Christmas is a time to be with the ones you love, to give gifts and give thanks, and to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ (if you’re so inclined). It is also a time for gaudy decorations, Griswoldian light displays, mall Santas, and a carnivalesque orgy of capitalist commercialism, formulaic Hallmark movies, and sugary crap. Does this mean, as we hear every year, that we’ve forgotten the “true spirit” of the holiday, or is there something meaningful and worthwhile in the giant tacky spectacle? What does our attachment to the tackiest parts of Christmas say about us and our aesthetic attachment to “low culture”?
Whether we’re talking about the holidays, pop music, or frosted lip gloss, it’s high time we develop a more nuanced, empathetic, and less elitist way to talk about pop culture and the politics of “good” and “bad” taste. This is precisely what author Rax King does in her new book Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer, which explores the meaningful relationships we develop with “tacky” things—from suburban malls and the Cheesecake Factory to the music of Creed—and the complicated social pressures we face from snobbish people telling us we’re bad for liking the things we like.
In this special holiday edition of Art for the End Times, host Lyta Gold and TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez talk to Rax King about her book, the power of unfettered (and unashamed) aesthetic appreciation, and the true meaning of Christmas. Rax King is the James Beard Award-nominated writer of the columns “Store-Bought Is Fine” and “Dirtbag Chef,” as well as the host of the podcast Low Culture Boil. Her writing can be found in a range of outlets, including Glamour, MEL Magazine, and Catapult.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Dwayne Gladden
Lyta Gold: Good evening and welcome to Art for the End Times. As always, I’m your host, Lyta Gold. So we started out this podcast so far with two deep dives into fantasy novels because I am the host and I felt like it, and I can do whatever I want. But tonight we’re going to take a step back. We’re going to look at culture from a more meta perspective. Specifically, we’re going to tackle the question of high versus low culture.
Now, this is very tricky because when you say high culture and low culture, I mean, everybody knows what you’re talking about. But, then you also will hear something like, there’s this new thing called poptimism, haven’t you heard of it? So in brief, poptimism is this phenomenon, it really started with music critics in the last few decades, it’s expanded since then. Basically, it’s when a critic takes a popular work seriously as a piece of art and celebrates it and treats it like low culture were the same thing as high culture. So, you might be wondering why is that a bad thing? That’s a really good question. We’ll get to it.
Another place where you’ll see complaints about poptimism, you’ll see it on the grounds of academia because the sacred grounds of academia, it’s been invaded by poptimism. Unpaid graduate students are writing dissertations on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a world gone mad. So interestingly enough, the poptimism phenomenon, insofar as it’s actually happening, it’s occurring at the same time that arts criticism and academia have lost a lot of prestige and a lot of compensation which feels relevant to the discussion about them.
So, there’s a lot to get into this, and this is definitely not going to be our only episode on the subject. But tonight I really would like to stay focused on this question of high culture versus low culture. We’re going to unpack what it means, what liking something really means, and what the political ramifications are of labeling certain art as bad, low culture, popular, and tacky. On top of all that, it’s Christmas, probably, by the time this comes out, and Christmas is a tacky fucking holiday. So we’re going to talk about that.
With me tonight I have very special and very merry guests. The first is the editor-in-chief of The Real News Network, my good buddy, Max Alvarez.
Max Alvarez: Lyta, thank you so much for having me on the show, and can I just say it is a goddamn delight? Art for the End Times rocks and we are so excited to have it here at The Real News and to have you be part of The Real News team. So, thanks for having me on.
Lyta Gold: Dang, because I like to think of myself as, no offense to the other shows, but I’m like the rock and roll asshole kid in the background. Everyone else is paying attention; they’re sitting up front, and I’m beating on stuff.
Max Alvarez: You’re Bart Simpson when the teacher walks in and his desk is the only one turned backwards.
Lyta Gold: That’s funny because I’m such a Lisa. I was always a Lisa, like straight up. But in my old age, I’m definitely getting more of a Bart.
Max Alvarez: You’re embracing your inner Bart.
Lyta Gold: Well, The Simpsons is a good example of what we’re going to talk about. But before we get into things, let me introduce our other extremely special guest. She is a writer, a podcaster, the queen of tacky herself. It’s everybody’s favorite person. It’s Rax King.
Rax King: Hi, everybody. I’m sorry I kept snorting during your spiel. I never know when I’m allowed to start snorting on other people’s podcasts.
Lyta Gold: Yes. They were good snorts.
Rax King: Thank you.
Lyta Gold: They were very like, what’s the word for… There’s this word for the way the Jewish people talk where the interrupting thing that we do.
Rax King: Yeah. Annoying, I think –
Lyta Gold: Yeah.
Rax King: – Is the word that people came up with. I always got to –
Lyta Gold: But –
Rax King: – Try not to be too Jewish on other people’s podcasts, I think is the answer.
Lyta Gold: But it’s a problem when I’m around like goyim and they don’t do that annoying… Because I don’t know. Are they approving of what I’m saying? So your snorts made me feel very approved of.
Rax King: Right, yeah –
Lyta Gold: …Should know that.
Rax King: – Because they never jump in with a take. They always wait for me to finish talking, and if you wait for me to finish talking it’s just never going to stop. So, I get nervous and I just keep going. So, yeah.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Yeah, that’s not this kind of show. This is a Jewish show. Even though we’re going to talk about Christmas and my feelings on Christmas, which are complex.
Rax King: Complicated.
Lyta Gold: Jewish feelings about Christmas are… Yeah.
Rax King: I have Jew feelings about yonder Christmas holiday. Not my favorite. Not my favorite.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. I don’t know. Well, I mean, we’ll get into this, but I’ve grown to like it more.
Rax King: Sure.
Lyta Gold: But it’s got a special… Yeah. It’s hard being a Jew on Christmas. There’s a song about it, and it’s for real.
Rax King: I feel very bullied by all of December, I think. I just feel like it exists to piss me off in a lot of ways.
Lyta Gold: Oh, my God. This one time I worked at a chocolate shop, actually. And we had Christmas music 24/7 during December. I started, because I was losing my fucking mind, I started writing down every time I heard a particular iteration of a song. I had tack marks. It looked like I was in jail. It was very like fights, like the things that you would write down. Angelic eyes you killed.
Rax King: You had like a crazy guy wall with the strings connecting this and that rendition of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.”
Max Alvarez: I feel like –
Lyta Gold: I was Charlie Kelly. Pepe Silvia, Christmas edition.
Rax King: Pepe Silvia!
Max Alvarez: I feel like I’ve had basically the opposite trajectory of every Christmas movie. Where they reconnect with the holiday when they rediscover the true spirit of Christmas. In the spirit of Rax’s phenomenal book and the tackiness that is all around us, I feel like the more that I just lean into that, the happier I am by the end of December.
Lyta Gold: That’s a good strategy. I like that.
Max Alvarez: Yeah. I mean, there’s just –
Lyta Gold: I like that.
Max Alvarez: – No shame in it. Just like I can watch Muppet Christmas Carol on repeat, like –
Rax King: That’s a banger though, Muppet Christmas Carol. Nothing wrong with Muppet Christmas Carol.
Max Alvarez: It’s just such a banger. I think Lyta and I were talking about this when we were planning for this.
Lyta Gold: Oh, yeah.
Max Alvarez: We were like, I saw someone tweet. It’s just like, man, what a movie Muppet Christmas Carol is. Michael Caine just fucking acting his ass off, surrounded by a bunch of weird puppets.
Lyta Gold: Like –
Rax King: Just fully in his, like on his Hamlet shit but surrounded by Animal and Gonzo.
Lyta Gold: I don’t mean this in a mean way, but Jeremy Strong could never, like –
Rax King: No, he wishes.
Lyta Gold: His method Muppet acting is something I would pay a lot of money to see. But yeah, he would not. That’s not a scene for him.
Rax King: Michael Caine could play Kendall Roy, but Jeremy strong could not act alongside a bunch of fucking Muppets.
Max Alvarez: In the spirit of the Muppet Christmas Carol, Lyta and I determined that she and I are basically Waldorf and Statler in the rafters in this case. And Rax is Animal.
Rax King: Wait, I always wanted to be Animal. He was my favorite Muppet. It wasn’t even close.
Max Alvarez: There you go.
