“Money talks, wealth whispers” is a common, if a bit classist, phrase whose central idea has been observed as long as there have been social critics to point it out. We are currently emerging from a roughly decade-long aesthetic trend that reveres this kind of upscale subtlety: Nordic minimalism, sensible direct-to-consumer basics, dressed-down business casual, streetwear so nondescript it is almost violent, no-makeup makeup, bare-bones live-work spaces so indistinguishable from one another that you might be doing anything, anywhere in the world, and not know it. In the logic of 2010s corporate design geared toward (mostly) white, (mostly) hetero, (definitely at least) middle-class people, simple is good. Simple is clean. Simple whispers that it is better than you without having to say it.
It was at the apex of this culture awash in muted millennial pink that I discovered a blog called Very Famous Magazine, which exemplified its polar opposite. The website — purposefully not optimized for mobile viewing — is a shade of cyan so bright it hurts your eyeballs, with bright purple headlines and decorative stock gifs of roses and glitter from the pre-social media internet. But to dismiss these aesthetic choices as merely nostalgia for the GeoCities era or Y2K “trashion” would be to miss the point. Under the section “Who Is Very Famous?” it describes itself thusly:
- A hotel lobby.
- 7/11 candy.
- Watching Showgirls alone at midnight.
- The condensation from your frappuccino.
- The jet streams in your heart-shaped jacuzzi.
- A strip mall in the late afternoon.
- At the intersection of luxury and overdraft protection.
- The smell of motel air conditioning and sprinklers on St. Augustine grass.
- For terrible lifestyles.
The reason I came across Very Famous Magazine also sort of fits in with the Very Famous aesthetic of glamour minus elegance: The founder is my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, Kelsey Lawrence, who’s a freelance writer based in Texas and New York. (It’s not weird! We’re friends!) Kelsey launched Very Famous in 2018, while staring out the window overlooking her parents’ apartment complex pool, becoming increasingly disillusioned with women’s media and its refusal to publish anything truly off-kilter, as well as its stylistic loyalty to mainstream standards of “good taste.”
It’s difficult to categorize the precise ethos of Very Famous, and internet culture has enough catchy little nicknames for niche aesthetics — “I get a little tired of hearing ‘something-hyphen-core,’” Kelsey tells me — but I like her definition: “It’s sort of about the glamour of getting by each day, and finding those little moments of glitter, whether it’s a sparkly top from TJ Maxx or walking by a nail salon with roses in the window.”
I’m reminded of a phrase I read in the similarly weird, although more male-coded, newsletter Blackbird Spyplane, which coined the term “Un-grammable Hang Zone” to describe places that feel welcoming, lived-in, and unpretentious but whose pleasant auras are impossible to capture on Instagram. Like the widely reported return to “casual” posting or the end of the “influencer aesthetic,” it should be noted that all of these phenomena are still performances, none more or less “authentic” than the other. To embrace tackiness, camp, or anything deemed declassé on the grounds of individual enjoyment is also to partake in a long lineage of writers and artists who have done the very same thing, often invoking scholarly works of media theory as a sort of paradoxical means of justifying it.
It may not be new, but stereotypically “bad taste” is having a moment. A recent piece in Time magazine lists the evidence: Selling Sunset, hyperpop, Pete Davidson, micro-miniskirts, cocaine decor, revisionist retellings of maligned ’90s women like Pamela Anderson, Britney Spears, and Monica Lewinsky. Writer Judy Berman posits that the renewed interest is possibly due to, like many things, Americans’ growing sense of doom. “Nothing kills numbness like a sensory onslaught of color, sound, hedonism, melodrama, and sleaze,” she writes.
There is something that feels very of-the-moment about the pursuit of lowbrow pleasure, particularly to women who have never seen themselves in the quiet, willowy millennials who go to barre classes, drink smoothies, and journal (a trope that, unfortunately, continues to be repackaged and sold on TikTok). In an essay on the relation between tackiness and fatness, writer Margaret Eby notes that “Tacky is a way of saying, ‘That is too much.’ It’s a way to say, ‘Hush.’ You’re too loud, too bright, too attention-seeking. You take up too much space. You’re too costume-y. You’re too dramatic. Your excesses are not welcome here.”
Rax King, the author of a collection of essays called Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer, covers the topic as it relates to sexual promiscuity, adding in her book, “To my mind, every tacky loudmouth of a girl is behaving strategically. For a girl, a scream is a potent reclamation of space that cannot be claimed any other way. Everybody wants to sidle up to a pretty young girl all the time unless she’s screaming.”
The first time I visited Very Famous, I immediately thought of the Dollz. The Dollz, for those outside my precise age and gender demographic, were little Bratz-like digital avatars you could dress up in thigh-high boots, schoolgirl skirts, and cut-out crop tops, essentially all the clothes I could hardly fathom wearing myself as a then-12-year-old, but liked to imagine I might someday. Needless to say, the Dollz were tacky as hell, and I loved them: They were everything that was antithetical to the culture I grew up in, which valued functional, sensible design that withstood the outdoors; athleticism; and granola self-reliance. Nobody wore Juicy Couture at my mid-aughts high school, so as the resident “prep” who preferred polo shirts and wore too much makeup, if anyone embodied tackiness, it was me.
When we talk about tackiness, what we’re often talking about is an excess of something deemed too feminine, too indulgent. But there seems to be a growing chorus suggesting that perhaps indulgence (at least the way normal people experience it, and not, like, billionaires) is not the human condition’s most shameful sin. The world doesn’t care that you’re wearing a scent from Bath & Body Works or that you ate a Lean Cuisine for dinner just because you like the taste. Our own individual choices, be they stylistic or financial or even political, seem to matter less than they ever have; most trends move too fast to be even a little bit meaningful anymore. Just because something’s tacky today doesn’t mean it will be tomorrow. Why even bother paying attention?
This column was first published in The Goods newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives.