Pop Culture Has Entered an Era of Unapologetic Bad Taste
ItIn 2022 pop culture will be the biggest. One of the best images from entertainment recently is this: Mr. Big keeling on his Peloton. And Just Like That…Nicole Kidman bares an incredible 3ft of midriff for the cover Vanity Fair. A meme-based, dopey game show. What is the Best Cake Recipe?Claim the No. Netflix’s No.
Everything is now bigger, more vibrant, louder and raunchier. Designers sell hot pink suits and skirts that reach the belt, as well logo-plastered bags. Following a surge in scripted programs, the popularity of trashy reality TV has risen. It is being fueled in part by shows like “The Walking Dead” and other self-consciously trashy series. Sunsets for SaleAnd FBoy Island. The most salient new sound in recent years is hyperpop, a dizzyingly hooky, wildly referential microgenre that has been described by one of Spotify’s influential “data alchemists” as “ebullient electro-maximalism.”
The age of extravagant, sometimes even apocalyptic bad taste has arrived. You can call it “a” Vibe a shiftIf you have to. There is definitely a young element to this bad taste revival. Trendspotters have glommed on to the Y2K nostalgia and end-times decadence in Gen Z’s nascent aesthetic sensibility (see: the skimpy, iridescent fashions of Euphoria). But what we’re witnessing goes far beyond cool teens and the extremely online to encompass anyone with free time, disposable income, and internet access.
L-R: Barbie Ferreira (left), Alexa Demie (right) and Sydney Sweeney (“Euphoria”)
What we’re dealing with is a full-blown cultural moment. A tidal wave has erupted from the convergence of 20-year-old nostalgia, climate-change despair, stream-era content over-saturation, and Long COVID, a collective group of people who are obsessed with tackiness. The commonality of TikTok teenagers, white collar workers stranded at home, and gatekept wealthy is the feeling of isolation that can make a person want to feel some kind of sensation. And nothing kills numbness like a sensory onslaught—color, sound, hedonism, melodrama, sleaze. Yet what’s remarkable about this particular pendulum swing is that after centuries of wrestling with hierarchies of taste, the cultural stigma that has always come with indulging in bad taste has disappeared.
Bad taste is difficult to pinpoint because standards and guidelines are constantly changing. Makeup was considered cheap by Victorian women. Rock snobbery would’ve baffled 1950s parents scandalized by Elvis’ hips. It was the 1970s. Pink FlamingosAnd Beyond the Valley of the Dolls epitomized bad-taste cinema; now they’re in the Criterion Collection. Such evolution is the result of constant, generational negotiations—ones that intensified in the 20th century, as rapid advancements in technology yielded radio, records, movies with sound and TV, which could bring a night at the opera to the masses but more often cranked out cliché-ridden love songs.
The prosperous postwar years saw college attendance rise and the middle classes expand. This made adjudicating hierarchy of taste a more common practice. The rubric for adjudicating taste was established in 1949. Your Life ranked “everyday tastes” from highbrow (Eames furniture, ballet) to lowbrow (“mail order overstuffed chair,” westerns). Dwight Macdonald and other high-minded critics took aim against culture as a product. However, there were defenders for popular tastes. Although mass media manufacturers may have prioritized profit over art, some art found its way into their products anyway. “Trash has given us an appetite for art,” Pauline Kael noted in her snobbery-shattering 1969 essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies.” In other words, the scrappy subversiveness of B movies can ignite a passion for more sophisticated cinematic subversion.
Other divisions in society also muddied the hierarchies of taste. Boomers raised on rock ’n’ roll anointed the Beatles as geniuses. For its maleness and whiteness, the Western canon was criticized by academia. John Waters made self-consciously celebrating in bad taste, or a.k.a. John Waters. Camp has been elevated to art form by John Waters. The Twilight Zone’s cultural commentary occasionally cut deeper than that of the Partisan Review. Andy Warhol enshrined Campbell’s and Brillo in galleries, and 60 years later we’re still arguing over whether he was celebrating or critiquing mass-market consumerism.