Lyta Gold: We knew it. We knew it.
Rax King: Yeah. Y’all did know it. Thank you. Thank you for calling my book phenomenal. Thank you for calling me Animal the Muppet. This is a great use of my evening so far. I just come on here and get complimented.
Max Alvarez: That’s what we do here at The Real News.
Lyta Gold: Your eyeliner is amazing. Yeah. Your eyeliner –
Rax King: Mine?
Lyta Gold: – Is amazing and nobody can see it. Yeah. Yeah.
Rax King: Well, thank you. It definitely doesn’t look super fucked up because I haven’t been slaving over a deep fryer.
Lyta Gold: Whomst, though. Again, I’ve got Jim here. Everybody’s in a situation here. Except for Max, who’s pristine.
Rax King: Yeah.
Lyta Gold: But part of the joy of being tacky is not having to be on all of the time.
Rax King: Yeah.
Lyta Gold: I want to get into talking about your book just a little bit before we get into the meat of everything. The book is so amazing. I loved it. It is called Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer. Then you are also the co-host of a show called Low Culture Boil. So tackiness and low culture is really your specialty.
Rax King: Yeah.
Lyta Gold: So I kind of… Yeah.
Rax King: I guess I’ve made it my specialty. But really it was, like most people, they decide to specialize in something. They go to a bunch of school for a really long time and learn a bunch of things. And then for me, it was just one day I sat down with myself and I thought, I still really like Creed, don’t I? Like, the band Creed. Maybe there’s something there. Maybe there was. I don’t know. I wrote a whole book of that. So, yeah.
Lyta Gold: I loved that essay about Creed, and that’s actually a great place to start because the essay made me go back and listen to Creed who I had not listened to in a long time. So you bring up Creed as a prototypical example of low culture in a way. It’s interesting because Creed is crazy popular. I did not realize how popular they are and still are.
Rax King: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Max Alvarez: Seems –
Rax King: And like people –
Lyta Gold: That’s wild.
Rax King: I mean, I think that… I don’t know. I don’t know because and even in the early 2000s when they were arguably at their peak popularity-wise, critics really… It’s one thing for a critic to dislike something critically but that never felt like the response to Creed. It always felt more like you’re a dumbass if you enjoy this and I’m not going to tell you why. That to me was the attitude most worth exploring in terms of Creed’s popularity because if you’re going to say that something incredibly popular is for stupid assholes and never explain why that is, you’re making a real judgment about all these millions of people who are going to see Creed shows and buying their albums. It’s a strange judgment to make. It’s one that I’ve always found illegible. Like, really, how can your job be to critically address music and that’s what you do with a band that’s that popular?
Max Alvarez: See this, my Jewish sister, and this is where it really helps to have grown up Catholic. Because I was definitely aware of how popular Creed was when I was growing up. My mom got me for Christmas the CDs that you get at Walmart that had the super long cases for some reason, just to make them seem like they weren’t CDs when you wrapped them up or something. So I definitely –
Lyta Gold: Gen-Zers [don’t listen].
Max Alvarez: Yeah. Exactly.
Rax King: Yeah.
Lyta Gold: [crosstalk]
Max Alvarez: Oh, my God [inaudible]
Rax King: That was an insane sentence if you were born after 9/11.
Max Alvarez: Right. God, I think I’m going to feel old as shit by the end of this episode, but… So I got one of those for Christmas back in the height of Creed’s emergent popularity. I loved it. I think that there’s a… I hadn’t thought about this before, but speaking of tacky, at the time there was, as Rax describes in her book and I’m sure we’ll talk about it in a second, that sort of abandon that you have with indulging in something. Or, maybe it doesn’t even seem like an indulgence, but really giving yourself over to the types of culture that we call tacky. I felt that. I was an angsty little shit. I heard Creed and I was just like, man, just hurt me, man. Just let the emotions flow through me.
That was the case with everyone in our congregation as well. There was almost, I think, a really endearing shamelessness with which people thrust themselves into the Creed phenomenon at the time. But then something tipped a couple years into that where it was like then churches started trying to be cool. The church bands started being younger. They tried to be more… They tried to emulate that pop persona and people sniffed that out. Those of us who were in confirmation class and stuff, I was like, ew, that… Suddenly I felt embarrassed by it in a way that I hadn’t. I think that, Rax, in these essays in your book you really unpack that in an incredible way that I am still thinking about.
Rax King: Yeah. I think that embarrassment is key. When you call something tacky you are essentially telling other people that they should be embarrassed for partaking of it in whatever way. I think that what I was hoping to do with the essays in this book was make the case that that embarrassment belongs to other people. If you are just a humble Creed listener just trying to have a good time and somebody else approaches you and says, this music actually sucks and what are you doing? And if you keep listening to it, you’re an idiot. What response is there but, no, fuck you. Get out of my house. What is the point even of listening to something like that?
Lyta Gold: Something that really struck me as I was reading it because you get into so much of other people’s business. So much of what we define as low culture and high culture has to do with either how other people actually do think of things or how we imagine that other people think of things. It becomes this really frustrating situation. It’s really a frightening situation where you’re always feeling bad about liking something. I was thinking a little bit about the origins of this because there was a lot of… People have been worrying about liking the wrong stuff for a really long time. Certainly, 18th, 19th century, like bourgeois culture, there was a lot of concern as reading became more widespread that the masses were going to like the wrong things and as democracy became more widespread and the masses were going to have bad taste.
Then they had to read things and listen to things that were improving. So, we still have this idea that whatever we take into our minds, and it’s very much like food. It often goes into food metaphors. Whatever we take into our minds is like what we take into our bodies and it has to be improving and it has to be good for us. So people listen to Creed and what they hear… It’s funny because the church might listen in and hear, oh, that’s something that’s good for us because it’s very Christian; It’s church-related. But you have to come up with that excuse and you have to come up with that reason why it is good for you. I find that really fascinating.
Rax King: Yeah. You end up on your guard a lot. I mean, I think that you bring up food and that’s a really strong analog because, as an American in particular, our diet culture’s so fucked up. You, the eater, just end up on your guard a lot. You look at nutrition labels for a crazy long time and you listen to what some guy on a daytime talk show, he says don’t eat carbs. And you’re like, oh, okay. Then you do a little more research and you learn just how flimsy so much nutritional science actually is.
Then it becomes even flimsier when you transfer it back to someone else’s music taste. You can make an argument that the things you put into your body via your mouth are good or bad for you. That argument might be specious, but it feels real, I think. It feels plausible in a way that it really shouldn’t feel as plausible to say the things that you take in your body via your ears or your eyes, those can also be equally harmful. Sure, movies and TVs shows and music, there are senses in which they can do harm, but I don’t think that’s typically the sense people mean when they say stuff like that. They want you to be ashamed and they want you to correct yourself just like some asshole telling you to eat less wants you to be ashamed and wants you to correct yourself.
Max Alvarez: Well, and I think that it’s funny because your book, as we mentioned, covers a number of different tacky topics. You explore your tacky connection to them. It’s funny that I feel like you might want to end with Creed because that’s the final boss, but you start with… It’s like you said –
Rax King: No, get them out of the way early.
Max Alvarez: Right. You just took out your sword and you’re like, all right, if this is going to be a book, then let’s see how I can dig into Creed and come out the other end, which was just phenomenal. But I wanted to ask, since we’re on the topic, I guess just for folks who are listening, how that investigation of your longtime love for Creed really crystallizes the questions of tackiness that you explore throughout the book?
Rax King: Yeah. I mean, I think that for me, Creed was probably the first thing that I really loved that somebody else told me I shouldn’t love. And not only somebody else, but somebody who I really cared to impress. Because when you’re 9, 10 years old, your parents are pretty much the guiding lights telling you, enjoy this; don’t enjoy this; enjoy reading; don’t enjoy punching the neighbor kid in the face. So you grow up with those voices in your ear or whoever is doing the work of raising you. That’s the voice that you hear the most telling you what to do and not do. And you start to break away from that as a 9, 10-year-old. You start to look to other guiding lights. In my case, I think in a lot of people’s case, that was older teenagers.
