America today is a place where one can study porn at universities, and where we care as much about what Britney Spears is reading as what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is. In magazines, books, fashion, design and music, it is becoming difficult to distinguish between what used to be considered elite culture and mass culture. We are entering the age, New Yorker writer John Seabrook posits, of Nobrow (Knopf; 215 pages; $23).
Nobrow is that state where buzz is the most important index, where taste no longer has any real meaning and has been replaced by a "hierarchy of hotness." It's the place where the marketers have all the power.
Seabrook is in a unique position to plot the contours of the Nobrow landscape. He's the kind of guy, he lets us know while not really boasting, who can decant wine, went to Oxford, dresses in Helmut Lang and agnes b., and who uses the term "arbiters elegantiae" repeatedly, while calling his father's wardrobe a "hegemonic succubus." But he's also enamored of the oeuvre of the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. and wears Haitian T shirts. He's a citizen of Nobrow.
His thesis--and catchy name for it--is almost irresistible as a way of describing the effect marketing is having on culture. It would have made a great essay. As a book it includes a lot of interesting but extraneous material: the dance the interns do at MTV, for instance, or what Bill Clinton said to David Geffen. Seabrook has stitched together a bunch of his articles from the New Yorker to make this garment, and sometimes the seams show.
--By Belinda Luscombe