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

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SAM SANDERS, HOST:

You start out by saying that you always thought the word tacky was your mother's word. Why did you feel that way, and how did she use it?

RAX KING: I specifically heard her saying it about my father's mother, her mother-in-law. She was always wearing, like, super heavy jewelry, fur coats in July, like that kind of a glam person.

SANDERS: My kind of lady.

KING: My kind of lady, too. That's - you know, that's me now. But I would always hear my mom, like, calling her stuff tacky and calling her taste tacky and feeling these early twinges of shame about it because all the stuff that I was hearing described as tacky was stuff I really liked.

SANDERS: You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders, and today, we are talking all things tacky.

KING: I didn't know what the word tacky meant, but I knew it was bad. And to this day, my relationship with the word is largely on the level of connotation.

SANDERS: That's my guest, the writer Rax King, and that word tacky, it is the name of Rax's essay collection all about things that are considered not in good taste. But Rax argues that just because something is deemed tacky, it doesn't mean that we can't enjoy it loudly and proudly.

KING: 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.

SANDERS: Rax's book of essays is all about finding the light in bits of so-called low culture, like Cheesecake Factory and MTV's "Jersey Shore" and the band Creed. As a fan of the tacky myself and a fan of those three things I just listed, got to say, I really enjoyed this chat. And I think you will, too, regardless of your thoughts on Creed. Enjoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: The title of this book is delectably simple. It's called "Tacky." First question for you - how do you define that word?

KING: So I did read Susan Sontag's "Notes On "Camp"" - I think I reference it in one of the essays in "Tacky."

SANDERS: You do.

KING: And to me, it's a hugely foundational text about tastes, specifically types of tastes that people recognize as bad. But I didn't recognize my own relationship with, quote-unquote, "bad taste" in "Notes On "Camp"" because she leans so heavily on this idea that camp taste means looking at something and recognizing it as bad but finding your own private, joyful experience in it anyway, like usually heavily tinged with irony. And that wasn't me. You know, I'll look at something, and I'll recognize that other people are telling me it's bad. I don't know that I could offer a really satisfying dictionary definition, but I could point to stuff on the street and say, people are going to call that tacky, you know?

SANDERS: It's not just - because I kind of feel like when we say tacky, it's not just, like, things that some people think are, like, low culture. But it's also stuff that is just extra and kind of over-the-top almost in that camp definition, you know?

KING: It's very close to camp, except minus that ironic detachment...

SANDERS: That wink and nod. Exactly, yeah.

KING: Right. Exactly. There's no wink. There's no nod. There's really just shame, by and large, or the effort to dodge that shame. So to me, tackiness is sort of the deadbeat cousin of campiness.

SANDERS: I like that. So I want to start with one of my favorite chapters in the book, the chapter on Creed. I, too, am a Creed fan, but even before that, I got to say, our post-grunge taste is pretty similar. On top of both of us liking Creed, I believe we both also like Puddle of Mudd.

KING: That's right. We do. I love me some Puddle of Mudd.

SANDERS: Yeah, buddy. Let me tell you, "Blurry"...

KING: Yeah.

SANDERS: If "Blurry" comes on in the car, I got to pull over and scream it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLURRY")

PUDDLE OF MUDD: (Singing) Can you take it all away? Well, you shoved it in my face...

SANDERS: It gets to me. So a whole chapter on Creed. What got you into them at a very young age?

KING: Well, when I was that young, that was the apogee of their popularity. I mean, they were everywhere. I don't know if you remember that as a golden age, but I certainly do (laughter).

SANDERS: Oh, I know. Yeah, they had, like, two albums in a row that both sold, like, 7 million copies. They were everywhere.

KING: Yeah. And so - I mean, I got into them because my options were either get into them or hate on them preemptively, like a number of people seem to have done. But I was so young. I didn't know the difference. I was like, oh, I just really love the way this music sounds.

SANDERS: And that guy's pretty.

