In Praise of Young Little Luxuries: Rax King’s Tacky

Reviewed By

The essays in Rax King’s collection Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer—remind me of a moment in Lady Bird, when the titular character is sitting in front of a nun with her essay about Sacramento on the table between them. Lady Bird is surprised to hear that her writing—about a place she cannot wait to trade for bastions of culture like New York, “or at least Connecticut”—feels full of love. When she responds that all she does is pay attention, the nun suggests, “Don’t you think they are maybe the same thing? Love and attention?”

Rax King has paid so much attention to the formative cultural artifacts of her youth that she is able to make me feel as if I have my own memories of experiences we absolutely do not share. I have never spent more than five minutes in Hot Topic. I have never seen an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives or Jersey Shore, and each of the five or so episodes of America’s Next Top Model I watched against my will in adolescence made me uncomfortable. I have never played the Sims. I could not name a song by Creed or Meat Loaf if you took me to a concert and sat me in the front row. If I’ve ever been to the Cheesecake Factory, I don’t remember it.

King centers the explorations of core memories of her youth around tackiness because the tackiness of it all represents joy; that is the most fervent proclamation she makes throughout the book. But that joyfulness isn’t uncomplicated. Her essay about Jersey Shore isn’t actually about garish fake tans or the shorthand of jokes it provided a generation, but about how her ailing father, not good at taking care of himself, had a simple approach to entertainment: He found a way to connect with her through the ridiculousness of the show until he died. The fact that grief can become tied to the memory of something lighthearted is one that is woven well through her choices of subjects. It’s clear in her essays about Creed and Meat Loaf, which bookend the collection (albeit rather abruptly), where she insists we give our current selves, and our younger selves in retrospect, the ability to be okay with enjoying music that strikes people as too baldly earnest about emotions.

Even if some of the specificities of King’s experiences might be foreign to you, as they are to me, the adolescent pangs will not be. Rax King watched Degrassi because someone told her she was like one of the characters; I watched Degrassi in 10th grade because it was formative to someone I had become close friends with and desperately wanted to understand psychically. Manny Santos, the character King feels closest to, was on the low end of my list of relatable figures, but the way Rax writes about Manny giving her heart to Craig with abandon is so compassionate that I couldn’t stop thinking about Degrassi for days after, wondering if I would dislike the same characters now that I did when I was fourteen. The imagery in her writing about childhood is as vivid as the writing of PEN15, a show that makes childhood growing pains more palpable than anything else I’ve ever seen on TV.

One of my favorite essays of the collection—despite the fact that it is a little more saccharine than the others—is King’s ode to Warm Vanilla Sugar, a scent that allowed her to feel decadent and adult without breaking the bank, and gave her a feeling of luxury that no perfumes, no matter how deep and warm and expensive now, can recreate. (Incidentally, my version of this was a mini travel spray of Daisy by Marc Jacobs that a friend’s mother gifted each of us in 7th grade; having something that delicate and grown-up scared me to the point where that travel spray lasted for five years, because I kept it locked in a corner of my desk.) She writes well about the “world of substitutes” into which young girls will throw themselves: a cheap, glitzy, over-saturated simulacrum of femininity before they’re old enough to have access to—or the ability to participate in—the delicate, expensive, seemingly effortless kind.

I don’t agree with everything King says. I don’t believe that “honest pointed sincerity lacks style” all the time; I don’t think being a poseur makes you “corny,” but something a little sadder. I don’t think that art criticism as a form is, by its nature, at odds with an appreciation of tackiness or bad taste. (I don’t think it has to be at odds with anything, but that’s a different quarrel.) But the throughlines that peek through each essay—the importance of the megacrush, young little luxuries, music that feels too embarrassing to admit to listening to, messy role models—are honest and potent. Her enthusiasm in offering a new perspective to the tacky things we’d sometimes rather let idle on in our memories leaves you a little raw, thinking about the things in your own adolescence you could have enjoyed more if you hadn’t learned so early the most ironic ways to protect your heart when an adult brain and body were “forcing their way to the surface.”

I read the entirety of Tacky on the subway at 10 pm, right as the weather started getting cold enough for people to bring out their statement jackets. While I was reading, a teen in an iridescent puffy coat sitting with her friends across from me—all of them drinking tallboys in paper bags—asked if I’d take their picture. The girls arranged their hair and swiped their ring fingers under the outer corners of their eyes to catch fallout while the boys, grumbling about how stupid this was (“I hate you so much for this, bro”) shifted closer to them and pulled on their paper bags so their beers were more obvious. It was so tacky. I took eleven pictures.

Sophia Kaufman is a writer and editor living in New York. You can reach her at [email protected] or @skmadeleine. More from this author →