Review of Nathalie Olah’s “Bad Taste” – examining the positive, the tacky, and the unattractive.
In the new Netflix documentary “Beckham,” there is a memorable scene that is likely to be referenced in sociology lectures. Victoria Beckham, dressed in a chic white blouse, states on camera that she is a hard worker and considers herself to be “working class.” Her husband David then interrupts to inquire about the car her father used to drive her to school. After some hesitation, Victoria finally concedes, “In the 80s, my dad had a Rolls-Royce.”
Nathalie Olah, I suspect, would have a field day with this. Bad Taste is her update of Distinction, Pierre Bourdieu’s classic 1979 inquiry into the tastes of Parisian intellectuals, retooled for the age of Instagram, Kinfolk magazine, Glossier makeup tutorials and the sort of minimally chic interiors favoured by the Beckhams, Britain’s pre-eminent social voyagers.
Victoria is not alone in using her working-class background to paint a positive narrative about her origins and justify her current success. According to Olah, the concept of “class” has shifted from Marxist ideas of labor and ownership to one that is more focused on consumer identity. Additionally, the term “class” has a secondary definition that conveys elegance, refinement, and good taste. Olah explains that possessing taste equates to having class, which is associated with understanding the social norms upheld by those with wealth and opportunities. In the context of Victoria Beckham, her rise above her working-class upbringing can be attributed to her taste rather than her financial status. A 2022 Tatler article discussing modern status symbols such as Teslas, rewilded estates, and Ottolenghi spices, praises the Beckhams as masters of their carefully cultivated empires.
Olah demonstrates a sharp and critical attitude when discussing these codes. She points out how the current trends of minimalist homes, luxurious normcore, natural makeup, and “clean eating” often hide judgments towards those who lack the resources and time to, for example, make their own kimchi or keep up with sneaker releases. In a particularly insightful section on leisure (inspired by a negative Airbnb experience), she highlights that time is now considered the ultimate luxury. Life is constantly portrayed as a “limited commodity” that must be spent wisely, leading to the popularity of bucket lists, ultramarathons, and books like “1001 Amazing Places You Must See Before You Die.”
Olah brings her own unique background to this story. She was raised in a working-class family in Birmingham and was able to attend university, where she developed a love for sophisticated literature. However, she struggled to find stable employment in the “creative” industries of east London, leaving her without financial stability. One of her jobs involved organizing the expense receipts for a wealthy magazine publisher who wrote “guerilla poetry” about the working class in expensive Moleskine notebooks. This publisher admired Tilda Swinton and made fun of his female colleagues for their designer handbags and high heels. Olah encountered this type of person frequently – wealthy and ambitious but seemingly trying to hide their role in an exploitative economy through their austere aesthetic choices.
Olah argues that in today’s world, these differences are more significant than ever. Employers, who are under pressure to avoid explicit discrimination, heavily prioritize the idea of “cultural fit”. For gig workers, a lack of taste in music, attire, or conversation could result in not being hired. Additionally, there is an entire generation of educated young adults who are skilled at interpreting social cues but are unable to access the wealth that has been “hoarded” by previous generations. According to Olah, taste is the only thing they have (at least until they receive an inheritance). Olah describes a peer group that creates an illusion of luxury in their rented bedrooms on Instagram, only to be ridiculed for it. It is sad that their pursuit of status is based on sharing a bowl of fancy olives.
The housing sections are well-written, but Olah’s arguments about beauty and food are not as strong. The concepts of “natural beauty” and “clean eating” often hide underlying snobbery. However, biology does play a small role in our attraction to others, and whole foods are indeed more nutritious than heavily processed ones. Throughout the text, Olah portrays working-class individuals as helpless victims, forced to hide their desires and adhere to strict rules set by those in positions of authority. This not only strips them of agency, but also shows a lack of understanding for working-class cultural norms.
There are several notable omissions. Olah does not pay much attention to art, music, TV, film or literature and the reason for this is unclear. The book primarily caters to an American audience and uses examples from a generic Netflix selection; Olah could have followed Bourdieu’s approach and focused on specific local examples. There is certainly much to be said about English taste. Additionally, I find it hard to believe her statement that she would prefer a world where taste is simply a “facet of character” without moral judgments. She herself is quite judgmental, as seen in her discussion of the Tough Mudder endurance race, which she can barely bring herself to mention by name. How dreadful!
I pondered whether these authoritarian ideas of what is considered good hold as much sway as Olah believes. For example, when it comes to cuisine, the restaurant critic for The Guardian openly praises Heinz spaghetti hoops, while the newsletter Vittles, a current authority on urban food trends, loudly advocates for working-class cooking. In progressive circles, it may be frowned upon to mock someone for their choice of sneakers, but it seems acceptable to criticize them for enjoying Secret Cinema’s immersive film experiences. However, as long as one is well-versed in the latest French philosophical ideas and expresses the appropriate opinions on social media, they are likely to be accepted.