Rax King's 'Tacky' explores The Cheesecake Factory, Jersey Shore, Creed : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders Why do we feel shame for sincerely enjoying something that others don't like? That's one of the big questions tackled in Rax King's new essay collection Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer. She talks to Sam about her love of the band Creed, The Cheesecake Factory, and Jersey Shore, and embracing the things that others consider bad taste.

Rax King's new book gives you permission to find joy in 'Tacky' culture

Rax King's new book gives you permission to find joy in 'Tacky' culture

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Rax King, author of Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer. Nikki Austin-Garlington/Nikki Austin-Garlington / Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group hide caption

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Nikki Austin-Garlington/Nikki Austin-Garlington / Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Rax King, author of Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer.

Nikki Austin-Garlington/Nikki Austin-Garlington / Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

For writer Rax King, "tacky" has always been a word associated with her family.

King remembers her mother using the word to describe her mother-in-law's heavy jewelry and fur coats worn in the summer. Part insult, part arbiter of taste, "tacky" conjured strong emotions for King.

"I would always hear my mom calling her [mother-in-law's] stuff tacky and calling her taste tacky, and feeling these early twinges of shame about it," she says. "Because all the stuff that I was hearing described as tacky was stuff I really liked. I didn't know what the word tacky meant, but I knew it was bad."

In her latest book Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer, King writes essays unified by her love of the tacky. It's a heartfelt defense of enjoying things that give you pleasure, with no guilt involved.

"If you experience a piece of art and have an immediate, joyful reaction to it, and then you find yourself trying to backtrack and walk back your own reaction because it's not in line with what other people are saying about this piece of art, that's where I think we make a lot of mistakes," she says.

Coming of age with Creed

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King grew up in the late '90s and early 2000s, the height of popularity for rock bands like Puddle Of Mudd and Creed. In Tacky, she recalls identifying with the angst in Creed's music. But an experience listening to a Creed CD on a school bus made her question herself.

"I sat down next to this kid on the bus ... and he saw my Creed CD, and scoffed at me and said, 'Wow, I can't believe you like Creed.' And that was probably the first conscious moment I had of [realizing that] stuff that you like can be the wrong stuff."

Now that she's older, King is reconsidering critics who panned Creed albums as soon as they came out.

"Just about all the write-ups I could find didn't give me something I could even argue with. It was just like, 'Creed sucks. Creed is bad. If you like them, you're going to like them, no matter what we say.' That was the energy that people tended to bring to the entire project of thinking about Creed. And to me, that was wildly unfair."

The Cheesecake Factory is for everybody

An outpost for The Cheesecake Factory in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. PR Newswire hide caption

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An outpost for The Cheesecake Factory in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

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Like the word "tacky," the restaurant chain The Cheesecake Factory is something King also associates with her family. King would often dine with her family at the chain when she was young, and that tradition has continued to the present day.

King believes part of The Cheesecake Factory's appeal is the chain's fanciness yet accessibility.

"It's opulent, but it's too opulent. It's got plush surroundings, but they are too plush. They're right in that sweet spot where it's elegance, but it's also so silly because it's like a little kid's idea of a rich person's mansion, you know?"

However King's own experiences working in the service industry, and the economic strain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, makes her reevaluate how many people can enjoy the endless options of food at The Cheesecake Factory.

"So there's the aspect of the restaurant discomfort. And then there's the fact that it's no longer in fashion, and the way in which it's no longer in fashion does begin to feel a little tawdry and painful."

Finding connection through Jersey Shore

Nicole Elizabeth Polizzi, also known as Snooki, was one of the stars of MTV's reality TV show Jersey Shore. MTV hide caption

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King's favorite chapter in Tacky is the one following how the reality TV show Jersey Shore helped her bond with her father. She recalls coming home from college for winter break, and stumbling upon her dad transfixed by the show. When King went back to college, her dad would call her every Thursday at 11 p.m. for recaps of the latest episode.

"I was having a really hard time at college, just really depressed and felt really adrift and untethered. And those phone calls were a real lifeline to me, I mean, my dad kept me tethered to the Earth."

Ever since her father died, King remembers those phone calls even more fondly. She hopes her family's love for Jersey Shore proves that culture's purpose isn't only to be be "good," but also to bring people together.

"Like yeah, Jersey Shore was silly and loud... But it was also really important to us in its way. I think that one big part of being able to engage with any piece of culture joyfully, regardless of what it is, is having somebody to do it with."

This episode was adapted for Web by Nathan Pugh. It was produced by Liam McBain. Our intern is Nathan Pugh. Our editor is Jordana Hochman. You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at samsanders@npr.org.