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It’s all a matter of taste – ‘Tacky’

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People like what they like. Some people are high-minded with regard to their cultural consumption, while others revel in the lowbrow. And there are those of us – I’m including myself here – who find things to like on both ends of the taste spectrum. It’s not right or wrong. It simply is.

Sure, there are folks out there who will gleefully look down their nose at people who embrace items, ideas and experiences that the snobbier among us consider beneath them. It’s the conflicting differences between the hois polloi – the original Greek definition (indicating the masses or general public) and the adopted meaning (people of distinction; the elite) – writ large.

But still – people like what they like, however tacky some might consider it.

In “Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer” (Vintage, $15.95), Rax King offers up essays celebrating the things she loves, no matter how lowbrow they might be. These pieces illustrate a life lived not for the sake of appearances, but for the sake of enjoyment. And we’re not talking about detached, ironic enjoyment either – Rax King likes what she likes and could genuinely care less how you feel about it.

Over the course of these 14 essays, King goes long and deep on things that perhaps haven’t often received the long/deep treatment. She talks about chain restaurants and comfort food and reality television, all acting as a framework wherein she can explore her own development. These pieces are smart and crass and unapologetic and wildly entertaining.

Right off the bat, King makes clear where we’re going. The first essay in the collection – titled “Six Feet from the Edge” – is about her ongoing and genuine affection for the band Creed. She speaks about how it has long been a secret, almost shameful, that she has kept from those close to her. Even now, she has some difficulty being fully forthcoming about her affinity for a band that so many so-called elites sneer at (even as she expresses doubt that they hate the band as much as they proclaim to). She leans into the odd tautology that has developed around the band – they’re Creed, so they’re bad and they’re bad because they’re Creed – and digs into some of the wants and desires swirling around frontman Scott Stapp, as well as how King’s own needs intersect with her fandom.

Yeah – it’s that kind of book.

We get an essay about the ways in which King’s relationship with her father was shaped by a shared affection for the MTV reality show “Jersey Shore.” Other TV programs that get the business in these pages include “Sex and the City,” “America’s Next Top Model” and “Degrassi,” with each essay utilizing the love of the show as an entry point into a deeper exploration of King’s personal world.

Is there an essay involving Hot Topic? Reader, you better believe it.

My personal highlight is probably “Exactly as Much Spinach-and-Cheese Dip,” an essay revolving around The Cheesecake Factory and its precariously balanced spot on the dividing line between chain casual and more upscale dining. Only it’s ALSO about relationships – familial relationships and romantic ones, all deconstructed through the experience of the restaurant’s faux-fancy décor and massive menu. Truly heartfelt stuff.

“Tacky” brings together cultural criticism and the personal essay and combines them into something that is greater than the sum of its parts. By digging into the specificity of her own connections to these seemingly innocuous and/or inane things, King takes the reader on a journey that is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking.

There are those who might argue that the poignancy and impact of King’s personal explorations are somehow dulled by the pop cultural framework she utilizes, but those people – snobs that they almost certainly are – will have entirely missed the point. It is because of that framework that we can gain a truer understanding of the stories King seeks to tell.

Obviously, your mileage may vary regarding the effectiveness of these essays. There will almost certainly be references that don’t resonate with you over the course of these 14 pieces; I know there were a couple that simply went over my head. But that’s the point – we like what we like and who gives a damn what anyone else thinks?

“Tacky” is a thoughtful and charmingly snarky read; King is a gifted storyteller who is unafraid to aim those gifts squarely at herself – a rare combination. So pull on your snakeskin pants, order up a Crispy Chicken Costoletta and crank up the Creed – Rax King will take it from there.

Last modified on Wednesday, 10 November 2021 13:26

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