A thumbnail history of the New Yorker under Tina Brown follows. Brown, who personifies Nobrow for Seabrook, dragged the magazine “out of its townhouse and into the yellow tornado light of fashion, money, power, sex and celebrity,” he writes, installing Roseanne as a guest editor, running stories on Heidi Fleiss and a Manhattan dominatrix alongside those on opera houses and museums.
Seabrook recounts how he found a place in Brown’s editorial system where serious reporting was invariably linked to corporate synergy and PR sizzle. And indeed, his investigations into Nobrow culture are sharpest in the chapters that began as New Yorker assignments.
He cruises the inner corridors of MTV and chronicles the courting of a teen pop sensation by 11 record labels. He charts the rise of market arbiters like David Geffen, whom Seabrook captures more adroitly in one chapter than Geffen biographer Tom King does in all of “The Operator” (Variety review, March 20-26). For Seabrook, Geffen is a tastemaker without taste, “bored, petulant, unburdened by history, and blessed with the plastic enthusiasms of a teenager.”
Seabrook’s study of George Lucas and the vast inner workings of LucasArts is even more scathing. Interviewed in the cathode glow of a blank TV screen in a bunker beneath the Skywalker Ranch, Lucas is portrayed as a prisoner of the empire he created, surrounded by an army of assistants slavishly building the “Star Wars” mythology bite by bite. “The temptation to stop being a filmmaker and become a kind of master toymaker instead,” Seabrook writes, “is fun until you wake up one day and realize you have become one of your own toys.”
Seabrook is a stylish writer who wears his erudition as lightly as the Sony diskman pulsing with the latest techno and gangsta rap that he wears as he cruises Time Square.
But his efforts to thread his cultural observations into an overarching theory of Nobrow quickly grow ponderous. Seabrook is a companionable Virgil through the buzz storm of contemporary life, but his gimlet observations aren’t weighty enoughto sustain a portentuous new cultural paradigm. Nobrow proves a remarkably uncatchy catchphrase, as unmemorable, in the end, as any teen pop sensation, MTV pundit or Star Wars Pepsi campaign.