Sunday, December 25, 2022

Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer by Rax King


I was so excited about TACKY when I found out about the book because I love camp and kitsch. Whether it's '50s tiki bars or '90s eurodance or '80s bodice-rippers where the cover art looks like somebody's Halloween-themed glamor shots, I'm a firm believer that it's possible to have good taste in bad taste, and the people who curate these things unironically tend to be fun and whimsical and open-minded people with a deep appreciation for cultural artifacts that flies in the face of intellectual snobbery.

Sadly, TACKY wasn't quite that book. As other reviewers have complained, this is more of a memoir of the author's sexual relationships and how various relationships of hers tie into memories of pop-culture. It feels like a podcast or a Netflix show, to be honest. An essay about the Cheesecake Factory is tied into a relationship she was having with a married man who cheated on his wife, and another about The Sims is juxtaposed against her relationship with an abusive husband. I appreciate the personal nature of these essays, but it also wasn't quite as advertised or what I was necessarily looking for.

I didn't hate this collection and there were some things about it that I really liked. Josie and the Pussycats is one of my favorite movies of all time and here, I actually felt like the way she used it to talk about her own sexual awakening really worked because it kind of encapsulated the hyper-sexiness of aughts culture as a whole and how it forced women to aspire to impossible double standard roles. Her ode to vanilla sugar perfumes serves a similar purpose, and so does her essay on Sex and the City.

After Josie, though, I think my two favorite essays were actually the non-sexual ones. First was the one about the band, Creed, because I think it really shows how some people just latch onto and decide certain bands are sell-out poseurs and they become really popular to hate. For emo kids in the aughts, that band was AFI. For metalheads, it was Slipknot. For basically anyone in the 2000s and 2010s, it was Nickelback (SunnyV2 actually has a great video about how they became the world's most hated bands). Back when I still went physically in the office, I used to make everyone groan when it was my turn to control the office playlist, because I'd pile the office playlist with gems like Falco's "Der Kommissar," Los Del Rio's "Macarena," and Ylvis's "What Does the Fox Say?" I'd cackle at my desk while people groaned as Eiffel 65 informed us all that they were blue da ba dee da ba die, and people would tell me that my music privileges should be revoked because I didn't play cool hip-hop or the latest indie hits. But that didn't stop my co-workers from singing along to all the words, no. When we scale artistic taste based on invisible hierarchies of rank that only the in-crowd knows, culture becomes a zero-sum game. I felt like this essay articulated that really well: that at the end of the day, we like what we like, and taste is as subjective as the very forces that draw us like magnets to the things that we enjoy.

My second favorite essay was the one about Jersey Shore. Not because I liked Jersey Shore but because of how the author and her father bonded over it. It was a really sweet and wholesome essay and I wish more of the book had been like that, because I think it shows how often nostalgia has its appeal because of our emotional ties. Campiness becomes almost beautiful if it reminds us of simpler, uncomplicated times, when happiness came more easily. Seeing this tacky and ridiculous show be the glue that helped her hold on to her relationship with his father in the face of physical separations, like college and health issues, was so touching. It actually made me tear up several times.

Overall, I would say TACKY is less an homage to kitsch culture than it is a memoir told through the lens of various objects. The author obviously has a way with words and an insightful way of looking at things, but I think the book and the cover need a rebrand. I was definitely expecting something more culture focused and less personal in nature. So I would actually recommend this book less for pop-culture enthusiasts and more for people who enjoy reading women's essay collections about slice-of-life experiences through a feminist lens.

3 out of 5 stars

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