Slumming with Rappers at the Roxy

Hal Foster

  • Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture by John Seabrook
    Methuen, 215 pp, £9.99, March 2000, ISBN 0 413 74470 1

What does a Princeton graduate whose old dream it was to write for the New Yorker do when that dream comes true, only to discover that his cherished magazine is no longer the middlebrow arbiter of high culture of his imagining, but just another media outlet frantic for its market share of mass culture? On one level Nobrow is the story of this rude awakening, the Bildungsroman of a smart ex-preppie caught between the old ‘Townhouse’ of good taste, as vetted by the New Yorker of lore, and the new ‘Megastore’ where culture and marketing are one, as exemplified by the Star Wars industry. Born to the old world (‘taste was my cultural capital, boiled down to a syrup’), John Seabrook, a critic at large for the New Yorker, wanders in the new, but this desert of ‘Nobrow’ – where the old ‘brow’ distinctions no longer seem to apply – is not so arid to him. In fact he drinks more deeply at the oases of Nobrow culture (a Chemical Brothers concert, for example, which he experiences as ‘an intense moment of ecstatic communion with youth’) than he does in the gardens of highbrow culture – ‘interesting plays, the Rothko show, the opera and, sometimes, downtown happenings’.

On another level Nobrow is an insider account of the New Yorker as it struggles to find ‘a place in the Buzz’ after decades in which its status was secured by its very indifference to such things. According to Seabrook, this search became a matter of life and death for the magazine when its old formula of financial success – the middlebrow mediation of high culture and shunning of low culture – which attracted ambitious readers and advertisers in droves began to fail by the middle Reagan years: that is, at a time when corporate merging and culture marketing expanded exponentially. This search was also important for Seabrook personally: he, too, had to find ‘a place in the Buzz’ – not only as another citizen-consumer in the Megastore who ‘samples’ his signs of identity from its offerings, but as a young journalist-critic who needs to report on it.

In 1985 Si Newhouse, the mogul of the Condé Nast media empire (Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair), purchased the New Yorker from its founding family – to scatter some of its aura on his other publications, or so it was thought. Newhouse (a perfect Dickensian name for his role in this story) pledged to change nothing, but in 1987 fired its longtime editor, the mystically remembered ‘Mr Shawn’. This shocked more people than it should have, for the magazine had a problem: it didn’t make money. In fact by 1987 it was running at a loss of $12 million a year – a high price-tag for respectability, even for a mega-rich guy. Newhouse wanted both respectability and profitability, and turned to Robert Gottlieb, editor-in-chief at Knopf (US publisher of Nobrow, for those keeping score), as the man to make this cocktail swirl. In a retrospect that is easy but exact, Seabrook sees Gottlieb as a transitional figure with a compromise strategy – to use camp, ‘a way of being hierarchically non-hierarchical’, to reconcile ‘highbrow connoisseurship’ and ‘lowbrow pursuits’ (Hollywood divas, Miami Beach), respectability and profitability. But the compromise didn’t work well or for long – respectability went down, profitability did not go up – and Gottlieb was axed in 1992, at which time Newhouse moved Tina Brown over from the editorship of Vanity Fair. Immediately she embraced the mass culture that Shawn had shunned and Gottlieb had parried. (Seabrook tells a signal story of this role reversal. Steven Spielberg comes to visit and asks to see the library. ‘The library!’ exclaimed Tina. ‘Wonderful! … Where’s the library?’) At the end of 1997 Brown was replaced by David Remnick, who as an editor is less Buzz-happy than Brown, but as a writer ranges, browlessly, from Kremlin politics to Muhammad Ali. Meanwhile Seabrook lived to tell the tale, though half his chapters are revamped articles written for Brown, whom he regards with an unsettled mix of awe, affection and derision.

According to Seabrook, the old New Yorker was ‘almost perfectly in sync’ with a social system in which the commercial advance of one generation was sublimated into the cultural advance of the next. Of course this advance had to be certified by signs of taste and shows of ‘distaste for the cheap amusements and common spectacles that make up the mass culture’. The magic of the magazine was that it appealed to a good portion of the very masses who were disdained. The New Yorker also had the ace of Manhattan. Like Saks Fifth Avenue or Brooks Brothers, it parlayed a regional cachet into a national reputation for quality, which translated into a national market: to keep above the sea of the middle class, ‘you’ had to shop at Saks or Brooks and had to stay up with cultural affairs through the New Yorker. This bit of distinction was the commodity on sale, and it sold well to affluent suburbanites from Syracuse to Seattle whose coffee-tables the magazine adorned.