KING: He's very pretty. Yeah, I fell embarrassingly in love with Scott Stapp. He was - and I stand by that, actually. As an early celebrity crush, I think I could have done a lot worse than Scott Stapp.

SANDERS: Oh, for sure, for sure.

KING: He's a good-looking guy. He remains a good-looking guy.

SANDERS: He is. Well - and also the vibe was so weird with Scott - or weird but good. Like - so a lot of Creed's music was vaguely Christian.

KING: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHER")

SCOTT STAPP: (Singing) Can you take me higher to a place with golden streets?

SANDERS: And Scott Stapp in some of the imagery from that time looked vaguely like a westernized Jesus.

KING: Yeah, he was like Jesus with abs. And he leaned into it, too.

SANDERS: (Laughter) He sure did.

KING: I think that is - that's got to be a big part of why so many people made such a huge point of not taking Creed seriously because he obviously took Creed so seriously. Yeah, yeah. But I did, too. I was young enough where I didn't find that sort of thing cringy. I was just like, that's right - the world is terrible, and I have a lot of awful feelings that I don't quite understand yet. Let me get real angsty with my portable CD player and my Creed. And it wasn't until I was in, like, at either end of middle school or beginning of high school, and, I, like sat down next to this kid on the bus and opened that selfsame portable CD player. And he saw my Creed CD and, like, scoffed at me and said, wow, I can't believe you like Creed. And that was probably the first conscious moment I had of, you know, stuff that you like can be the wrong stuff. I'd never really thought about that before. I'd never...

SANDERS: Yeah.

KING: ...Understood. And I'd remain kind of in the dark about how taste works, you know, about how people decide, what is the right stuff? What is the wrong stuff? Because it seems aesthetically very arbitrary. But at the time, I was just like, OK, lesson learned. Let me put my Creed away forever.

SANDERS: You know, Creed was not well-liked but also very popular. And a lot of folks over time, you write, came to justify their hatred of Creed because of Scott Stapp's erratic behavior. He went on to have a series of breakdowns and some mental health issues and just saying some wacky stuff. But you point out that in the midst of all that, if you just go back to the lyrics of Creed songs, they were actually full of empathy. I had never thought about that (laughter).

KING: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE")

STAPP: (Singing) Sanctified by oppression. Unity took a back seat, sliding further into regression.

KING: OK, I'm not going to say that Scott Stapp is the most genius, insightful songwriter ever born. I don't believe that's true.

SANDERS: Sounds like you just said it. We can cut it in post to make it seem like you said it.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: But he was making a real effort to write from other viewpoints in a way that I think a lot of songwriters are still hesitant to do. I don't think it was always 100% successful, but I think the effort is clear. It's not fair to me to review a Creed album the way that a lot of people did at the time. There was this attitude that Creed was below even serious critical consideration. So many of the pans were not just pans but dismissive pans. I remember that so distinctly. Just about all the write-ups I could find didn't even give me anything to 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's wildly unfair. That's not a fair way to treat somebody who has made something. They made that.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah. And, like, at least listen.

KING: Yeah.

SANDERS: You know, at least listen.

KING: It's like when, like, movie critics talk about how, you know, full disclosure, I couldn't even sit all the way through this movie. Like...

SANDERS: Well, then why are you getting paid for this? Exactly.

KING: That's exactly right. I'm allowed to get up in the middle of the movie if I hate it. That's - your job is to at least pay attention.

SANDERS: Yeah.

KING: I mean, Lord knows I hate it when people expect me to do my job...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

KING: ...But I'll do it grudgingly (laughter).

SANDERS: There you go.

Up next, we talk about one of my favorite things, The Cheesecake Factory.

So there's another chapter I love from the book and yet another piece of evidence that suggests that, in fact, you and I are both the same person.

KING: (Laughter).

SANDERS: You have an entire chapter on The Cheesecake Factory.

KING: That's right.

SANDERS: Can you recall the first time you went?

KING: I would have been a young kid. My mom and I used to go. That was, like, our place. It kind of still is. I still tend to make Cheesecake Factory dates with my mom when I visit D.C.