If somebody was 16, they were… Excuse me. If somebody was 16 years old, they had the most valuable opinion in the room. It did not matter if they were fully incorrect about everything. Their position in relation to mine made them an authority to me. So of course, as a kid growing up in the 2000s loving Creed, those teenagers seized on that first thing. That was the first objectionable thing about me that other people could see and point to. Of course, it really stuck. It was an early example of why I felt I needed to hide the things I liked. I did it with all kinds of stuff that I probably didn’t need to hide. To this day, if somebody brings up what kind of music do you like or whatever I still never want to be the first one to answer the question. I always want the other person to give me some form of permission to answer the way I’m really going to answer based on whatever they say. I never want to be the guy who says the embarrassing thing first, ever.
Lyta Gold: I do not share my Spotify Wrapped.
Rax King: No!
Lyta Gold: I will take that to my fucking grave. You do not get to know what I’m listening to, people.
Rax King: No, me neither. Sometimes it’ll say you listened to this song 69 times, and of course people need to know about that. But that’s for different and much more important reasons, spiritual reasons.
Max Alvarez: Right. Well, so I’m with you both on that. I think there’s maybe something, or maybe we can talk about this a little more later when we’re talking about Christmas and the great tackiness of this holiday. But you have this great line that Lyta pulled that I went back to before recording this in the introduction where you say, as far as I’m concerned, tackiness is joyfulness. To be proudly tacky, your aperture for all the too much feelings, angst, desire, joy, must be all the way open. You’ve got to be so much more ready to feel everything than anyone probably wants to be. It’s a brutal way to live. I thought that was just beautifully written. I wanted to ask you that question about tackiness as joyfulness. That kind of plugs into what we’re talking about here. Like, yeah, I’m not going to share my Spotify Wrapped with any of you people. But when I’m in the car and my tacky delights come on, I’m rolling those windows up and I’m belting that shit out.
I think maybe one of the warmly endearing things that I was left with after reading your book, I think it’s in the essay on malls where you talk about this social situation at bars where everyone is terrified of what everyone else is thinking of them, but everyone’s looking at everyone else. That’s the joke, is no one’s actually thinking of you because we’re all thinking about everyone else, that kind of thing. It got me thinking that maybe there’s some degree to which we all have that tacky love for these things. We just have different degrees of shame when it comes to embracing them.
Rax King: No. Yeah. I think I say something like that in the Creed essay, actually. Like, you might not have this secret shameful love of Creed specifically, but I am willing to bet that you have it for something. I think that it’s a very human way to feel. I mean, if you want to be really Jewy about it, which I do, then you look back at the fucking Garden of Eden. That’s the very first human beings [that were] ever created. The first thing they felt, really, was shame. They had this moment of fucking up real bad, seeing that they were naked and hating themselves for it ever since. Ever since then, we as humans have hated our nakedness at every turn, both literal and metaphorical nakedness.
I am comfortable writing a book of essays about the “shameful shit” that I like. That’s easy. The people who are going to read it are going to self-select. I would not walk into a crowded room and announce at the top of my lungs how much I loved the movie Josie and the Pussycats. That is such a different ballgame because that shame still exists and still feeds off of itself. I don’t think there’s any way to really eliminate it, but I think it’s worth interrogating it for sure.
Lyta Gold: Are we saying that Adam’s junk was the original Josie And The Pussycats, is that –
Rax King: Yes. To be clear, I am saying that. Please use that as a pull quote.
Lyta Gold: I’m going to check it with my theologian friends about that one. So, it’s interesting how impoverishing this is for our lives, that we go around and… It’s funny, these things change. For me the big thing that I was very hidden about in high school was that I was really into sci-fi and fantasy and I was into it five years before it became okay for girls to be into it. It was so close to the borderline of when it was okay, but it wasn’t okay and I knew that, and it was only for nerds. So I hid that and it’s this… Again, impoverishing, because it’s something when you really love something, you really do love it. You really do feel strongly about it, it gets to you. That quote that Max just had about these deep emotions and the too muchness, it really gets to you on that level and you want to share that love with other people.
So it’s funny, there’s this social aspect. It’s like there’s these two important elements. It’s the love and then it’s the social aspect of that love. Because when you see something you love – Or often when you see something that you fucking hate – You really want to go and tell people about it and you want to share that intensity of emotion with other people. Then to have the reaction to that based on this calculus, this, oh, am I going to be judged for the feeling rather than… Because you can be in a conversation with somebody who completely disagrees and have a fun conversation. But it’s the fear of judgment and a shame that, again, it’s a very old emotion. It’s a very deep emotion, shame, but the fact that we apply it to culture does not seem to me to be a necessary part of how we deal with each other.
Rax King: Yeah. What I find interesting about that entire dynamic is that when I love something that some other people have deemed bad and embarrassing, my instinct still isn’t to seek out other people who love the same thing as me, it’s to respond to the shame feeling and the embarrassment implication, this other person pointing at me and saying, you’re doing something wrong. That’s the person that I listen to. It feeds from that same instinct of if I’m really good at something, that thing is not worth being good at and if I win an award, it was a stupid award and all that shit.
I’m forever inclined to believe the person who’s saying that I’m doing something wrong, which, I guess is a big part of where this book comes from, is that a lot of people over the years have told me that I was doing something wrong and I just kept doing it. A lot of times that didn’t work out for me. And there are 14 essays about that now.
Max Alvarez: I think that one thing I wanted to ask you about is I think we’re already talking about it in a way, but I think there’s another point where I think it was in the Creed essay where you said, Creed’s music got me to realize that inside me, there was this little animal. This desiring, feeling animal that… I don’t know, it seems like when we’re talking about that shame counter-posed with our love for the things that are deemed tacky, it really bears out this clash between, I don’t know, who we are as our most “authentic selves,” or what the hell that even means. But even when you’re a young, weird, sweaty adolescent, there is that little animal in you that still knows what it likes, that still responds to the things that it likes.
I mean, even when you’re starting to discover just affection or even romantic attraction to people, you can’t force yourself to like someone that you don’t. There’s just that little animal in you that says, wow, that person across the… I don’t know what it is, but I just have to… I love that person and I’ll never talk to him. For me, that was Katie Thompson. I was so in love with her. I wrote little disguised notes and put them in her cubby. It’s one of the most intense romance stories of my fifth grade years.
It took months for her and her friends to figure out that I was the secret admirer, and then she called me one day at my home and my friend Tim was there and he was like, oh my God, it’s Katie. I was like, oh my God, and I got the nerve up to ask her, hey, do you want to go out with me? And she said, yes. To this day, I’ve never said another word to Katie Thompson.
Rax King: R-I-P.
Max Alvarez: R-I-P, yeah. I think she’s married and so technically we’re still together, so I got to break that. But again, there was something there that I couldn’t quite articulate. I couldn’t really wrap a lasso around, but it felt most like me in the same way that the music that I loved and the movies that I loved felt the most like me until I started getting that social pressure that was determining what I should and shouldn’t like and how intensely I should and should not like them. So, I don’t know, is that over-intellectualizing this, or is there that tension between that animalistic thing that’s more you and the social pressures of, I don’t know, who we should be?
Rax King: No, I think that’s absolutely right. I mean, when you’re a kid and you’re being raised by people, a big part of that is teaching you to interact appropriately with your appetites. An example for me is that when I was very, very little, I got it into my head, take out the permanent marker and scribble on your mother’s sofa. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to really, but I also thought, no one’s going to stop me. I could do this right now and this could just happen. I did, and I got in crazy trouble for it and so in my head, I was like, okay, I follow my appetites and maybe something bad could happen. It was really the first time that I had done something I desired to do and been met with very real resistance.
Then when you’re becoming a teenager, those appetites start to include sexual appetites and sexual desires and romantic interests and all that mess. I think that as you’re becoming a teenager that’s also around the time that you’re starting to branch out culturally, you’re starting to discover what movies and music you like on your own. Not because your parents played it in the car because they liked it and you just happened to be there. You’re more active about it. You become the subject of those cultural encounters and you’re seeking stuff out on your own. I think that’s right, that just in the way that we seek out answers to our sexual desires and are often met with frustrations, we would also seek out the answers to our cultural desires and be met with shame. I think it’s a variant of the same shame in both cases.