But then came the merging and the marketing, the financing and the franchising. Suddenly there was a Saks or a Brooks in your hometown, too, and you no longer had to go to Manhattan, physically or vicariously via the New Yorker, to appear metropolitan; you could get it at the mall – and then at the website. (Seabrook tells a few funny-pathetic stories about this: in one scene his dapper dad tears up Ralph Lauren Polo ads, enraged at the mass-marketing of his style; in another, young Seabrook is miffed when the Lauren ad people pass him up for a shoot of preppie Princeton oarsmen even though he is the real thing.) Like Saks or Brooks, the New Yorker was forced to find its niche in the Megastore. Once indifferent to the Buzz, the magazine had become irrelevant to it, and so irrelevant tout court. It no longer worked, culturally or financially, to be either snooty or campy about lowbrow culture; at the same time its mediation of highbrow culture no longer counted for much either. ‘The New Yorker was one of the last of the great middlebrow magazines, but the middle had vanished in the Buzz, and with it had gone whatever status being in the middle would get you.’

But who really cares about the New Yorker? It condescended and/or pandered to so many for so long that even its old suburbanite subscribers must have begrudged it deep down, and those New Yorkers who know it love to hate it outright – for the arrogation of its New York as the New York, among other crimes: who are those people in the cartoons anyway? The interest of Nobrow lies not in its gossipy account of a gossipy magazine, but in the pop ethnography developed by Seabrook out of his encounters with several ‘arbiters of culture in Nobrow’. Since this culture is entertainment, these arbiters are mostly creative heads of music and movie businesses. And so we eavesdrop on Judy McGrath, president of MTV, as she attempts, across divides of race, gender and class, to connect with gangsta rappers like Snoop Doggy Dogg, with the knowledge that his hiphop is what keeps the Buzz in her business. We watch as Danny Goldberg, head of Mercury Records, tests the vibe on a 14-year-old kid from Dallas, touted as the next Kurt Cobain (his group Radish does not pan out, and Hanson takes up the teen-rock slot). We spy on George Lucas at his 3000-acre Skywalker Ranch in northern California as ‘the great artist of Nobrow’, too busy for filmmaking, oversees the retailing of his Star Wars brand. (This chapter begins: ‘I go to the supermarket to buy milk, and I see Star Wars has taken over aisle 5, the dairy section.’) And we listen to the musings of David Geffen, the music and movie mogul that Seabrook locates at the summit of ‘High Nobrow’: ‘He had a mind so fine that no idea of hierarchy could penetrate it.’ Again, the interest of the book is in these field reports, but it also lies in Seabrook’s self-analysis, as he graphs this ‘tectonic shift’ in culture on the fly.

What are the bearings that Seabrook takes? Even though he is a self-declared ‘hegemonoculous’ (a wonderful-horrible appellation meant as a homage to a traumatic seminar with Raymond Williams at Oxford in the early 1980s), he knows that the old map of oppositions – high and low culture, Modernist and mass art, uptown and downtown – no longer corresponds to the world. So he makes a chart of his own, and devises a lexicon to go along with it: ‘Nobrow’ (where ‘commercial culture is a source of status’, not of disdain); ‘the Buzz’ (‘a shapeless substance into which politics and gossip, art and pornography, virtue and money, the fame of heroes and the celebrity of murderers, all bleed’); ‘Townhouse’ and ‘Megastore’ (‘in the Townhouse there was content and advertising; in the Megastore there was both at once’); ‘Small-Grid’ and ‘Big-Grid’ (‘the America of you and me’ and ‘the America of 200 million’; ‘what lies between is a void’). In the end, as Seabrook sees it, the law of Nobrow is simple: the Arnoldian criterion of ‘the best that is known and thought’ is long gone, and what rules is the Buzz principle of whatever is hot. No more ‘is it good?’ or even ‘is it original?’, only ‘does it work in the demo?’ – ‘demo’ as in ‘demographics’, not to be confused with ‘democracy’, much less ‘demonstration’. Incidentally, for Seabrook Clinton is ‘the perfect steward’ of this ‘numbers and spin construct’ of ‘polls, focus groups and other forms of market research’ – he was, after all, the first President to appear on MTV – though George W. could make Slick Willy look positively unkempt.