SANDERS: Oh. What's y'all's orders?

KING: OK. So first and foremost, you got to put away, like, two baskets of that brown bread because it's delicious, and it's free. Appetizer wise, got to go with the avocado egg rolls. I just think they're perfect. For my entree, I like to get the Louisiana chicken pasta. I got to set aside half of it, though. My instinct is always to eat the whole thing.

SANDERS: Yeah.

KING: I think that a person would die if they managed to eat an entire Cheesecake Factory entree.

SANDERS: Yeah.

KING: So I put away half of it. I take a box. And then I got to go with the Adam's peanut butter fudge ripple cheesecake, usually to go.

SANDERS: Oh, bold, bold. So I start out with the bread, of course.

KING: Of course.

SANDERS: I actually love The Cheesecake Factory rendition of the Long Island iced tea (laughter). Quite nice.

KING: Oh, absolutely. It doesn't taste bad (laughter).

SANDERS: It does not taste bad, man. And then I'm going to do probably the southwestern egg rolls and/or the deep-fried macaroni and cheese balls. I don't even really like macaroni and cheese, full disclosure. But when it's deep-fried like that, you have to love it. After that, either the miso salmon or the Jamaican black pepper shrimp, which is a banger. And then hear me out and don't get mad. I think all of the cheesecake there is a little bit too sweet. So I don't order it.

KING: That's why I get the peanut butter one 'cause it's a little bit salty.

SANDERS: OK, OK, OK, I hear you.

KING: Pro tip.

SANDERS: I'm going to add that to my list. Pro tip You know, people have written about how part of the draw of this restaurant chain is its uniformity. You're going to get the same kind of elevated experience everywhere you go to any one of them across the country. And I know this to be true 'cause I've done it.

KING: (Laughter).

SANDERS: But you also write something about the appeal of The Cheesecake Factory that I hadn't thought of before. You wrote that it's, quote, "fancy enough to seem classy but silly enough to seem comfortably trashy." And I was like, oh, yeah, it is. What exactly is that, and how does a restaurant chain get to there?

KING: I mean, of course, you've been to many Cheesecake Factories, so you are well familiar with their signature opulence.

SANDERS: It's, like, fall of Roman Empire opulence.

KING: It's incredible. It's, like, huge columns and murals on the ceilings. And it's, like, dim lighting, like kind of pornographic, frankly...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

KING: ...But in a pretty way.

SANDERS: Yeah.

KING: And, of course, the servers all wear like head-to-toe white uniforms, which is not uncommon but does, I think, elevate the place a little bit to make you feel like, oh, I am being served now, if that makes sense.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

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

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, and it's like it is giving you this elevated experience at not too high of a price.

KING: Right.

SANDERS: You know, like, none of the individual dishes are probably going to cost you more than 30 bucks, if that much, right? And you can go there, have people wait on you in a white shirt and black tie in a big, opulent dining room and not break the bank. Like, who doesn't want that? Who doesn't want that?

KING: Yeah. And it's not the same as going to, like, a high-end steak house where on top of all that, you're probably going to feel a little out of place. Like, to this day, I feel uncomfortable and out of place if I'm in too high end of a restaurant or if I'm in a Chanel store or something. Even though probably nobody notices that I'm there, I feel observed and spied on because I'm not the person that these places are supposed to make comfortable. That's for somebody else. The Cheesecake Factory has no problem making me feel comfortable because it it really is for everybody. Like, most people can afford to eat there on special occasions. Most people can find something that they'll like on that massive menu. It's like the restaurant equivalent of casting the widest possible net.

SANDERS: Yeah, it's the Bible of menus.

KING: Totally (laughter).

SANDERS: It's got an Old and New Testament.

KING: Yeah.

SANDERS: Like, it is massive.

KING: There's, like, three menus at this point. There's, like, the classic menu, and then there's something called the SkinnyLicious menu. And then they also have, like, a small plates menu. It's getting a little out of hand.

