When I lived in Chicago, I haunted Reckless Records, easily the best used record shop in the city. One of its locations is in the ultra-hip, ultra-cool Bucktown. I spent many Saturdays, shuffling through the plastic-sleeved CD covers like a dealer at a craps table. Once satisfied with my choices, I would screw up all my courage and make the daunting walk to the counter and hand what I wanted to the person behind. I would hold my breath when facing the clerk, trying to catch (and ignore) any note of derision or condescension. I was always scared that the ultra-hip, ultra-cool hipster behind the counter was judging me hopelessly hip and uncool.
Author and podcaster Rax King urges her readers to reject cultural snobbery and embrace one’s love of culture, both high and low, in her funny and moving essay collection, Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer. King cherry-picks some of the most scorned bits of pop culture and shares candid, bracing stories of how these bits of ephemera came to define some of the most important moments in her life. Punchlines like The Jersey Shore, Guy Fieri, Hot Topic, and the Cheesecake Factory are granted gravitas and poignancy because, she explains, these bits of nothing offered her succor. She defiantly doubles down on her affection for junk, spinning lovely tales of emotional truth.
It’s important to note that King isn’t making the argument that the subjects of her essays are underrated, underestimated classics. She’s under no illusion that pop trash reality TV like The Jersey Shore or Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives is nothing more than enjoyable escapist entertainment. She doesn’t judge folks who like this stuff and she demonstrates that even the most disposable of pop culture can be significant. But King is not a revisionist, hoping to find hidden depths in the venereal Jersey Shore. The aim of Tacky is to take apart the elitist notion which purports that only ‘high’ art can have emotional resonance.
“It’s not necessarily difficult to produce a perfect work, any more than it’s difficult to produce a really fine chicken tender,” King writes. “But it is touchy, and requires the mind of a particular sort of savant – I don’t think Werner Herzog could have written or directed Josie and the Pussycats.” Choosing the word ‘perfect’ is important because she finds nuance in the concept of perfection, differing it from something that is judged as ‘good’.
She insists that to achieve perfection in work, one must strive for a straightforward “simplicity” that is uncomplicated and most importantly, unpretentious. She ties the concept of perfection to the experience and memory of enjoying these products of culture, as opposed to judging them solely on their artistic or aesthetic merit.
The question of ‘high’ versus ‘low’ culture can still prompt disagreements at dinner parties (real and virtual), despite the supposed increase of the democratization of culture. As the canon of high art is being challenged and reappraised, concepts of what constitutes ‘good taste’ are being called into question.
In Tacky, however, King doesn’t seem so interested in this debate. Instead, she highlights just how important these markers of pop culture are when people live through significant moments whilst consuming them. When writing of the MTV reality show, The Jersey Shore, she’s not creating a defense of the show but instead writes a loving and heartbreaking tribute to her father, with whom King created a bond over their shared love of the program.
She also mines the anguish of a painful and abusive marriage and juxtaposes it with noisy TV chef, Guy Fieri, whose Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives offered her a safe space. Her husband was emotionally cruel, and King saw Fieri’s gregarious friendliness as a tonic. “But loving Guy Fieri was a safe, simple rebellion against the memory of my [ex]husband,” she shares. She goes on to say, “Guy Fieri, uncool and bold and tacky as hell, offered such generosity and praise to the restaurant owners on his show. He was uncouth for a cause.”
Along with sharing painful episodes in her life, she is also candid about how her sexuality paralleled her relationship with pop culture. As an adolescent, she explored her sexuality, being inspired by the adventurous libertine, Samantha Jones (embodied by Kim Cattrall) from the HBO comedy, Sex and the City. Unmoored by an early breakup, she wished she could adopt the confidence of Samantha, wanting to be “Powerful, forward, and fundamentally unrejectable”, like Cattrall’s character.
She’s also open about infidelity and her history of bedding married men, writing with an invigorating honesty that doesn’t seek to make excuses or apologies nor is she seeking pity or sympathy from her readers. Using the Canadian teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation as a touchstone, she invites her audience to share in her story of being ‘the other woman’. But instead of judging her, we understand some of the reasons why she found herself in the situation. The end of the affair is excruciating to read, the pain she felt is raw in print: “My own love triangle should have ended…I should have blocked him everywhere. But this is doomed love we’re talking about and I couldn’t be as disciplined as that.”
The emotional breadth of Tacky is stunning, but it must be said that even though there are some aching moments in the book, King also has an expert hand at writing comedy. Tacky is a fun read and King’s writing persona is like that of an impossibly witty and funny friend that you love hanging out with. She can find the absurd in many of her situations and writes them in such a smart, literary, and humorous way, that often readers will find themselves laughing out loud.
Her defense of rock band Creed and its lead singer, Scott Stamp, “Six Feet from the Edge”, is some of the best – and wittiest – pop culture criticism out there. Mining the noughts’ music landscape of boybands, King does a fantastic job of making the case that appreciating Creed’s music isn’t necessarily evidence of bad taste. In her closing statement, she defends her affection for Creed’s music by insisting that sincerity – even if it’s prime for mocking – should be the attainable goal.
In a collection that is consistent in its excellence, her rumination on Creed is a masterpiece. It’s not just a defense of a (questionably talented) rock band – it’s also a defense of empathy, kindness, and honesty. When comparing Lou Reed to Creed, she displays a healthy skepticism of rock god veneration, questioning preconceived definitions of ‘good’ music.
Tacky’s subtitle cheekily announces that the topics in the book make up “the worst culture” we have to offer, but in writing about the emotional potential that low art has to illuminate an important moment in one’s life, she finds that the ‘worst’ culture is pretty damn great. After reading, King’s book, I felt far more confident popping in that Kathie Lee Gifford CD, knowing that having a deep connection to popular art is far more important than exhibiting ‘good’ taste.