Lyta Gold: Yeah and you talk a little bit in one of your essays about the erotics of art and you quote from Susan Sontag about that, and this really wonderful quote where she’s getting at the idea that, we appreciate art and she as a critic as writing this, we appreciate art in this really intellectual way, but we really feel it in this passionate, libidinous, erotic kind of way. Erotic doesn’t always mean that it’s a sexual thing. It means it’s this intensity of attraction and intensity of feeling. There’s a frustration with the way that we talk about art. And especially it’s actually one of the things that bugs me with the way that we talk about high art, which is supposedly so separate and different because we intellectualize high art to death.
Rax King: Totally.
Lyta Gold: And it’s such a problem because I was raised on classical music and Shakespeare and things and then I will go to a Lincoln Center concert now and it’s me and 70 70-year-olds. There’s a reason it got lost for younger people, because you were told we had to sit in a room and it was very serious. There’s nothing sexy about it at all. It’s only later if you watch Amadeus that you learn that Mozart was a freak.
Rax King: Was a horny little goblin man, oh my God. –
Lyta Gold: I learned today from Twitter that he was a cat boy, which I did not know until…thank you Twitter for that one.
Rax King: I may not have known it but I think I did know it, you know?
Lyta Gold: Right. You’re like, that checks. That checks out. That tracks, that’s completely accurate.
Rax King: Yeah, that’s exactly it. It’s like if you want to see the Mona Lisa you have to first spend basically your whole life being told by every textbook in the world that the Mona Lisa is a masterpiece. You don’t even fucking know what’s coming to you when you look at the Mona Lisa. And it’s built up and built up and you’re intimidated by it for years. Then you go to the museum one day and you’re so stoked and you have your fanny pack and your little bottle of water and your disposable camera, fucking whatever, I don’t know. Then what you discover is that the Mona Lisa is a little, little painting behind a velvet rope surrounded by assholes, just the most profoundly unbearable assholes you ever saw in your life and it sours you.
Then it’s sad that that’s the way it has to happen because surely there was a time in the Mona Lisa’s existence when that wasn’t what the experience of viewing it was like. Surely there was a time when you could experience it on an erotic level. You could look at it and be impacted by it without being surrounded by tourist types, without being surrounded by noise, without having to enter a special art building and really just have the experience built up and built up in that way. I don’t think that it’s supposed to be a matter of intellectual appreciation or critical appreciation. You experience it through the senses first. And it sucks that so much “high art” is so unbearable to experience through the senses now.
I mean, I myself am going to the opera on Tuesday. I’m super stoked. It’s an opera I really love. I’m also like, I got to put on a dress and a bra and shoes. I got to put my stuff in a clutch because I can’t bring my usual shit heap purse. All this stuff that I have to do if I want to experience a piece of art that I love. And how much more annoying must all that stuff be if it’s a piece of art you don’t even know if you love, that you’ve just been told you’re supposed to love.
Max Alvarez: Yeah. I guess thinking of that erotic or libidinal response that you can have to stuff, I mean, it’s very hard to say what that’s going to be but I guess the image I always think of is that character Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when he is looking at George Seurat’s painting at the Art Institute. His soul is literally bleeding into the painting and you can tell he’s having this quite existential response to the art. I’ve had that shit, again, while playing just the corniest cornball stuff in my headphones doing the most cliche stuff like looking out of a train window when it’s raining. I don’t care how cliche it is, but I get those Cameron-type moments when I allow myself to be that animal, that wanting, desiring, becoming animal inside me and I am less concerned about the fearful looking over my shoulder animal that society has made me into.
But I guess the thing that it makes me think about, since we already talked about this, is church for me. I mean, it’s not particular to Christianity by any means. I’m sure we all have this. You go to your respected place of worship, you are told by your elders and other people around you that you need to revere this, that this is important. But as a kid, you’re just like, it’s kind of boring. I don’t know. This music kind of sucks. Or, these chairs are very uncomfortable. But there’s something almost about that ritual, and if you have crazy Catholic Mexican tias and tios like I do who will smack you in the shins if you’re not paying attention you start to enforce that sense of reverence in the same way that society smacks our shins and say, hey, the Mona Lisa is great high art. You should appreciate it as such. Then if you actually are fortunate enough to get there, like Rax was saying, you’re just surrounded by tourists. It’s pretty damn small, and you’re not even able to get that close to it, so there’s really no way that you can have that attachment. It’s all enforced from the outside in the same way that faith and reverence for the church, for me at least, was enforced from the outside and through that ritual that I was partaking in.
Lyta Gold: I have to tell a Mona Lisa story, which is that when me and my husband went to the Louvre, we made our way through the room and passed all the Italian tourists, et cetera. I saw Mona Lisa. We come back out and my husband says, but when is Nicholas Cage going to steal the national treasure? This American behind us just loses it… Must have been an American if he understood what we were saying.
Rax King: No Italian person would be like, ah, the Nicholas Cage, is funny. God. But yeah, I think that that’s what makes it all the more frustrating to me, that so many people’s response to harmless pieces of art that other people love is again, that finger pointing and no you’re wronging. When you consider the amount of work that a trip to go see the Mona Lisa takes for just your average guy in an American city, no fucking wonder he prefers to have that experience he’s supposed to have with fine art, he has that experience with something much closer and more… I mean, I feel like I’m about to misuse this word, but it is what I mean: accessible. It is accessible to him.
If some guy wants to see Creed perform live, that’s possible. He’s not going to see Mozart perform live. That dude is dead I think, I’m pretty sure, so you –
Lyta Gold: He’s a cat now, it’s fine.
Rax King: Yeah, he completed the evolution.
Max Alvarez: He’s just a horny cat walking around.
Rax King: But I don’t necessarily believe that that’s a strong argument for Mozart is difficult to get into, therefore nobody should bother getting into Mozart. But I do think it’s a strong argument that our means of getting people into so-called high art are piss poor. All we have is the promise of being bored at the symphony or bored at a museum. We’re not giving them those connecting points. I think that for people approaching it from that academic standpoint, they’re like, well, I had to work super hard for those moments of connection with these difficult pieces and other people should be able to do that work too. Yeah, I guess, but also, this theoretical guy I made up has a job and a kid maybe. People have lives, people have other stuff that they want to do before they want to get super into Beethoven or whatever.
Lyta Gold: Yeah and Beethoven in particular, who I’m completely fucking crazy about –
Rax King: Me too.
Lyta Gold: I think he’s so accessible but people are told this at a young age that it’s not material that is accessible and it’s not for you and it’s a very serious business, but it could be a thing that lots of people get into if they weren’t… Because the snobbery – And I think people don’t understand this – The snobbery turns a lot of people off and they get scared. I’m very scared about getting into French movies.
Rax King: Oh, me too.
Lyta Gold: Because there’s a whole thing and I just… Ugh, ugh. I can’t even get past the whole… And I’m sure I’d like things if I saw them, but I’m… French New Wave, someday I’ll try it.
Rax King: There’s this whole culture of dudes who it’s so, so important to them that I love these movies that are in French where a bunch of super skinny broads have their titties out. And I’m like, fair. I probably would enjoy this if I took a bunch of time out of my life to sit down with it and learn the lore, but you know what else has super good lore is fucking Lord Of The Rings, and It also has monsters and stuff on fire. So I’m sorry, that’s where I got to put my chips. I’m sorry.
Lyta Gold: So, this is actually something that I want to get into a little bit if we can, because there’s the accessibility question. Art, and conversely art that is not accessible, is held to be very good. You see a lot of contemporary novelists, for example, trying to write Ulysses, and just because something is difficult doesn’t make it good. But also there’s certain subject matter that is considered to be deeper and more serious. I was realizing this as I was watching the extremely tacky Christmas movie, A Castle For Christmas, starring Brooke Shields and Cary Elwes, it’s terrible, I highly recommend it.
Rax King: That’s a very ’90s sentence.
Lyta Gold: They look amazing. I mean, she’s had a lot of work done, whatever, she looks amazing. I don’t care, they’re in their late 50s, they fall in love. He’s a duke. It’s stupid, it’s great, I loved it.
Rax King: I love when Cary Elwes plays some kind of vaguely medieval-ish type of guy and I’m stretching the word medieval to mean like earlier than the time I was born. I mean, whatever. He’s always some kind of guy who’s very princely or he’s wearing special pirate rags. I don’t know, I just love that about him. He does not seem of this century at all.