What’s become ever more apparent is that there’s no such thing as an objective taste hierarchy. People who had similar identity, education, and experiences policing the old high-low spectrum were able to make it reflect their prejudices. As the music critic Carl Wilson wrote in 2007’s Let’s Talk About Love, a treatise on taste in the time of poptimism framed by Wilson’s investigation into his own inability to enjoy Celine Dion, “Pop songs and movies and genre fiction and magazines are so appealing, achieve so much aesthetically for so many people, that snobbery cannot hold the line against them.”
Hulu’s Pam & TommyThe bad-taste aesthetic was epitomized by him.
Elizabeth Renstrom, TIME
A growing recognition that mass culture is dominated by a lot of the things we refer to as “mass culture” has led to a greater appreciation for what it means. Good tasteIt is an aesthetic that can be used in any way. “Unless you have a thing for white-power anthems, the claim now goes, there is no reason ever to feel guilty or ashamed about what you like,” Wilson writes. “And I agree, though it’s curious how often critics’ ‘own enjoyment’ still takes us all down similar paths at once.” Was True Detective really a great show in its first season, for instance, or did critics respond more profoundly than the average person to brooding characters who say things like “Time is a flat circle”?
Good taste can be described as having superficial characteristics. Bad taste, however, is the opposite. Umberto Eco efficiently sketched out the aesthetic in 1989’s “The Structure of Bad Taste”: “A dress designed so as to enhance the charms of its wearer is not, by definition, a product of bad taste (though it would be if it drew the attention of the viewer only to the more obvious attributes of the wearer, thus reducing her personality to a mere prop for one particular physical trait).” Where good taste is demure, bad taste is bawdy. Bad taste can be minimalistic, while good taste can be maximalist. Where good taste whispers, bad taste screams: “Look! React! Feel!”
A style with bad taste, however, is one that values nothing and revels only in the schlock, camp, or raunch. What it isn’t, for our purposes, is what I’ll call Bad taste—tasteless in a mean way. If bad taste is wearing a gold lamé bikini to the Oscars, poor taste is joking about someone’s disability at the ceremony, or responding to said joke by slapping the comedian who made it.
Nostalgia is one of the components that make up our current taste for bad food. Each year, we discover a new period from our past that is both unlikely and possible to romanticize. Right now, it’s the 2000s. As Olivia Rodrigo brings back the punky pop of artists like Avril Lavigne and Paramore, teens are reviving jeans that don’t hug hips so much as cling to them for dear life. Indie sleaze was a subcategory that reflects aughts style nostalgia, and is represented by loose, flashy American Apparel bottoms. Harper’s Bazaar that the bad taste is the point: “I love how random and tacky it is.” Who could blame her for idealizing an era before young adults had to worry about COVID, the end of Roe V. WadeThe threat of an environmental apocalypse and the need to act now
Even though this vibe was created by Gen Z, profit-motivated elders coopted it almost immediately. Revisionist media coverage has brought the tabloid-hounded women of the aughts—Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, even the late Brittany Murphy—back into the limelight. Streaming services have rushed out documentaries on Von Dutch and Abercrombie & Fitch. Since 2020, Y2K-styled fashions have dominated the high-fashion runways.
Every isolating side effect from the pandemic affected more people than any nostalgia. The number of antidepressant prescriptions rose by 25% in 2020. As we became addicted to streaming, the number of people who streamed exploded. In the midst of this ongoing process, most people were able to return to normal life in their homes. However, by that time, entertainment overload and numbness had spread. We hadn’t Do it anything in over a year, but it felt as though we’d seen everything.
Lil Nas X performs “Montero(Call Me by Your Name)” in this music video.
Now it takes more energy, more audacity, more spectacle to jolt us out of our malaise—and that’s where bad taste comes in. Keep your gentle ballads; 100 gecs, a hyperpop act known for its warp-speed genre collages, recently combined hard-rock guitar, pop-punk vocals, and conspicuous Auto-Tune in “Doritos & Fritos.” The chorus is just the song title repeated with anthemic intensity. Last year, Lil Nas X, who rose to fame with the wholesome novelty hit “Old Town Road,” reinvented himself with an album cycle defined by gay sex and cartoonish invocations of Satanism.
