Jane and Michael Stern are pack rats of pop culture, and their West Redding, Conn., home is testament to their quirky taste, some of it bad. Take, for example, the blowup Wayne Newton doll, the velvet painting of the Last Supper, the chest wigs and winking-eye cards that decorate an upstairs bedroom, which has been converted to a shrine of schlock. "We love this stuff, "says Jane, 44, who, along with husband Michael, 44, has written a book on Elvis and several books about eating, including Road Food and Square Meals. The Sterns have also spent two decades prowling the nation's back roads on the lookout for the sort of oddball American artifacts that appear in their latest book, The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste. This irreverent catalog includes chapters on ant farms and Astro Turf, baton twirlers and bell-bottoms, pet clothing and perky nuns, tattoos and tuna casserole.
The Sterns met at Yale, where Michael was pursuing his Ph.D. in art history and Jane was studying fine arts. Married in 1970, they now write a syndicated food column and contribute to the New Yorker. At home with their two frisky canines and a parrot named Lewis, the couple delved into the world of bad taste with associate editor Kristin McMurran.
How is bad taste different from good taste?
Good taste is conservative, traditional, minimal, sober. Bad taste is exuberant, excessive, impudent, sentimental. It over-reaches. If cotton is a nice material, then polyester is better because it never wrinkles. Our best pocket definition of bad taste is sort of a rap song: It has to be too bright like Las Vegas, too tight like Dolly Parton's gowns, too naughty like a Frederick's of Hollywood push-up bra, too gaudy like one of Liberace's rhinestone capes, too synthetic like a leisure suit or utterly pathetic like Tammy Bakker's chihuahua, who died after eating a plate of lima beans.
Why do you say that there is more bad taste than good taste?
It's a lot more fun. Most people would rather lie in a La-Z-Boy recliner than sit up-right in a Chippendale chair. People are sick of trying to be Martha Stewart or Ralph Lauren. Nobody has the money to do it anymore.
Do people with bad taste know it?
Nobody says, "Oh, I have bad taste." It's always the other guy. But there are a lot of people who secretly appreciate bad taste; people who have a pink flamingo outside their house or one really ugly tie.
Are there degrees of bad taste?
Some things, like animal torture, go beyond bad taste to being atrocities. To fit into our book, which is about style, something has to be fun, and the worst of the fun bad taste is bathroom humor. Whoopee cushions, rubber dog poop, cedar plaques with vulgar sayings, musical toilet seats are all examples.
Is it fair to call America the Kingdom of Kitsch?
Every country has bad taste, but America excels at it because people here believe that you can rise to the next higher class. Americans are always striving to impress other people with their better-than-thou taste, and when you try too hard to have good taste, you automatically have bad taste:
Bob Guccione. He fills his life with objects of good taste: precious metals, valuable paintings, Italian marble. And then he goes too far, like decorating with bronze sconces in the shape of women feeling their bosoms. The rule of good taste is less is more. The rule of bad taste is the more the merrier.
How has bad taste evolved in America?
There has been an explosion since the end of World War II. In the '50s you had so many new products for sale, coupled with relief that the war was over. Finally people could buy that pink Cadillac or aqua linoleum for the kitchen. In the '60s you had a lot of freaky stuff like flowered bell-bottoms. The '70s brought the self-absorbed Me decade, which spawned some of the best bad taste, like mood rings. Then there was a shortage of bad taste in the '80s because everyone was striving to live up to good-taste ideals.
What are some tasteless food classics?
Spam and TV dinners are two. Spray-on cheese is so modern, it makes you feel like the Jetsons. And Jell-O, which is really the Rodney Dangerfield of foods because it gets no respect. It has no purpose but to wiggle and hold other things that are in bad taste, like fruit cocktail. Jell-O is Americana in a mold. It's unsophisticated, fast, pretty and sweet. It symbolizes the way Americans really eat.
Why is beer included in your book?
Many would argue that beer is chic, but our kind of bad-taste beer is primarily for peeing, burping and developing a belly. It's really the beer rituals—belch-offs, chugalugging, snarfing, blowing foam, frat parties—that are vulgar. Bowling is the only sport you can play with a beer in your hand, but again, it's not the actual act, but the world of bowling that is in bad taste: the trophies, the shoes, the shirts with built-in deodorant and your name stitched on the pocket.
What are some of the beacons of bad taste in the world of cosmetics?
The bouffant, for one. It's like having a petrified hassock of cotton candy on your head. Then there is white lipstick, the only trend that makes you look deceased. Fingernail extremism is the new frontier of trash cosmetology. If you want to say, "I'm cheap," what better way than to show off nails decorated with metal appliqués that spell out P-A-R-T-Y H-A-R-D-Y?
Why does your encyclopedia include an entry on Dolly Parton?
For starters, her towering blond wigs, her two-inch fingernails and her zeppelin bust line. But Dolly Parton is not trying to have good taste. She enjoys her extreme image. In fact, she's often said, 'I'm just like the girl next door, if you happen to live next door to an amusement park.' " It's hard to write a book like this and have the gall to say we don't want to be mean, but we don't. This is really a celebration of outrageousness; a love poem to spirited audacity, to people like producer Allan Carr, who's got the chutzpah to appear in a flowered kimono.
Is bad taste regional?
The South has Elvis and miniature golf courses. North Carolina and Maine have the great lawn ornaments. The southwest border states are good for velvet paintings. Texas has great plaster busts, Florida has lots of tacky tourist attractions like the Weeki Watchee Mermaids, where girls with zip-on fishtails put on an underwater show. And no other country in the world could make a Las Vegas.
What countries are the bad-taste runners-up?
We have to tip our hats to Italy, with its great papal souvenirs. All of Eastern Europe in terms of fashion and cosmetology. The political art of China 10 years ago is kitsch by any definition.
What objects are bad-taste classics?
The pink plastic lawn flamingo is really the national anthem of tacky. Whoopee cushions would be included because they so evoke the naughtiness of bad taste. And Twinkies—the only food that has been used in a criminal defense.
What current items will be the bad-taste classics of tomorrow?
Late-night TV ads. Mrs. Fletcher, yellow-teeth commercials, flame-resistant car wax, the Clapper. This is the golden age of great bad-taste TV commercials. We also like fads that never quite made it, like the lambada.
Whom would you nominate for the bad-taste Hall of Fame?
Jayne Mansfield, Liberace, Tammy Faye Bakker. Barbie is seminal. She was the first doll to have a figure. She was sort of a little temptress, a mall rat. Barbie lived to acquire things and to turn Ken's vinyl head.
or Andrew Dice Clay be future nominees?
Clay and 2 Live Crew would not make it because dirty words alone aren't enough; you have to have more style. Madonna
is like Disneyland, too corporate, too calculated. All the great icons share a real naïveté about how ridiculous they are.
Will bad taste ever go away?
We certainly hope not, because what a dull world that would be. Without arm wrestling, roller derby, bikers and boudoir photography, the world would just be too damn polite.