Lyta Gold: I’m pretty sure he wears a kilt. Yeah, no, he definitely wears a kilt because he’s a Scottish duke. It’s great, very… But one other thing I realized as I was watching it, because Brooke Shields is a successful romance novelist who’s having a tough time and then she meets the duke, whatever, castle, it’s all good. I was like, oh, romance is the one genre where women get a happy ending. It’s not even just that the happy ending is guaranteed as part of the genre. I was thinking there’s not that many… Mostly in anything that’s very serious and anytime a man wants me to watch a very serious movie, it’s a movie where a guy kills his girlfriend or something else terrible happens to a woman in some way.
Then horror movies star women a lot, but usually women get cut up because that’s the genre too. And I’m like, sometimes I just want something nice to happen to a lady, for God’s sake.
Rax King: I mean, we just did an episode of my podcast, Low Culture Boil, about Hallmark movies, which I never really cared about because I’m not a goy, but I watched some of them for this project and then I read about them and I read that there are very strict rules when it comes to Hallmark Christmas movies. One of the rules is there has to be snow. There’s never going to be a Christmas in Miami with Hallmark. There has to be snow because it’s Christmassy. Every scene, they have to be doing something Christmassy. They can’t just be like, well it’s December, but I’m going to get a jump on filing my taxes. No, they are making gingerbread cookies, that is what’s happening.
That comes from a pretty reactionary place, I’d argue. I mean the Hallmark Channel is so evangelical but I like the logic of it. I like the idea that there can be a universe where you know the rules going in and they are not violated. I say this as somebody who… I don’t want that to be every movie I watch. I don’t want to just have a B-plus time my entire life long but I do want there to be nice things sometimes. I want to experience art and have it be pleasant. I just rewatched Uncut Gems, which is a movie that I love, love, love. Beautiful movie, great looking movie. Very stressful movie. I couldn’t look at the screen for like 25% of the time. Anytime everyone’s arguing and talking over each other, I got to look at my phone. I got to get away for a second.
There’s a lot of that vibe, I think, in art that is generally accepted to be good. There’s always something that is arguing with you as a viewer. There’s always something that’s pushing your boundaries as a viewer. I think that is a good thing to do, but I also think it is 100% reasonable for people to opt out of that once in a while and just watch Spice World where nothing bad happens except an alien abduction, kind of.
Lyta Gold: Well, and then this question of what would it mean to have art that’s good, that we can maybe acknowledge is good, but doesn’t have to be physically unpleasant and maybe bad things don’t happen to women. Is this a thing that we can do or does it always have to be… And I loved Uncut Gems too, but that’s a very uncomfortable film.
Rax King: I mean, I think that one could argue that Sally Rooney’s novels play that role. I mean, I know there is a –
Lyta Gold: Oh, that’s a good point.
Rax King: There’s a lot of argument about just how good her work actually is. But I think that it does fill that space of work that is considered intellectually sound that also follows the fairytale formula to an extent. I mean that I’ve only read her first two books but it’s happy endings all the way through honey, it’s great.
Max Alvarez: I’d also like to add Kit de Waal in there, her writing fucking rocks. But yeah, it is wild how you put that, Lyta, because it really does seem like a prerequisite for art by women or featuring women as their main character, that they cannot have a happy ending in order for it to be taken seriously. I did also just want to say in response to something that Rax said, is that I like to think that Lyta’s show and Lyta’s purpose on this Earth is to destroy that class of man who forces you to watch French movies and take… That’s why she was brought down from the heavens. This is her mission in life.
Lyta Gold: Okay, will you guys give me a tank? Because I would do this, but I need a tank.
Max Alvarez: I’m sure the Baltimore PD’s got a whole lot that they can spare.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, totally. They won’t miss them. Let’s just take it.
Max Alvarez: They will not.
Rax King: They’re not using them. It’s just toys, toys for play time.
Lyta Gold: I’d have to come up with all kinds of tank-related puns.
Max Alvarez: Hey man, do your best Michael Dukakis –
Lyta Gold: Tank me later.
Max Alvarez: Exactly.
Rax King: Oh I got to go, that made me depressed. That shaved an hour off my life expectancy.
Lyta Gold: That’s really the feeling I want all guests to have of this show.
Rax King: You want us to feel like we’re dying slowly.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Yeah.
Max Alvarez: Nailed it.
Going back to the high versus low culture question, I know there’s something that you’ve talked about a lot on the book tour. I think I heard you and my boy David Parsons talking about on the Nostalgia Trap. I think maybe people who are listening to this, their initial thought is, oh so you’re… This book is basically that meme saying, let people enjoy things.
Stop criticizing people for having bad taste. Stop them from liking problematic things like watching sports… Lyta and I are in a fantasy football league together. We understand it’s problematic, but we have fun. It’s not like we’re pretending we don’t know about all the horrible shit about the NFL, and the ways that athletes are exploited. I wanted to ask about that.
How this is not necessarily… An uncritical, let people enjoy what they enjoy because life is fuckin terrible and we should savor what little joy we can get out of our one time on this planet. It really does speak to that high and low question which really punches you in the gut from the beginning of the book, where you have a quote from Horkheimer and Adorno, and then a quote from Snooky, which is just fantastic, but like –
Rax King: Much more important philosophy,
Max Alvarez: Exactly. The great philosopher Snooky. That’s kind of the Horkheimer and Adorno’s thing. The capitalist culture creates this… It dupes us into liking things that are bad for us or it dupes us into liking things that make us more attached to the very system that is exploiting us. It basically treats people as, as you said, fly over people, dumb people who can’t discern that, and so they just become suckers of a capitalist culture that is designed to extract value from them, so on and so forth.
It’s not that simple. What we’re all saying here. You can be an incredibly smart person or you cannot be. You can still have very complex reasons for why that desiring animal inside of you wants certain things and gets joy from certain things that don’t just amount to you being a dumbass who doesn’t know that capitalism is putting this feeder shoot into the back of your throat and injecting you with sugar.
Rax King: I think it does function both ways. For all that capitalism can be and is a huge reason for this great flattening of our culture and this great, I always call it B-plusing of our culture, and taking away all the great potential and all the artfulness and forcing everything through this B-plus lens until it’s palatable for everybody. Of course I believe capitalism is responsible for that, of course I think it sucks. Art is not something that functions well under a profit motive, surely we all know this by now.
At the same time, we all got to live in the world. Engage with it as it is, and also engage with it on those terms of as we want it to be. We can want a better world. We can want better art. We can want the culture to be more dynamic and exciting than it is. We can also firmly believe that 1, 4, 5 chord progression sounds really fucking good and just respond to it. I think that it’s a real putting the cart before the horse situation to tell people who are already living much higher stakes parts of their lives under capitalist misery, to also tell them, by the way, that art you like, that you think is pretty harmless? That’s something that you have to give up right now in order to be a good comrade.
It just seems silly to have that be the priority. It seems silly to use pointing and shame as the tools to achieve that end even if you do think it’s a priority, because we all know that doesn’t work. And it leaves you wondering, we know shame doesn’t work, we know that shaming other people doesn’t make them stop, it just makes them go into hiding. For whose benefit are we doing the shaming? Do we really believe that we’re contributing to a glorious communist future by telling me not to listen to Creed, Dad.
It just seems like a waste of time and it seems like a way for people to assert their own bonafides while pretending that they’re doing it for the sake of a leftist project. I think it’s time to admit… Go ahead and hate people for listening to Creed if you want to, but don’t pretend that you’re doing that because you’re the best leftist in the world, that’s silly. That’s a silly, unserious attitude to take.
Lyta Gold: That’s what being a leftist is. It’s finding out who is the best at being a leftist, then you crown them king of the leftists and then we’re done. That’s the revolution. That’s how it happens.
Rax King: Then you go out and vote for a Democrat.
Lyta Gold: That’s too real. That’s my, oh, that felt like a year.
