is known and thought in the world,' in Matthew Arnold's phrase ... became instead an immoral enterprise: an elitist attempt to ramrod a narrow set of interests onto the masses."

Now if this smacks to you of arrogance, you have been paying attention. The most important teller of culture values for Seabrook's thesis are music -- almost all rock, and heavily rap, with top emphasis on "gangsta rap."

This is the hardest, cruelest, most intentionally abrasive form coming from young, alienated urban America -- also vastly popular with middle-class American youth. It shares a great deal of motivation with throwing cereal bowls at Mom from the safety of a high chair.

Seabrook's quest, then, centers on the emergence of the influence of youth. Such techtonic cultural change has long interested him, particularly at the New Yorker, which he joined soon after Robert Gottlieb succeeded William Shawn in 1987. His conclusion that it was the last great middlebrow magazine is sound. That slide from grace began under Gottlieb, but came to full flower after in 1992, with the appointment of Tina Brown as editor.

Brown set Seabrook to work looking deeply into MTV, the immensely successful, kids-targeted music television enterprise. The broadest thing he discovered was that marketing to that audience -- intense focus on brand-conscious 8- to 12-year-olds -- had made major market commodities out of things that never were before.

So, the National Football League hired MTV's marketing chief, Sara Levinson, who knew nothing about sports, to get American kids interested in football; Seabrook reports that as young fans declined in number, the newer team owners began calling football games "the product."

In the Nobrow culture, "cool" is the almost liturgical term for excellence. "Identity" is class status. "Fanship" has taken the place of what used to be called civilized. And "brand" means tribe or cult.

But to my mind, these concepts are not new -- they are simply anointed with new terminology. I ended up feeling that what Seabrook finds to be a radical revolution in "culture" is simply a shift to another hierarchy, as rigid as the 18th and 19th and the early half of the 20th century -- which he dismisses as the detritus of history.

Seabrook is addressing the entire society, not just consumerism. He builds a case that the very value of values has been subsumed.

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