John Seabrook, The New Yorker
's "Buzz Studies" writer, deftly conveys the hubbub of modern pop culture, the blending of highbrow and lowbrow tastes, into a new sensibility he dubs "Nobrow." In Nobrowland, nobody can sell out, because art and commerce have fused like colliding electrons. America used to be split between "stark intellectuality and the plane of stark business," but now, as Puff Daddy observes, "It's all about the Benjamins [$100 bills]." It's not just that an Oxford-bred guy like Seabrook is a connoisseur of Biggie Smalls, it's that everyone, high and low, wants to feel part of the Buzz, to soak up the power of celebrity success. Puffy's rap hit constitutes "merchandising, advertising, salary-boasting, and art all at once," says Seabrook. Nowadays, "commercial culture has to do the work that both high and folk culture used to do--not only enlighten and teach but bond families and communities."
Nobrow is itself a work of Nobrow art, shape-shifting like a Beck tune: it's art appreciation, memoir, social history, high-altitude academic theory, and shoe-leather reporting all at once. Seabrook captures world-historical figures in action: George Lucas, MTV's Judy McGrath, music exec Danny "Nirvana" Goldberg, and kabillionaire David Geffen, who helped bring you Tom Cruise and DreamWorks. The big book on Geffen may be The Operator, but Seabrook can nail him in a phrase: "The boredom in his eyes, which seemed on the verge of spilling over into other parts of his face, was held in check by his lively eyebrows." And no one has outdone Seabrook's jaunty account of his elite magazine's Nobrowification by Tina Brown, who established "a hierarchy of hotness."
Seabrook doesn't score on every shot, but it's fun to watch him play. He's like a kid brother to his cult idol, George W.S. Trow, author of the prescient 1978 classic Within the Context of No Context. If Eustace Tilley, The New Yorker's famous monocled snob icon, got zonked on "chronic bubonic" pot and gangsta rap, he might have written this dizzy yet erudite book. Indeed, one might not be altogether amiss in calling it "da bomb." --Tim Appelo
From Publishers Weekly
Culture in America is a lot more complicated than it used to be. Aimed at reinforcing class distinctions, the terms "highbrow" (signifying traditionally elite European culture) and "lowbrow" (meaning commercial culture aimed at the masses) were popularized by H.L. Mencken and Van Wyck Brooks in the century's first decade. In this breezy cultural analysis and memoir, Seabrook (Deeper: My Two-Year Odyssey in Cyberspace) delineates the subsequent blurring of the genres in U.S. culture. Drawing upon his experiences of writing for Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, Seabrook traces how "nobrow"--in which "commercial culture is a source of status, rather then the thing the elite defines itself against"--has radically changed how we view both high and low art. Setting his arguments against a tableau of rich and famous buzz-brokers--Talk magazine editor Tina Brown, studio head David Geffen, producer George Lucas--Seabrook manages to be simultaneously gossipy and insightful. Along the way he makes smart points about the role that social privilege plays in establishing taste, how advertising functions by validating social identity and how cultural hierarchies hinge more on power than on taste. Seabrook's mixture of the personal and the analytical is always animated and intriguing, but his analysis is so strong that, by the end, readers may wish for more meat and less memoir. Agent, Joy Harris. (Feb.)
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