Before we get to the final run on Christmas I want to discuss really briefly the question of liking things ironically. Because this is often how leftists get around the issue of everything being corporate, is they say, well yes, I like this corporate product or that corporate product, but I like it ironically. Then the people who are stupid are the people who love it with their whole hearts, who actually love it, and it’s…
There was a recent post by John Gamps that I thought was really good. It was over the summer, I think he was talking about these various waves of moral panic over the culture is too ironic, or the culture’s too sincere, and they just go back and forth and they happen all the time. One of the things he found out when he dug into them is what everybody’s concerned about when they look into these, where they’re worrying, oh, it’s too sincere. It’s too ironic, is they perceive inauthenticity in other people. They perceive that somebody else… If people are demanding that the culture is earnest, then they’re being… By refusing irony, they are being disingenuous about reality. If somebody’s being ironic all the time they are refusing to engage properly with the culture in question or with everything in question.
This presumption of how other people are reacting, which I think is at the core of this is. Because it’s such an important part of how we regard this on a social level, I think people don’t like the idea that somebody is coming at something from a sincere place, or that you might start from the assumption that somebody’s coming at it from a sincere place. I think that’s something that would be good if the left did rather than immediately jump to the conclusion that whatever somebody is expressing, is somehow they’re not smart enough to see what it is or they’re just being insincere about what they actually feel.
Rax King: That very attitude, where we see it most of all, I think, is on Twitter, Reddit, and spaces that are designed down to their very programming to reward hateration and punish sincerity. There wouldn’t be the existence of RIP trolls and the like if we didn’t view sincerity online as a fundamentally gross thing, and I think gross is the word that I want. People see somebody pouring their heart out via Twitter thread and the response is to cringe away, like they just pissed on the floor. It’s an airing of something that ought to be kept private.
Lyta Gold: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Rax King: I think we would all be a lot happier and a lot more spiritually effective as people if we stopped worrying so much about what other people keep private and what they don’t. That sincerity versus irony issue, the way it functions in most of our day to day lives is this repulsion at the sight of someone’s heart on their sleeve, and I would call that silly too. I struggle against it myself. I’ve seen many a sincere post, cringed to myself, and just kept on a-scrollin. When I really sit down and think about it, do I want to live in a world where every person’s reaction to the sight of open sincerity in someone else is to shun it and to be uncomfortable and to retreat back into themselves?
No, that’s not who I want to be. That’s not who I want to associate with. That’s not who I think humans are at their core. I think that we’re kinder than that at our core, and just because we participate in these systems like Twitter that are essentially designed to make us cruel and to bring out our cruelest impulses, that doesn’t mean we should lean into those impulses. We should be fighting against that.
Max Alvarez: I think that’s beautifully put. This isn’t a fully fleshed out thought, but there is a sort of weird puritanical… In terms of eschewing sincerity and cringe displays of emotion, which I am very much given to, I identify with that. I think that we on this recording are part of what I’d call the sincerecore left, and we’re not always the coolest but dammit, we –
Lyta Gold: Speak for yourself, dude.
Rax King: I am, sorry.
Max Alvarez: You’re doing it right now.
In that same weird puritanical way that we cringe at people unironically loving stuff and loving it publicly, especially if it’s stuff that we have deemed to be not worthy of that love, I think another way that that manifests, since we’re talking about how the left deals with its feelings and how it shapes its politics around this stuff, I think that you’re absolutely right, Rax, that when it comes to the question of our cultural taste and what we like we definitely can focus too much on that as if it’s the main question of the day. That our entire lives and culture depend on how we answer this question. I think you make a really strong and forceful case of, look guys, it’s not the end all be all of the world. It’s important in these ways.
We shouldn’t take it as the ultimate determinant of all political discussions. But the way that it bleeds into other political discussions is one that encroaches on the work that I do at The Real News talking to workers is the left loves to, in the same way that search for the real true art, we love to search for the real true subjects of revolutionary change in the working class. The way that we tend to do that, folks on the left, is we say, okay, these are the most working-class workers that we can find, and we tend to define that.
One thing I’m realizing is we tend to define that not necessarily on the kind of work that people do, it’s not just manufacturing, it’s not just working in logging. But again in that same weird puritanical way it’s who suffers the most at work. If you are a graduate student worker and you get to work at a desk, some of your work is reading, you’re not suffering enough to be a worker. It feels like there’s some sort of common puritanical core that even those of us on the left are really still steeped in when we have discussions about this and that sort of way.
Rax King: I’m rereading the Neapolitan novels right now, and I love them. I just read this scene where the Italian Communist Party is trying to organize a sausage factory where the workers are the exact type of abject workers that Twitter leftists really want to use as mouthpieces. There’s this moment when one of the workers is watching these people swarm the factory with leaflets and shit, and she’s like, what on earth would possess these people to intrude on our workplace and pass out all these densely worded leaflets to people who never learned to read past a sixth grade level? Because none of these people went to college. I wouldn’t want to infantilize workers in general. By and large we in the U.S. do know how to read, and that’s not really the point.
The point is more this desire on the part of – I’m just going to keep calling them Twitter leftists – This desire that Twitter leftists have to seem like they’re on the same level as a guy who wears a hard hat all day. The way that desire manifests itself is in this desire to do the equivalent of giving him a densely worded leaflet or sticking a microphone in his face on a job site and asking a bunch of questions about unions. Basically being invasive and obtrusive in this desire to look like they understand, and I think that it’s just not a productive tack to take. Talk to people like they’re people, don’t talk to people like they’re the workers you put on a pedestal.
Lyta Gold: One trick I’ve noticed a lot is that when there’s a piece of corporate media that Twitter leftists don’t like, something like a Marvel movie, they’ll imagine or they’ll find an example of what they think of as the platonic ideal of somebody who likes that, who they consider like a PMC bourgeois chairperson, chair liberal that kind of person, and they’re, aha. You know working class people watch these movies and love them and buy the shirts from Walmart? It’s like people are looking for an algorithm.
Rax King: Yeah.
Lyta Gold: To sort out the good, the true workers from the fake ones. They’ll alternately romanticize, of course they wouldn’t engage in watching stupid art, watching corporate art or reality shows. If they do it’s, well there must be some value to it, or well, that’s what they have to do to get by. As opposed to just taking people sincerely at their word, that whatever they like they sincerely like it.
Rax King: Right.
Lyta Gold: Whether or not you personally think it’s valuable.
Rax King: It’s this constant divvying up of people into abject workers and guys like me who understand the plight of the abject workers. It’s just like, you’re looking a little abject over there yourself. You also do wage labor and you also live totally precariously and the differences in degrees of your precarity versus someone else’s are much less than you think when you’re sitting there making these judgements. You’re all in a similar boat more than you realize.
Max Alvarez: Right. In the end we can get so far away from what’s so directly in front of our faces that it’s kind of baffling. I think this could be like a segue to rounding out Christmas discussion. There’s no magical formula to talking to workers and there’s no one type of worker to talk to. But I think back to – This is really highlighting the point that y’all were making – 10 years ago at this point I was a temp at a certain warehouse in Southern California that supplied a lot of the raw materials for big box stores like Bed Bath and Beyond, Walmart, Sears, that kind of thing.
We were mostly temps, over 75% temps, and the vast majority of those temps were ex-convicts. They were undocumented folks. Then there were a few randoms like me, but we were all there, we were all sweating our asses off, we were all working 12, 13, 14 hour days. It was a very brutal, hot box in Southern California, and we were treated like shit. Also, because of everyone looking over their shoulder knowing that if you fuck up you could be fired like that [snaps]. There were a lot of guys who had been in prison together and there were even a lot of guys in different gangs.
There were those sorts of tensions that took a long time for us to break down through just talking about the football game. Through just talking about this kind of stuff… If a movie came out, like Spider-Man or something, that was common fodder for us to talk about over a smoke break. We got a lot closer together in those moments culminating… I want to write about it someday before the memory escapes me completely but the one that sticks out the most to me, what we did was we would fill these orders for big box stores. And I remember one day we were racing to fill a big shipment where we were stuffing feather pillows into these lacey pillow cases. We were tagging them with the Bed Bath and Beyond thing, we were boxing them, stacking them on pallets, and getting them on trucks. It was just a huge line of me and a bunch of ex-cons grunting away stuffing these pillows and whatnot.
This guy Jose who had tattoos everywhere but this little circle on his face where his eyes and mouth were. Hilarious guy. He throws a pillow to another guy named Tony, who asked for it, but Tony wasn’t looking when he threw it and it smacked him in the face. Everyone stops, because oh shit, is a fight about to break out? You can tell Tony’s pissed, but then the guy next to him takes another pillow and whacks him across the face. And for five minutes on the shop floor that was horrible where a lot of pain had happened, me and a bunch of undocumented guys and ex-cons, we got into a massive pillow fight. It was the best time that I had had at that shitty fucking warehouse.
