In Praise of Bad Taste

Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer by Rax King. New York: Vintage. 208 pages. $16.

The cover of Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer

IN 1990, WHILE COLLECTING PERSONAL PHOTOGRAPHS for their Ohio River Portrait Project, archivists at the Kentucky Historical Society came upon an amusing, near-century-old snapshot commemorating something called the “Tacky Party” of Ballard County. Seven turn-of-the-century young adults pose for a group portrait, looking as genteel and deadpan as a team at the beginning of a Family Feud episode. They first appear to be wearing the usual sorts of garments we might picture when we think of the early 1900s: hats piled high with ornamental flowers and ribbons; billowing, floor-length dresses with lacy, chin-skimming necklines. But upon closer inspection, the modern eye finds something to be ever so slightly off. The fabric’s patterns seem a tad too bold and the accessories a little superfluous; the hats droop under excessive ephemera. There is, too, a vague glint in the subjects’ eyes, at once defiant and bemused, just daring the stodgy viewer to take issue with what they’re wearing.

“It appears that many attics were raided to provide costumes for this wonderful party,” the KHS website notes. “To the young girls in this photo, they considered the clothing of the 19th century to be ‘tacky’ and worthy of a party in their honor.” And so with a little context, the punch line of a hundred-year-old joke snaps into focus: we are looking at a memento from the early twentieth century’s rough equivalent of an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party.

If a “Tacky Party” seems novel for the early 1900s, know that by then some variation of “tacky” had already been in the lexicon for decades. Back in the early nineteenth century, “tackey” or “tackie” meant “a scrubby, neglected horse.” Then, like plenty of other crude and borderline unprintable slurs with their origins in the animal kingdom, calling someone “tacky” quickly became yet another trusty way to insult a fellow human being. Ben Zimmer, the language columnist at the Wall Street Journal, has noted that in the mid nineteenth century, “tacky” was considered—like “hillbilly” or “cracker”—to be “a self-deprecating label for poor white Southerners,” a way of calling someone cheap, tawdry, and constitutionally resembling an underfed barnyard animal.

Rooted as it is in Southern regional slang, it makes sense that the insouciant youths of Ballard County, Kentucky, would be the ideal hosts of an early-twentieth-century tacky party: it was a way to simultaneously honor and mock their upbringing, their elders, and the mores of the specific time and place in which they’d come of age. I see in their eyes a proud flicker nearly identical to the one I sport in a picture of me at a 2016 Bruce Springsteen concert, to which I had worn my most treasured purchase from the Jersey Shore boardwalk: a shirt imprinted with the jagged-kidney shape of my much-maligned home state alongside the blared caption “YOU MAY CALL IT DIRTY, BUT I CALL IT HOME.”

Tackiness, it would seem, has always been in the eye of the beholder—a disapproving audience, real or imagined, clicking their proverbial tongues. They usually judge from the other side of some perceived divide, whether cultural, socioeconomic, or generational. “I always thought of tacky as my mother’s word,” Rax King writes at the beginning of her spirited new essay collection Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer (Vintage, $16). She can still describe with stinging clarity the first time her mother flung the insult at her: she was eight years old, dressed in a puff-painted and bedazzled T-shirt she’d made with a friend so that they’d have something to wear when performing a song-and-dance routine at the elementary school talent show. (The song? An unnamed jig by the ’90s Irish girl group B*Witched, naturally.) “It occurred to me that being tacky was, in some sense, the opposite of being right,” King writes, reconsidering that formative moment two decades later. But even then, beneath the shame triggered by her mother’s laughter, she felt the illicit, hedonistic allure of the tacky: “Why should I put all that work into being right when the alternative was so much more fun?”

Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, season 1, episode 6, 2007. Guy Fieri. Food Network.
Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, season 1, episode 6, 2007. Guy Fieri. Food Network.