SANDERS: You know, you wrote a bit about having a little guilt about going to that kind of food chain now. Why?

KING: I think that that guilt is really about restaurants in general. I think that - and I say that as somebody who spent about a decade working in restaurants. It was my bread and butter for a long time. And so I am more than familiar with the drudgery of the work, with the fact that it's underpaid and tends to come with no benefits. And so there's that 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 When you look at the conditions that would lead to something like The Cheesecake Factory becoming unpopular. That amount of food and that amount of choice of food really should not be available. Like, economically speaking, it shouldn't be available. It shouldn't be that cheap. Like, something in that supply chain is screwy.

SANDERS: Off. (Laughter) Yeah.

KING: Yeah. I don't know where it is. I got to figure it's, you know, the people growing and raising the food that comes there. But, I mean, that's the other thing - I don't know. I'm deliberately kept in the dark as to why something like Cheesecake Factory is able to serve so much food for such a relatively inexpensive price.

KING: Yeah, yeah. Talk about not wanting to actually know how the sausage is made. Like...

(LAUGHTERS)

SANDERS: Don't tell me.

KING: (Laughter).

SANDERS: Don't tell me.

Coming up, Rax King on who is allowed to be tacky and why the love of low culture brings people together.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: I found myself wondering, reading this book and getting your story, someone who has embraced tacky and lives tacky out loud and loves it, are there certain kinds of people who get to be publicly tacky more than others? For you, how much of that is informed by all of the individual privileges that we might have or lack, you know?

KING: Yeah, for sure. And, I mean, looking at someone, like, say, Donald Trump or, you know, some of the Real Housewives, I think a big thing that gives permission for their aesthetic tackiness is their wealth, right? Like, top-of-the-heap wealth...

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

KING: ...Kind of buys you the ability to do whatever you want.

SANDERS: Yeah.

KING: And, of course, I - you know, I don't have top-of-the-heap wealth by any means, but I am comfortable enough and don't really have to worry about where my next meal is coming from to the point that I can embrace ugly, tacky stuff with confidence. I think the farther you go down those various food chains, the more likely it is that somebody's desire to embrace tackiness is going to look like, they just have bad taste, full stop. I think that, like, the less money you have - if you are Black, your tackiness is going to be met with much more hostility than if you're white, like I am. Stuff like that. Like, you lose the right to have, quote, unquote, "bad taste" if people looking at you from the outside already assume you have bad taste based on something else about you.

SANDERS: Exactly. Yeah, well, and it feels like some people are given more of the benefit of the doubt. You know, when a rich Real Housewife does something incredibly tacky, in the back of your head, you can kind of say, well, that's a wink and a nod. She gets what she's doing, right?

KING: Right.

SANDERS: Like, it's tacky on purpose. It's just thought out. There's a plan. When someone poor or someone not that does a thing that's considered tacky, you just assume inherently the worst - that it is a deficiency.

KING: Yeah, exactly. You assume that somebody is less aware of what they're doing the less you trust their taste and circumstances. And I think that's certainly unfair.

SANDERS: Yeah, well, and, like, wealth does not equal awareness.

KING: No, it most positively does not.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: I have served some of the dumbest people in the world, and they had money money.

SANDERS: Yeah. I do want to talk about a chapter I really, really loved, and it was the one that you wrote all about the "Jersey Shore" and your dad and you and y'all's relationship to that show. So you and your dad watched it together. Tell me all about how that began.

KING: Oh, that's my favorite one in the book, too. I came home during one winter break when I first started college and straight up walked into my dad's living room, and he was watching "Jersey Shore," like transfixed with a cigarette frozen on its way to his mouth, just totally slack-jawed. And what he was watching was "Jersey Shore."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JERSEY SHORE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Chanting) Go, Vinny. Go, Vinny.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANGELINA PIVARNICK: Um, hello?

VINNY GUADAGNINO AND PAUL DELVECCHIO: Fist bump, pushup, ChapStick.