There was something about that sort of abandonment, and everyone was suddenly a kid, and everyone was doing what we most wanted to do in that moment. We had gotten past that social pressure of, okay, this is bad. I’m surely the only one who wants to do that. There is something very beautiful, and lifesaving, and actually not trivial to tapping into that deep core of want and desire like you discuss in your book.
Rax King: Yeah, I think people really underestimate the value of those moments in which you watch a miserable adult become like a giggling child. It doesn’t really happen very often and you know those moments when you see them. They always feel incredibly special to me, to see a coworker who’s been on his feet for 14 hours smack someone else in the back of the head and then run away giggling or some prankish shit like that. I think that the art that many people respond to, it functions in much the same way. It allows them to access that giggling baby portion of their brains. You can say that we need to grow out of being giggling babies but I don’t think you can conclusively say that those giggling baby moments are not valuable.
Lyta Gold: Max, that story’s like the Christmas Truce, the English and the Germans just playing soccer together.
Max Alvarez: Right? Yeah.
Rax King: Another cute story.
Max Alvarez: Phenomenally cute story.
Lyta Gold: Then they went back to killing each other, because things are horrible, but –
Max Alvarez: Less cute.
Lyta Gold: It actually begs the question, If you could maximize those moments of actually having fun and doing good stuff together. I saw this thing online that absolutely destroyed me, which was that humans are the only animals who pay rent to live on earth, who pay to live on earth, and that’s really bugged me a lot. The idea that we could actually be doing fun things together. We don’t have to live like this, we could actually be just having a great time. Speaking of people having a great time, Christmas supposedly is when people have a great time.
Rax King: Boo. I’m such a Grinch. I hate to be the Jew on Christmas but let me just do that.
Lyta Gold: I’m so glad you’re here with us because Max was like, we’ll talk about Christmas and I was like… Yay… Well Christmas, Christmas is so great when you’re Jewish, yay.
Rax King: I will say that, even when you’re Jewish and you don’t get to participate, there is something kind of ambiently exciting about the Christmas season, and if I shelve my many resentments I can feel that excitement too. But it’s a lot of shelving for a little angry Jewish baby.
Lyta Gold: So, Max, help us out. Help us feel some joy, some good childish happiness.
Max Alvarez: Well, I mean there were two reasons why I was okay, one, I’m just dying to get Rax on The Real News, and given how great Art for the End Times is I was, oh man, this is like a match made in heaven. But also we knew that this is going to be the final episode before the end of the year. And just the more that I read your book Rax the more that I was like, man, this really articulates a life of internal struggle for me particularly around the question of Christmas. Because I think, as we said, if you want to find examples of tackiness in our culture look no further than the Christmas culture industry. I mean, it pumps out tackiness left and right.
And there is some… It’s not all again just for show, there is something there that means a lot to people. And I think that for me growing up in Southern California, particularly Orange County, which is one of the most heavily commercialized environments in the world, it’s something that I think I’ve had that sense of shame everywhere else that I’ve gone because so many of the things that mean so much to me and that I have such nostalgic meaningful attachments to like the holiday season, that little desiring animal inside me growing up in Orange County, it attached that desire onto malls.
It attached it onto really gaudy Christmas displays in suburban neighborhoods where people would just go way over the top with their lights and all of that stuff. And I remember when I was living in England for a spell. I had British friends who, for them, the spirit of Christmas, the tradition of Christmas, the most authentic version of Christmas, was like old English bitties in the countryside with it snowing and their singing carols. And there’s an 800 year old church down the road. That felt –
Lyta Gold: And you fight the White Witch. [crosstalk]
Max Alvarez: Yeah. [crosstalk].
Rax King: It sounds even worse, God.
Max Alvarez: It does, right? I mean, because that’s the thing. Because for me growing up, that’s the version of my old Catholic family being like, oh we should watch The Snowman or we should watch The Little Drummer Boy. And all of us were like, The Little Drummer Boy fucking sucks. No one likes The Little Drummer Boy [crosstalk].
Lyta Gold: Fuck that kid, hate that kid. [crosstalk].
Max Alvarez: It’s the most boring Christmas movie ever. But again, there was that tussle there between what is the more authentic celebration of Christmas, and then here I was with my brothers and our family being like let’s go to the mall, let’s go take a picture with Santa, let’s go walking into the stores and just imbibe the whole tacky spectacle. That’s the thing that I find myself missing so often. I can’t, and I don’t want to say, well I’m just wrong. It’s just the culture industry duping me. I think that for my English friends, for anyone who has that attachment, it’s not necessarily that the culture is tricking you into feeling those things. I think, again, that want for home, for warmth, for belonging, for sharing, all the things the holiday can represent for people, it just latches on to different things depending on where you grew up. Does that make sense?
Rax King: What that makes me think of is how in so many romantic comedies that are centered around Christmas, there’s always a line where someone says Christmas is about telling people how you feel. And I would watch those movies like Love Actually, and shit, and be like is it really? Is that a message that the goyim grow up observing? Or are you just like shoehorning stuff into your little Christmas movie because otherwise it wouldn’t make sense. And that kind of thing is what I think of when I think of the American Christmas tradition even though Love Actually is obviously British. But I think the point remains that we attach all of these strange non-Christmassy objects to Christmas like lights and that Santa Claus guy that y’all love so much.
And when you think about it, is that really what Christmas is about? When you go to the deepest core of Christmas? No, but it’s much more enjoyable than just quietly saying Jesus was born today and then moving on with your day, and I think that spectacle, there is something to be said for it. There is something to be said for how exciting it is to be in stores in December. That can be meaningful, it’s not inherently meaningful, but it’s not meaningless.
Lyta Gold: Well, you cannot have a Jewish holiday that’s about telling people how you feel.
Rax King: No.
Lyta Gold: I guess that’s Festivus.
Max Alvarez: Isn’t that just every gathering?
Rax King: It’s because it’s true.
Lyta Gold: Oh my God. Is that what the true spirit of Hanukkah is about?
Rax King: Yeah. You get real drunk and you’re like, I fucking hate your guts Morty, and then you all just forget about it the next day. It’s tight.
Lyta Gold: Oh man, my little nieces and nephews are old enough that they put on a Hanukkah play for us when we go over for Thanksgiving because Hanukkah was really early and it was great. But my little nephew, it’s fortunate he’s not listening to this, because he was playing Judah Maccabee, and he forgot all his lines, and he had a meltdown, and he ran off, and it was such a thing. And his sister turns to all the adults and says, as you see, we’re having some issues.
Rax King: Oh my God.
Lyta Gold: And when I tell you, it was funnier than any standup comic I have ever seen in this town. It was a masterpiece.
Rax King: I love when a little kid is extra precocious for no reason and talks like an adult secretary or something. I think that is so precious.
Lyta Gold: It was a work of art. That was our Christmas miracle.
Rax King: It’s a Christmas Mitzvah.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Oh [inaudible]
Max Alvarez: Well, I mean I guess growing up Jewish in a culture that is just so thoroughly over the top when it comes to Christmas, I guess, to use another term they use in the books where I could, did it appear as trashiness more than tackiness? I guess, what was that relationship that y’all had growing up with all of that going on around you and it being just so in your face all the time.
Rax King: I mean, I can’t speak for Lyta of course, but I would say that I felt too left out to be making those kinds of looking down on Christmas judgments. I really wanted my family to get so into Christmas and the lights and everything, that kind of stuff really appeals to you when you’re a kid, especially. And so I thought it all looked incredible. I thought it all looked awesome. I kept wishing that… b=Because like when you go into a department store around Christmas time it would always be, aisles and aisles of Christmas shit and then there would be a blue little table with a Menorah on it and a book of recipes that includes pork and shit like that, just totally half-assed. And that makes you feel pretty bad about yourself, I kept thinking being Jewish is the tacky thing.
Lyta Gold: We’re tacky people. [inaudible]
Rax King: We kind of are.
Lyta Gold: [inaudible] all around. Yeah. Which is fine, I think it’s great. My family was really judgy about Christmas and really judgy about materialism and they sort of made it an object lesson that we weren’t supposed to say anything to other people. That was the very same way that I was told that Santa wasn’t real, but I was absolutely not supposed to tell the other kids because [crosstalk].