Not surprisingly, Seabrook’s findings boil down to hypotheses about identity and class. ‘Once quality is deposed’, he argues, identity is ‘the only shared standard of judgment’. For Seabrook this identity must be ‘authentic’ (somehow authenticity survives as a value), and it can only be made so through a personal sampling of pop goods at the Megastore: ‘without pop culture to build your identity around, what have you got?’ For an old guard of American highbrows like Dwight Macdonald and Clement Greenberg, this statement would be grotesque: mass culture is the realm of the inauthentic, and there is no more to be said. For Seabrook (and here he has learned from cultural studies since Williams), it is not absurd at all – in large part because he views pop culture not as mass culture but ‘as folk culture: our culture’. Yet this semi-paradoxical turn of phrase doesn’t solve a basic problem: given his account of the Megastore, is the ‘sampling’ of an identity à la hiphop any different from the ‘branding’ of an identity à la George Lucas? British cultural studies gave us the notions of ‘resistance through rituals’ and ‘subversive subcultures’; American cultural studies has given us the Post-Modern subject that is ‘performative’ in its construction. But with the near-instantaneous time to market from margin to Megastore (or from Small to Big Grid), how much resistance or subversion can subcultures offer today? And is the Post-Modern subject so different from the consumerist subject, that ‘perfect hybrid of culture and marketing’, as Seabrook calls it, ‘something to be that was also something to buy’? This approach represents one of several recoupings of critical positions in Nobrow: call it the revenge of the hegemonoculous on the identity-line in cultural studies.

His next finding (which is also his next recouping) concerns class. ‘No one wants to talk about social class – it’s in poor taste, even among the rich – so people use cultural distinctions instead.’ Fine, if we grant Seabrook the typical New Yorker conflation of his social world with the Universe. But then his class nostalgia becomes unabashed: ‘As long as this system of distinctions existed, it permitted considerable equality among the classes.’ This kind of remark is common in a country where class is mystified, but Seabrook also senses that the Brit Tina Brown knows better. He paraphrases her to the effect that the hierarchy of taste was nothing but a hierarchy of power ‘that used taste to cloak its real agenda’. He seems to take her point, yet when he argues that the old cultural distinctions have disappeared, he offers a further cloak to the hierarchy of power. That is, he implies that class divisions have disappeared along with cultural distinctions: ‘we’ are all in the Megastore, only sometimes in different aisles, with different samples in our identity-kits. This is a second revenge on the sort of cultural studies which argues that culture and economics have merged: it turns this argument, perversely, into another thesis about the end of class. This thesis follows on the Neo-Conservative claim about the end of history, and Seabrook’s hegemonoculous sometimes sounds like a Neo-Con.

There is a rival account of the thesis that is thoroughly Neo-Con. Written by David Brooks, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and blurbed by the usual suspects from Tom Wolfe to Christopher Buckley, it is entitled Bobos in Paradise – Bobos for ‘bourgeois bohemians’.[*] Its argument, which confuses cappuccino with bohemia and a pension-plan invested in money-markets with a political sell-out, is as follows:

Marx told us that classes inevitably conflict, but sometimes they just blur. The values of the bourgeois mainstream culture and the values of the 1960s counterculture have merged. That culture war has ended, at least within the educated class. In its place that class has created a third culture, which is a reconciliation between the previous two. The educated élites didn’t set out to create this reconciliation. It is the product of millions of individual efforts to have things both ways. But it is now the dominant tone of our age. In the resolution between the culture and the counterculture, it is impossible to tell who co-opted whom, because in reality the bohemians and the bourgeois co-opted each other. They emerge from this process as bourgeois bohemians, or Bobos.

You get the drift. The question is: do these Bobos really rule, what do they rule, and is it paradise? If the Republican Convention is any indication, there are more Bozos than Bobos out there, and most of them own guns. No doubt there are also some combinations, whom we might call, in honour of the old Nixon buddy, ‘Bebe Rebozos’.

The fantasy that class division no longer exists may be the ultimate commodity on sale at the Megastore, and it is often served up as a contemporary revision of the foundational myth of the United States – that no such division existed in the first place. There are other magical resolutions on offer in Nobrow as well. Seabrook understands the fantasy of racial unity on sale (at one point he writes that ‘gangsta had become merely a more real blues for jaded palates like mine that required fresh fixes of social reality in pop form’). But he is not always so clear. In a chapter devoted to a visit home to his family farm in southern New Jersey, he takes on his father in a match of clothes: his Chemical Brothers T-shirt emblazoned with ‘DANACHT’ (hiphip for ‘the new shit’) v. paternal suits tailored in Savile Row. ‘My father used his clothes to pass along culture to me. I, in turn, used clothes to resist his efforts.’ This sounds like a fight, but Seabrook avoids it through generational cross-dressing: he dons one of the suits for dinner on the last night, to the mutual delight of parents and son. It seems that Oedipal tensions can also be eased, culturally, with the right clothes, the right style. But Seabrook misses his own point here: these tensions are eased only because he appeases his father, upholds his class style and slips into his elegant suit.