VINNY GUADAGNINO: All we need is FPC - fist pump, pushup, ChapStick.

KING: Obviously, as soon as it was a commercial break, I was like, God, what is the big deal with this show? And he was like, I have never seen anything like this in my life. And so from then on, that was our show. We watched it together every week during winter break. And then I was really sad because I had to go back to college, obviously. And I was afraid that because I didn't have a TV, we were going to lose this special thing that we had. But he started calling me every week after "Jersey Shore" was over, like...

SANDERS: Thursday at 11.

KING: Thursday at 11, yeah, 'cause it would it would air Thursday at 10. And then there would be a repeat of that same episode Thursday at 11, so he would watch the episode.

SANDERS: He'd watch the repeat (laughter)

KING: Yeah - and then, like, annotate it for me on the phone.

SANDERS: What were those calls like?

KING: Oh, my God, delightful. I was having a really hard time at college and just really depressed and felt pretty adrift and untethered. And those phone calls were a real lifeline to me. I mean, my dad kept me tethered to the Earth (laughter).

SANDERS: Yeah. The chapter does take a turn. Your father dies. And then after his death, you look back really fondly on the times y'all watched "Jersey Shore" together, and you look back fondly on those phone calls that he would have with you, giving you the recaps of the show. And, like, that reminded me of something that we all need to be reminded of a lot when we think about whether a thing is tacky or not, you know? I think that, like, that story said to me art's only purpose isn't just to be great.

KING: Right.

SANDERS: It isn't just to be good. Sometimes, the purpose of the art is manifold. Sometimes, the purpose of the art is to unite people, for instance. Like, what if "Jersey Shore" is worthwhile just because it brought you and your father together? And what if, for that reason, it doesn't matter if it was, quote, unquote, "good or bad?" It brought y'all together.

KING: Yeah. And I think that's a huge aspect of art that is impossible to incorporate into criticism. Once you engage with a piece of art, you immediately develop a relationship to it, good or bad. And obviously, no critic can account for that relationship that every single person could develop with every single piece of art. But it's there, and it's a part of how we experience it. And I think it's a part that's really easy to overlook. Like, yeah, "Jersey Shore" was silly and loud and any number of other things you could say about any reality show, really. 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.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. What was your dad's favorite "Jersey Shore" character? Which one?

KING: My dad really liked the Snooki-Jwoww team.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JERSEY SHORE")

JENNI FARLEY: If Nicole needs something, I'll be there for her. If I need something, she'll be there for me because that's what best friends do.

KING: The two of them together he really loved. And he really liked the way that Sammi would yell Ron's name, like, (yelling) Ron.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JERSEY SHORE")

SAMMI GIANCOLA: (Yelling) Ron. Stop.

KING: He loved that.

SANDERS: Doesn't - and Snooki has another show now where she, like, has a baby and a family, right?

KING: She does, yeah. I actually sent her a copy of my book - like, total long shot...

SANDERS: Stop.

KING: ...Hoping that she would blurb it. And she made me no promises and wasn't able to do it. But she has it (laughter).

SANDERS: OK. Snooki, read it. Read it.

I got to say reading your book was so affirming for me, and we always need to be given permission to enjoy the things that we enjoy because so much of the world tells us not to do that. So to your book for giving me that message and to you and to your father for doing the same, thank you. Thank you for that permission to feel the joy.

KING: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me.

SANDERS: Thanks again to my guest, writer Rax King. Her new book is called "Tacky," and it's out right now. You can also find Rax's podcast, "Low Culture Boil," wherever you get your podcasts. And, of course, dear listener, come back here for more IT'S BEEN A MINUTE on Friday. For that Friday episode, we want to hear from you, sharing the best thing that's happened to you all week. To do that, just record yourself and email the file to us, samsanders@npr.org - samsanders@npr.org. All right. Till Friday. Be good to yourselves. Go take some time to listen to some Creed. Thanks for listening. I'm Sam Sanders, and we'll talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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