Tacky is a lived-in ode to the pleasure principle, and it holds the distinction of being the first—though hopefully not the last—book I have read to feature epigraphs from Theodor W. Adorno (and Max Horkheimer) and Snooki. I will let you guess which one of these wordsmiths said, “Do every sin that you can, you know? Have sex with an old man and steal a plant and get arrested.” This introductory dualism between high and low culture, though, provides appropriate table-setting for King’s overall project. On the one hand, this is a book that directly and intentionally takes up the challenge that Susan Sontag famously put forth in the final sentence of her essay “Against Interpretation”: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” On the other hand, it is debatable whether the sort of “art” Sontag was referring to in that essay would include—to name just a few subjects of King’s inquiries—Meat Loaf’s 1977 schlock opera Bat Out of Hell; Guy Fieri’s glutinous, never-ending televisual road trip Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives; or the baroque, comfortingly identical architecture of each and every Cheesecake Factory.

King’s prose is murderously fizzy, like movie-theater soda pop that dances a little bit in your nostrils right after you’ve taken a sip. At her best, she’s kind of like the Eve Babitz of the Y2K-era shopping mall, “looking for love and finding only the limp fries at the Philly cheesesteak stand in the food court.” Warm Vanilla Sugar, Bath & Body Works’ signature prepubescent fragrance, smells like “frightened girlhood just as it teeters over the precipice of the change.” The aforementioned Cheesecake Factory “doesn’t serve food in any quantities smaller than ‘small mountain.’” Meat Loaf’s music “encapsulates the feeling of Motorcycle—that is to say, motorcycle qua motorcycle, the Springsteenian motorcycle, the emblem of masculine longing to get out.” King is so fun on the page that you almost don’t realize how sharp and emotionally observant she can be, too.

But such charismatic writing can also charm you into overlooking the book’s critical nearsightedness. Tacky “is the fruit of all my research into the opposite of what is right,” King tells us in the introduction, adding that “most of that research has taken place in and around my body.” Initially, she makes a convincing argument for this approach: “The work of tackiness belongs to lived experience anyway!” But in practice, this tactic of inquiry becomes a bit too self-indulgent. As Tacky progresses, what was promised to be an exploration of mass culture becomes, increasingly, a highly specific and occasionally depressing travelogue through King’s sex life. Perhaps that is something of a meta-formality: derailing an intellectual conversation to talk at length about who and how you’re fucking would reliably scan as uncouth to plenty of more prudish readers, and at times it almost feels like King is daring the reader to cast the sort of scolding judgment required to christen something “tacky.” But by the midpoint of the book, during an ode to Samantha from Sex and the City, such provocations start to feel predictable and limiting.

Too often, King relies on a shortcut: something is “tacky” and therefore glorious simply because she liked it at a formative moment in her life—perhaps a moment when she was embroiled in a particular sexual relationship, or at least yearning to be. I was strangely moved by her meditation on her pubescent “mega-crush” on Scott Stapp, but she failed to convince me of the essay’s larger argument that Creed—a band that lazily fused the worst clichés of both grunge and Christian rock—were worthy of a larger critical reassessment. Not everything is good simply because we enjoyed it at an exciting time in our life. Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe, and Sex and the City is just a TV show.

But if it falls short as a work of criticism, Tacky often excels as deeply felt, vividly conjured memoir. The book’s best and most wrenching essay is sort of about the bacchanalian MTV reality show Jersey Shore, but it’s really about King and her late father watching it together, and the way his breathless weekly recaps of Snooki’s antics allowed them to talk about something other than his declining health. It is a testament to the kineticism of King’s writing that by the end of the essay, you feel like you knew the guy. The same goes for King’s best friend Trixie in an essay that is sort-of-but-not-really about America’s Next Top Model, and, more harrowingly, King’s abusive ex-husband in a reconsideration of The Sims. In these moments, the author reminds us, quite stirringly that the very existence of tackiness relies on other people. (If a tree is done up in garish silver tinsel in a forest and no one’s around to see it, can it be tacky?) Sometimes this results in the sting of their judgment, yes, but tackiness can also become a bonding agent when it’s shared with others in an obstinate, us-against-the-world kind of way. After all, the real reason I wore that tacky boardwalk T-shirt to the Springsteen concert was to get a laugh out of the dear friend who was snapping the photo. This, too, seems to be the secret shared by those long-gone attendees of the Tacky Party of Ballard County. The precise context of what makes them tacky may have faded, but that feisty, conspiratorial look in their eyes hasn’t aged a day.

Lindsay Zoladz is a Brooklyn-based writer and frequent contributor to the New York Times.