It’s been said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” The same could be said for writing about food, or dance, or painting. And yet every day, critics attempt to do just that in the pages of American newspapers. Smell, however, is the one sensory experience that has gone un-translated…until now. Bob speaks with perfume maven Chandler Burr, who’s just been hired by The New York Times to write about the art of scent.
BOB GARFIELD:: Fashion may consist of little more than recycling and remixing styles that have already come and gone, but The New York Times Fashion Magazine supplement last week did contain something truly new. It was buried on page 172, and you may have missed it among all the scantily-clad models, but according to The Times, it's a first for the American newspaper industry – a column of criticism devoted to the sense of smell. The so-called "Scent Strip" is written by Chandler Burr, author of the 2003 book, The Emperor of Scent. In it, he rates perfumes using a four-star scale and attempts to translate the olfactory experience into a textual one. Here's Burr reading an excerpt of his column.
CHANDLER BURR: Jo Malone's perfume genius is light – not light as an antonym of heavy but light as in photon radiation. Think about Grapefruit cologne or French Lime Blossom, that radiant glass roof sensation. This is what makes Pomegranate Noir such a departure for Malone. This is the scent of the darkness that inhabits a Rubens painting, a warm, rich, purple blackness. Pomegranate Noir is like a box of truffles with the lid on, sweet bits of darkness, waiting.
BOB GARFIELD:: He describes another perfume as, quote, "sweeping over you like the silent, massive shadow of an Airbus A340, and yet another is "like looking down into a well of cool, black water." I told Burr he had a real knack for turning a phrase, but that I had no idea what he was talking about.
CHANDLER BURR: It's not meant to be literal, certainly. We're really avoiding the use of adjectives, because I think that that's a cheap way of doing it. I think that metaphors, while they're more abstract, are actually, in the long run, going to be more accurate. You talk about works of art, sculpture, movies, dinner, in terms of what it makes you feel and placing it in a context. And that's what I do with a perfume. When you smell this perfume, this is the sensation that you're going to get.
BOB GARFIELD:: Yeah, Chandler, but is a musk? It is a floral? Is it a spice?
CHANDLER BURR: Exactly.
BOB GARFIELD:: Help me here.
CHANDLER BURR: And I don't really give a damn, and I hope that they'll never ask me to use those categories. So far, I haven't used any of them.
BOB GARFIELD:: What to you may smell like a truffles box from the outside to me may smell like my grandmother's house -
CHANDLER BURR: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD:: - or something like that, so tied in is smell with memory.
CHANDLER BURR: Right.
BOB GARFIELD:: Do you know that what you smell is fundamental as opposed to experiential?
CHANDLER BURR: Here's the answer, and the answer is not scientific. The answer is empirical. If we did not all basically perceive tones the same way, we could not have what's called music, because Bach to me would sound like Bach, and to you it would sound like Eminem, and it doesn't. Bach actually sounds like Bach to everybody. Some people think one way about it and some people think differently about it. If we didn't have a single sense of perception of color, we couldn't have the art that we call painting, and if we didn't have basically the same perception of smell, we couldn't have the art called perfume.
BOB GARFIELD:: But our relationship to smell seems so tied up in so many other personal experiences. How can you separate your reaction to a certain odor from mine, which may be tied up in memories of my childhood, of a bad experience I had at some point or some such thing?
CHANDLER BURR: Take painting. Let's take three paintings. One is by Hopper, one's by Sargent and one is by Lucian Freud. When I see the Hopper, I want to commit suicide. I find them inexpressibly sad, lonely and desperate. The Sargent makes me absolutely relaxed with pleasure, and the Freud sort of makes me freak out and retract into myself. You might have three completely different reactions, but we can all say that the Hopper is going to be very different from the others, and we can all sort of describe the ways in which they are. If you take Emeraude, Chanel Five and Shalimar, you're going to say these are three truly different perfumes. You know, there really are some objective measures. Z by Zegna is simply objectively an utterly anti-innovative, anti-creative, cliché of a masculine fragrance, and everybody in the industry would admit it. Lantvin’s Vetyver is simply patently cheap. You can smell the lack of money on your arm. Those are objective measures.
BOB GARFIELD:: You know, The New York Times theater critic can close a show in about two days' time. Has it occurred to you that you might be able to close a perfume, or, looking at it from the other direction, make something into a sensation?
CHANDLER BURR: Yeah. I had lunch with a perfume executive, a very powerful guy, who said to me about two, three weeks ago, you know, if you give us a bad review in The New York Times, you could destroy a five-million-dollar launch and ruin the work of 100 people over a period of two years. So they're very conscious of it, and I'm very conscious of it. I don't know that I could close a perfume. I guess we'll find out. They think I can.
BOB GARFIELD:: You've had the experience of reading the real estate section of some local newspaper and saying, you know, what is this story in here for? -and the answer, of course, being that it's there to create a venue for all the real estate ads. And, by the way, the story is probably unlikely to talk about the real estate bust, because they're trying to appeal to real estate advertisers. Same thing with auto sections and so forth. I want to ask you about the chicken and the egg of your column appearing in The New York Times. I mean, has it occurred to you that it's a sort of a transparent gimmick to just get more fragrance advertising within the pages of the Times?
CHANDLER BURR: Yeah. That it would be perceived that way, of course, has occurred to me. I actually proposed it to The Times. I proposed it because perfume is an art, and I believe that it needs, like all real arts, to have a legitimate critical apparatus applied to it. The question of is this done for advertising pages I think is going to be answered pretty dispositively in the second and third columns. In the second column, I take a perfume by Davidoff and I say, smelling this is like smelling fresh insecticide while locked in an aluminum cell. In the third column - [
BOB GARFIELD: LAUGHS] - I have a perfume from Azzaro, a brand that I hate across the board, and I say, this thing smells like a soulless assembly line robot. Now, you tell me what you think advertisers are going to respond to that.
BOB GARFIELD:: [LAUGHS] All right, Chandler. Well, thank for joining us.
CHANDLER BURR: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD:: Chandler Burr is the brand new scent critic for The New York Times.