Courtesy of Jared Leto and MGM Lady Gaga in House of Gucci
The New York Times’Kyle Buchanan saw an analogous phenomenon when awards season movies were made: large, spectacular performances that movie audiences take seriously. Citing A-listers like Jared Leto, Jessica Chastain and Lady Gaga, Buchanan wonders if after months indoors “it’s invigorating simply to watch actors shake off their shackles and go for broke.” The trend has reached TV, from Kidman’s goofy accent in Nine Perfect Strangers to Sean Penn’s grotesque makeup in Gaslit to Renée Zellweger’s fat suit in Pam’s Best Thing. Everything you need to know about Pam & TommyIt is an ode to poor taste.
Pete Davidson is the embodiment of our moment of bad taste. He proudly represents Staten Island and has been a celebrity because he’s now dating Kim Kardashian. No single image captures it more vividly than the photo that circulated, this past fall, of Megan Fox kissing Machine Gun Kelly side-by-side with Kourtney Kardashian kissing Blink-182’s Travis Barker in the bathroom at MTV’s VMAs. (No one embraces a trend like reality TV’s first family.) They have big, slender, and revealing tongues. The men are full of energy. Barker is even a true Y2K throwback.
What’s remarkable about all this is not that it’s happening so much as the absence of any notable mainstream backlash. (Even among far-right pundits, who pay their bills by fulminating against the alleged moral bankruptcy of the entertainment industry, the pearl-clutching about Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s gleefully filthy 2020 hit “WAP” felt as perfunctory as it was accidentally hilarious.) Invented by the wealthy to shame the poor, bad taste has lost its classist connotations. “Paris the heiress” started living in tracksuits and trucker hats. Even then media scolds were still wringing hands at the partying and promiscuity of celebrity women. These days, Perez Hilton is no longer scrawling “whore” on paparazzi photos of Lindsay Lohan. The same fashion establishment that chafed over populist youth trends like grunge in the ’90s and style blogs in the aughts is not just drawing inspiration from EuphoriaBut sending the stars down the runway.
It makes sense that norms are shifting in this direction as Gen Z’s influence spreads. With access to once-illicit bad-taste touchstones such as Instagram, raised on social media Rocky Horror just a click away, they’ve largely replaced IRL subcultures with a constellation of aesthetics—cottagecore, dark academia, Y2K—to be performed, then discarded or demoted to just another aesthetic in the rotation. Black mesh used to signify a goth identity; now, it doesn’t make you a Cure fan any more than a floral frock makes you a denizen of a cottage in the English countryside. There’s obviously something shallow about trading genuine cultural affinity for cosplay, yet it also reflects an understanding that style can signify a fleeting personal or societal mood more than a fixed identity.
By this logic, big plastic earrings aren’t inherently tacky; they’re props of the fancy-grandma aesthetic. The term “slutcore” does not mean any one behavior. You don’t have to get into hard drugs to appreciate cocaine decor. Gaudy can be described as a mental state. Perhaps the backlash isn’t coming because there’s so clearly nothing of substance to get up in arms about. Who but the dourest prudes are left to trash the bad-taste aesthetic, when we’re all busy trying to shock the pandemic into submission by living—vicariously, if not physically—as if we’re immortal?
The era of excessive bad taste is not over. Warm weather is on its way, which means we’re in for an era of orange tans with animal-print caftans. We also have the possibility of raunchy music and maximalist entertainment. (Look out for lily-gilding auteur Baz Luhrmann’s ElvisThis movie hits theaters every Friday on the week following the summer solstice. And that’s not just fine—it’s healthy. Bad taste, like the degenerate art that bridged 19th and 20th century centuries, is accelerating the decline of an outdated cultural landscape. If we can salvage society, the current intersection of traumas could lead to new, relevant, and more resonant aesthetics. It’s just like how World War I brought forth modernism. Even if it wasn’t, there were still some fun things to do at the end. As high priestess of bad taste Lana Del Rey sang, “The culture is lit and if this is it, I had a ball.”
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