THE WASHINGTON POST – Midway into her debut essay collection, Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer, Rax King took up the subject of Josie and the Pussycats. The 2001 movie starring Rachael Leigh Cook, Rosario Dawson and Tara Reid, King argued, was the pinnacle of early-aughts appeal: young women in body glitter, low-slung jeans and frosted lip gloss. King, who was 10 when the movie came out, was mesmerised. “I was too young to know exactly what it entailed when Josie and the Pussycats was released,” she wrote, “but its images still struck me with their electrified eroticism.”
If you’re not familiar with King’s body of work, this type of writing is very much in her wheelhouse. Most writers are boring people. King, though, seems different: Bettie Page meets Carrie Bradshaw, if Bradshaw supported Bernie Sanders for president and sometimes wore an Old Bay-patterned bikini. Her essays tend to blend memoir with meditations on the media obsessions of her mid-aughts youth, the confessional colluding with the critical. King’s objects of fascination in this volume – The Sims, The Jersey Shore and Meatloaf, among others – made this reviewer feel both too young and too old at the same time (we’re only a few years apart in age). But her writing about girlhood and coming of age at the turn of the millennium captures that epoch better than any movie.
Reflecting on Josie and the Pussycats, King attempts to delineate between good works of art and perfect ones. “The good is tasteful,” she writes. “You can see that thought has gone into it. It is carefully layered, and so lends itself nicely to interpretation.” Perfect art, King argued, resists such interpretation. It leans fully into the erotic. The perfect, in this account, is not perfect because it is flawless, but because it allows us to enjoy it on an emotional level, without obliging us to seek some greater emotional meaning.
Josie and the Pussycats is a perfect movie, if not necessarily a good one, her argument goes. So too was this guy she had a relationship with in high school – in the rich, bad-boy drug-dealer sort of way – until, suddenly, he wasn’t.
I’m not sure I agree with King’s definitions of “perfect” and “good”. I was also in my girlhood when Josie and the Pussycats came out, and I remember that it was pretty bad. The boy she dated in high school sounds even worse, and I’m not sure he even fits her definition of “perfect”. Setting aside her application of these terms, though, she also seems to be idiosyncratically turning away from the ordinary way that we use them. To my mind, a “perfect” work of art is safe, strikes all the expected themes and hedges itself against criticism. A good piece of art dares to be interesting, flaws and all. In this sense, it’s often the good that speaks to us best when the perfect rebuffs our attention, our desire to make it our own. It’s why I’ll always love the singer-songwriter with the warbly, imperfect voice over the flawless pop star, or the novelist who’s a fantastic prose stylist over the bestselling thriller writer. By that definition, King has written a pretty good book.
The personal and critical elements of the book don’t always line up. And despite its title, “Tacky,” does not seem all that interested in exploring the implications of tackiness, except to claim that it’s about “joyfully becoming,” a contention that sometimes seems questionable as she juxtaposes her tackiest cultural interests to stories of disappointment and romantic pain. But tackiness is also a matter of class, with which she rarely concerns herself explicitly. Like King, I have a fondness for certain chain restaurants that others might consider tacky, but that’s mainly because those restaurants were the nice places to eat in my hometown – my affinity for tacky things is a function of being from the Rust Belt. Tackiness can take many forms, from ostentatious displays of wealth to proud displays of cheapness. Here, though, tackiness mostly seems to be an index of personal taste, a way of delineating the things you like even though you’re not supposed to.
This essay collection is not for readers who have no interest in hearing about an author’s appeal. But those readers will be missing out, because it’s in her writing about the topic where King’s voice really shines. I have yet to encounter another writer who has so neatly captured what it was like to be a girl during that reactionary cultural period in which I grew up – when Monica Lewinsky was comedic fodder for the likes of Jay Leno and David Letterman and when we raised up teenage symbols like Britney Spears to impossible heights, only to point and laugh when they fell. King writes acutely, and sometimes heartbreakingly, about her developing appeal, the cues she took from pop culture about how to make herself more desirable for consumption. She is astute, too, about what the era’s models of positivity left out.
Tacky ultimately has less to say about the “worst culture we have to offer” than it does about the way we make it through the worst of our own lives. There’s much to admire about that – and, for a kind of pop-culture-loving millennial, it will hit all the right notes.