Rax King: Oh yeah [crosstalk].
Lyta Gold: It would… And they put the fear of Old Testament God into me about that, I really could not tell those other kids. But yeah, it was this idea that you quietly, without telling them anything, you quietly judged everybody else for buying lots of gifts and being materialistic. And it’s only really very recently that I’ve come to really realize that for a lot of people, presents are how people say that they love each other and that’s not such a bad thing.
Lyta Gold: People buying stuff for themselves would be another matter. But actually people buying things for people that they care about is really cute and nice.
Max Alvarez: Yeah.
Lyta Gold: And [inaudible].
Rax King: I remember thinking, well, one year there was a death because of a Black Friday sale. And I was watching this play out on the news with my dad, and he was like, look at these goyim stampeding each other to death over a Black Friday sale. And now that I look back and think of what the real encapsulation there was, it was that the people fighting each other over TVs and shit because of Black Friday are not people who can afford full price TVs. This was back when Black Friday deals were your only chance to get a decently priced TV all year. And so I think that so much of that looking down instinct is a form of classism.
And when you look down on people for wanting to buy each other lots of gifts, wanting to show each other that they love each other in that way, you’re looking down on a very real instinct that is beat into us as Americans from the time that we’re really young, which is consumerism is how you do everything. You show your support for this cause by buying this thing or that cause by buying that thing. You show people you love them by buying them stuff, and the more expensive the stuff the more you love them. And you can’t fault people for absorbing that instinct, and you also can’t fault people for recognizing that it’s a bad instinct and still saying, but the act of giving someone something is meaningful and I still want to do it. And no, I’m not going to go buy my loved ones all TVs, but there is still meaning in the act of giving gifts.
Lyta Gold: You should loot your loved ones’ TVs.
Rax King: That’s right.
Max Alvarez: Loot your loved ones [inaudible].
Rax King: That’s a takeaway.
Max Alvarez: And I guess again, something that can be so obvious that it becomes invisible to us, but, another point in that vein is that for a lot of working people, it may be the one guaranteed holiday that they have off a year, if they even have that. I mean –
Rax King: Yeah.
Max Alvarez: – Remember tons of times in fast food and stuff they tell you you cannot request time off around Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Rax King: Right.
Max Alvarez: Or New Year’s. So if you have that time off and it’s maybe the one time a year or second time a year where you can actually be with your friends and family, take advantage of it. And for that reason it also can have a lot of that additional meaning that, again, it’s not just being injected into people from this sinister culture industry. I guess, to put a bow on one of the things that I love so much about Rax’s book and that I really, really encourage everyone to go read it, is that it really takes seriously, or you take seriously, that question of agency. [crosstalk]
Rax King: Yes. [crosstalk]
Max Alvarez: You honor what makes people human. All of us, I think we can forget some of those most basic facts about ourselves that no two people have ever lived the same life. And that means all of us to some degree just by virtue of being ourselves are unique. And all of us, because of how we grew up, where we grew up, who we grew up around, and the complex people that we are, that internal desiring engine that you write about so beautifully, there is something really valuable in that. And there is something, I think, that can’t just be brushed away when we’re talking about the ways that we all relate to and identify with pop culture or high culture, or what have you.
It’s never just something that is consumed unthinkingly and just imprints itself upon us like we’re these blank tablets. It’s always a complex negotiation between the movie or the novel, or the Christmas light spectacle that you’re presented with and how you as an individual human being absorb that into your life and into your world of meaning. I mean, I don’t know. Every time that happens, there’s something special about it. This is what I would tell my students back when I was a grad student, is I was like, yeah this book that we’re reading has been around for a century and so many people have talked about it, but it has never met you before. And you have never met it. And for that reason, every time that a new student comes to this book it’s always new, it’s always living and alive and creates something new because of that confrontation, and I just really love how you put your finger on that in so many different contexts in this book.
Rax King: Thank you. That’s so nice.
Lyta Gold: I think that is a lovely place to end it. I hope everybody goes out and finds something that is new to them, and also something that’s old to them that they really like, and they can really enjoy it. Yeah, and have a very tacky holiday everyone, whichever holiday you do, experience it with maximum tackiness.
Rax King: Hanukkah! Woo.
Lyta Gold: So early this year. I just, I can’t live like this.
Rax King: I know it’s got to be around the same time as Christmas to satisfy my competitive urge or I’m just going to feel bad about myself all year.
Max Alvarez: Well, and just a quick final word to defend my suggestion that we talk about Christmas in the same episode, because I…
Rax King: It was a good idea.
Lyta Gold: No.
Rax King: I don’t want you to feel bad.
Max Alvarez: Well, no, no…
Rax King: I’m glad we did.
Max Alvarez: I mean, I think that…
Lyta Gold: We gave the goy too hard a time.
Rax King: Oops.
Lyta Gold: You always got to be careful.
Max Alvarez: No, just, I’m a sensitive goy, yes. But I think that Christmas and the Christmas season is a perfect way to, I think, see that critique that you’re making Rax, but also that thing that you’re advocating for in this book. Because when we have this discussion about whose celebration of Christmas is the most authentic one, or which is the most meaningful, which is the least commercialized. The funny thing about that is that every tradition that people point to was some hodgepodge fabrication that stuck to the holiday over two millennia. I mean, even to the point that supposedly the church chose December for celebrating Jesus’s birthday because a lot of other cultures already celebrated this time of year as the winter solstice.
Again for reasons that were more tapped into that raw attachment that they had to their world. Okay, this is the point of the year where it’s gotten the darkest and now the days are going to start creeping back up and getting longer. We can stay inside, we’ve just slaughtered the cows and stuff, so we’re actually going to have fresh meat for this part of the year. There were a lot of reasons that people had an attachment to this time of year that then got colonized by the church and that ended up picking up all these weird things like Santa Claus, like Christmas trees, what have you. So every time someone tries to say, this is the most authentic Christmas thing, you can point to how, in fact, that’s not quite the case.
And actually, I don’t know, there’s something I think that’s beautiful about the holiday for that reason. And that every generation has tried to define and redefine what that attachment means to the holiday. I mean, even, shit, what was it, Oliver Cromwell made Christmas illegal for a hot minute in the 1600s and the Puritans carried that over into the US. So Christmas wasn’t even a big thing in this country until the late 19th Century, when we had… What have you, Dickens and Irving, what’s his name?
Rax King: Oh yeah, Christmas Carol, shit like that.
Max Alvarez: Yeah.
Lyta Gold: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Max Alvarez: Yeah. So I think…
Lyta Gold: The original war on Christmas.
Max Alvarez: Yeah, the original war on Christmas. So it’s all just to say is that everything about Christmas is tacky, I mean, in some way or another. And I guess the more that we try to pretend that it’s not, the more we show our asses.
Rax King: Hmm.
Lyta Gold: That being said, I will never accept Elf on the Shelf.
Rax King: No, I don’t…
Lyta Gold: [inaudible] no. New, it’s new, and it’s not allowed.
Rax King: That is from a diseased mind, I don’t know what kind of person sits around and makes up Elf on a Shelf, but it just… that shit ain’t right. That’s not right.
Lyta Gold: I have an essay coming out soon, might be around the same time that this episode comes out, about elves kind of in general. But yeah, they were also grafted onto Christmas in a way that’s very interesting. But yeah, Elf on a Shelf, it’s new, it’s I guess, I’m not for it. Yeah. This is the one hard culture take, the one hard no. I’m a hard no on Elf on a Shelf.
Rax King: Me too, it’s evil.
Max Alvarez: Same. Down with the surveillance tape.
Lyta Gold: Right, watching you. And on that note as much fun as we’re having, I think we have to bring it to a close. Thanks everybody for joining me. This has been so much fun.
Rax King: This was so fun, thanks for having me.
Max Alvarez: Thank you so much Lyta and thank you Rax for joining us.
Lyta Gold: So subscribe to Real News Network if you are not subscribed already. You can hear Max’s show, you can hear all the other shows, they’re all great shows. Again, I’m the cool show sitting in the back of the room, but there are other good shows and you need those too. Happy holidays, everybody. And see you next year.