There was a line in Rax King’s memoir (organised as essays), Tacky, that immediately reminded me of a night out with a dear friend. We had a loose plan to see the movie Black Swan. I called her to fine tune the plan, and she intimated that she wasn’t feeling up to something as cerebral as ballerinas’ doppelgängers. “Okay”, I said, “What about Hall Pass?” She agreed and said that I was the only person she’d see that movie with. I took this has a huge compliment.
“You’re seeing that? Like in theaters?”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “I don’t anticipate remembering that Ghoul Clinic exists when it’s time for the DVD release.”
“Why are you seeing it if you don’t think it’s going to be good?”
I need to preface this review with the fact that King and I are of different generations and we grew up in different countries. This is important given that the book focuses on pop culture. In fact, the subtitle of Tacky is ‘Love letters to the worst culture we have to offer’. In her introduction, King describes tacky as ‘joyful’ (as distinct from trashy or tasteless). I’m on board with tacky, in the sense I really don’t mind what people are into, as long as it makes them ‘joyful’ (this is why I unapologetically watch rafts of crap TV – hello Below Deck – and that I’m available to see films such as Hall Pass).
The essays cover everything from shopping malls to love for a band that everyone else deems uncool. I could largely identify with these essays in a ‘same but different’ kind of way – when King was talking Creed, Vanilla Sugar fragrance, Hot Topic, and Jersey Shore, I knew my equivalents (Air Supply, Impulse and then my first bottle of ‘real’ perfume – Paris – Sportsgirl, and Melrose Place).
The essays that shone focused on two reality TV shows – Jersey Shore and America’s Next Top Model. In ‘Never Fall in Love at the Jersey Shore‘, King reflects on her relationship with her now-deceased father, and how they bonded over tacky television –
This was in what I believe was the golden age of reality television, its second generation. Reality TV had abandoned much of the self-consciousness that characterized pioneering shows like The Real World, instead embracing the limitations of its format. No longer burdened with the lofty goal of ‘capturing’ anything about humanity through lightly scripted gonzo filming, reality TV had thrown up its hands and said, Fuck it.
At the apex was Jersey Shore which King observes, was ‘…unbound by narrative logic’, and she shared every moment with her dad who was suffering severe health problems and was in the last years of his life. Ultimately, the essay is less about the show and more an ode to her complex but loving dad –
Pinpointing his appeal is as impossible as explaining what’s good about the rain. He was funny, but not every funny person is warm; not every warm person is a great listener; not every great listener gives good advice; not every giver of good advice is selectively unavailable in such a way as to promote obsession. For every time that he was present and charismatic, he’d be a shell of unhappiness three other times. But critically, the first hit of his attention was free.
Similarily, we become familiar with King’s high school friend, Trixie, in the essay on America’s Next Top Model. King and Trixie are still besties, and the relationship parallels mine with a friend I met at age 15, who remains as close as ever –
…we’re in most meaningful ways the same feral girls we were back in ninth grade. We speak the same impossible dialect, two parts inside jokes to one part cultural references from 2005. We remember everything, every unsuitable boyfriend, every crappy job. We sure as hell remember the guy with the creepy family photo and talk about him often – he’s an important figure in our mythology, as is…every woman who’s ever competed on America’s Next Top Model.
Switch the date to 1989 and the creepy-photo-guy to the creepy-guys-at-Silvers-drinking-brandy, and Rax and Trixie could be Kate and Edwina.
Parts of this book made me laugh, for example King’s enthusiastic description of Creed lead singer, Scott Stapp, who ‘…was still relatively fresh from his tenure as a college athlete and had abs you could shred a brick of Parmesan on…‘ and reflecting on starting college, which was as ‘…refreshing for me as for any teenager whose libido and liver are strong…’. But some of the essays (notably the pieces on The Cheesecake Factory, The Sims and shopping malls) were either too long or didn’t hold my attention (perhaps the US references and generational gap were stretched too far?). The essay on Sex and the City promised much but strayed from the ‘tacky’ brief.
Scattered throughout are the insights. If these had been laboured, the book would have felt overdone, but they sit comfortably within the context of King’s anecdotes. On discussing how teenagers temper their interests and taste according to their peers, she observes –
When I was a teenager, my peers’ approval could not have mattered to me more, to the point that I was willing to learn how to sneer, how to mock, how to experience emotions almost sarcastically; if I dared to cry about pain that I was experiencing, I needed to then laugh at myself, apologize for my embarrassing behaviour. In retrospect, it was a shame that we learned to blunt ourselves before we learned to be kind, but I get why we had to do it in that order. The hugeness of adolescent emotions would have crushed us if we hadn’t learned to at least act like our feelings didn’t matter.
Okay, I’m off to watch the new season of Siesta Key.
2.5/5 Hits and misses.
The spinach and cheese dip at The Cheescake Factory gets a whole chapter named after it…