There is much to contest in Nobrow, and much to concede as well. First, the conceding. One recouping here – call it the revenge on Post-Modernism – seems to me to be very close to home. There have been many attempts, under the flag of Post-Modernism, to open art up to more practitioners and different audiences. But in the end, Seabrook asks, what was accomplished – the democratisation of art or its annexation by Nobrow? ‘Because more people could make art, more did. The market became flooded with art … The real and important artists had to compete for attention with every kid with a guitar and an interesting haircut.’ One can dispute this account, but it has a grain of truth: ‘artist’ has become too elastic a category and ‘art’ too much a term of default, as Seabrook captures in his remark (not intended to be as snide as it sounds) that ‘virtually everyone under 25 I met at MTV was an artist of one kind or another.’

As for the contesting, there is, first, the issue of class slipperiness, of slumming with rappers at the Roxy one night, and decanting fine wine with dad the next. Seabrook is hardly alone here, of course, and social ambiguity has been displayed by dandyish critics from Baudelaire through to Benjamin and on down. At times this ambiguity translates into an ambivalence that leads Seabrook to insights about both worlds (rap and dad), but it is also about having it both ways (a Chemical Brothers T-shirt under the Savile Row suit). Moreover, this pragmatic ambivalence often shades into a cynical reason that Megastore marketers and Nobrow executives know how to play far better than Seabrook, or any of the rest of us.

Second, Seabrook is ‘almost perfectly in sync’ with the Buzz in a way that is not so complimentary. In this age of dot.capitalism if you can’t make a brandname or a buzzword stick you don’t exist for long (this is the contemporary version of the Warholian 15 minutes). And in this business of ‘branding’, the culture of marketing is not so dissimilar from critiques of marketing, as Seabrook implies when he (hopefully? mockingly?) uses the trademark sign for ‘Nobrow’, as if the term might have commercial legs to match ‘preppie’, ‘yuppie’ etc. In this regard, too, he sometimes misses the moral of his own Buzz studies – that you can feed on the Buzz, but it feeds on you too, and the Buzz is never satisfied. If Fashion is sometimes called Mr Death, the Buzz is Megadeath. Maybe that is part of its frisson – a deadly thrill that Seabrook occasionally confuses with ‘ecstatic communion with youth’.

Third, how new is all of this? Is there really a ‘tectonic shift’ in the relation between culture and marketing, or is the Megastore just another version of ‘the culture industry’ outlined by Adorno and Horkheimer more than fifty years ago? One could identify three phases of this industry in the 20th century: the first in the 1920s as radio spread, sound was connected to film and mechanical reproduction became pervasive (Debord identified this as the formation of ‘spectacle’); the second in the postwar perfection of a consumer capitalism (with its image world luridly exposed by Warhol); and the third, perhaps, in the digital revolution and dot.capitalism of today. Yet, like many of us in this time of disciplinary retooling and ideological retraining, Seabrook may mistake signs for wonders, a new phase for a tectonic shift.

Finally, is Nobrow culture as total as he makes it out to be? In a bravura chapter, Seabrook takes us on a tour of downtown stores (where he finds very similar T-shirts at vastly different prices), but even SoHo on Sunday is not as homogeneous as he suggests, and the city is not so bereft of dérives even today. The old Townhouse of culture may have folded into the new Megastore of marketing, but different communities have also constructed different combinations of these two structures, with different specifications and varying degrees of success. The upside is diversity, however manufactured such difference often is; the downside is that these communities often remain micro, with cultural structures that cannot always withstand the mass-political and mega-commercial hurricanes that sweep over them. Strange though it may sound coming from an academic, Seabrook needs to get around more; his fieldwork doesn’t take him far enough from home. For all his ironic insights about his profiled subjects, they define the view too narrowly, and he tends to confuse the Megastore with the world – a high-corporate perspective indeed. Yes, there are now ten million households with $100,000-plus incomes in the US alone, but half of the people on this planet have never used a telephone.

[*] Simon and Schuster, 284 pp., $25, 9 May, 0 6848 5377 9.