The buzzword

Nobrow: the culture of marketing the marketing of culture

John Seabrook <em>Methuen, 213pp, £9.99<

By a curious coincidence, I happen to be writing this review in a borrowed office in the citadel of Nobrow. This is the new Conde Nast skyscraper in Times Square, New York, where all of the company's numerous magazines, from the New Yorker to Mademoiselle, have been brought together from around the city. "The architects have made it their design philosophy that all the editors and writers at every magazine will have exactly the same size cubicle or office," John Seabrook writes. "Any sort of culture peculiar to a particular magazine - such as the shabby gentility that had long been the New Yorker's style - is being purged and replaced with generic skyscraper-wide decor. In Nobrow, everything becomes the same in the end. The Buzz abhors distinction."

So what is Nobrow? It is Seabrook's word for a cultural system in which the old hierarchy of taste has disappeared. "For more than a century, the elite of the United States had distinguished themselves from consumers of commercial culture, or mass culture - that brainless swill put out to keep the lowest common denominator pleasantly sedated," he writes. "The words highbrow and lowbrow are American inventions, devised for a specifically American purpose: to render culture into class." Unlike, for example, Britain, where "a class-based social hierarchy existed before a cultural hierarchy evolved", the United States "needed highbrow-lowbrow distinctions to do the work that social hierarchy did in other countries".

But according to Seabrook, a New Yorker writer, these distinctions have vanished, all culture has become commercial and is now ruled by the Buzz, which plunders impartially both high and low to decide what will be "hot" - and therefore commercially successful - at any given time. Mozart is no better than The Sex Pistols. Quality is less important than "authenticity". Everything is equal grist to this commercial mill. And to illustrate the point, Seabrook fixes on the recent history of the New Yorker, the magazine that his wealthy, middle-class parents used to take as evidence of their cultural superiority.

The New Yorker's moral authority derived largely from its contempt for the Buzz. As recently as 1985, when the magazine was bought by S I Newhouse, the owner of Conde Nast, its old editorial philosophy was reaffirmed by William Shawn, its editor of more than 30 years. "We have never published anything in order to sell magazines," Shawn wrote, "to cause a sensation, to be controversial, to be popular or fashionable, to be 'successful'." But, soon afterwards, Shawn was fired and, after an interregnum of a few years, he was succeeded by the British editor Tina Brown, fresh from the Buzz-driven celebrity magazine, Vanity Fair.

Seabrook had worked for Brown at Vanity Fair, but had resigned to join the New Yorker in order to be "writing about things I cared about for an institution that respected quality, not shovelling crap as I was now". Then, to his astonishment, she followed him there. It was a turning point in his life. Until then - although he had rebelled against his parents' "quiet good taste" and his father's British sartorial elegance, and although he had acquired a passion for gansta rap music - he had clung on to his inherited cultural values. But, he writes, "Tina's arrival at the New Yorker was the end of my own personal hierarchy of high and low culture.

"The basic dualism I had lived by, even if my own work was almost never worthy of it - that this was entertainment and that was literature, and the point was to keep them separate - melted away." He finally found his place in the Buzz.

There was no choice. The cultural elitism that had enabled the New Yorker to scorn commercial success, while achieving it all the same, had ceased to impress advertisers. Brown's "essential task", Seabrook writes, "was to figure out how to get the Buzz into the magazine, without losing that too-cultured-to-care-about-the-Buzz attitude that was at the core of the magazine's status appeals". The virtue that Shawn had made of resisting the lowest forms of commercial culture was replaced by the virtue of making intelligent compromises with it - of figuring out how to do commercial subjects "in a New Yorker way". One of her answers was to get Seabrook to interview powerful entertainment moguls such as George Lucas and David Geffen. He draws heavily on these interviews in this book. Seabrook, who greatly admires Brown in his schizophrenic way, concludes that she failed in her task.

"The essential problem - which was how to create distinction within the distinctionless wastes of the Buzz, rather than basing distinction on resistance to the Buzz, as William Shawn had done - proved to be harder to solve than anyone had realised," he writes. But what made them ever think that it could be solved?

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - How we have lost the joy of sex