Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Accidental Critic

New York Times perfume critic Chandler Burr renews my hope in the value of happenstance. As he recounted in his 2003 study of Luca Turin, The Emperor of Scent, perfume writing was the last thing he thought he would be doing way back when he was an aspiring journalist with a penchant for genetics. Now, with the incipient release of The Perfect Scent, his newest foray into fragrance journalism, Burr has been cast once more into the spotlight, and perfumista and fragrance marketer alike are paying attention.

Henry Holt and Burr himself were gracious to host me and eight other bloggers (from Perfume Posse, Sniffapalooza and at a special luncheon this past Monday in the “prow” of the landmark Flatiron building in Manhattan. Presiding at the boardroom table, Burr explained the idea behind, as well as the genesis of, this newest venture. A tallish fellow with a short haircut and a pressed Italian dress shirt worn raffishly (or shall I say preppily) open-collared and a little billowy at the waist, Burr speaks in measured Mid-Atlantic tones, inflected with a seriousness only occasionally interrupted by fits of self-amusement. He’s not for mincing words, and he peppers his remarks with all kinds of “off the record” innuendo. He knows how to stir trust in his listeners, rapt or otherwise. And, sitting there, politely trying to eat my lunch and take notes, I realized that he was the very sort of phenomenon that perfumers and perfume houses alike would grow to depend on ... because, take it or leave it, he embodies the spirit of blogs (an ephemeral, opinionated, casually researched, eminently sociable, expertly insinuating, and sometimes incestuous, approach to the people, processes and juicy gossip surrounding something that is, at base, as light as popcorn and as heavy as hundred-dollar bills).

Marketing aside, I thought, this guy sells perfumes. He sells, for the most part, the perfumes that most bloggers and perfumistas, have written off as pandering to the vast mass market and, what is most surprising about the whole Burr phenomenon, is that he doesn’t sell caché, he sells facts and opinions, his opinions. For better or worse, Chandler Burr has become the Robert Parker, Jr. of the perfume world. Yes, he’s more cosmopolitan than Bob Parker; he can namedrop a blue streak that doesn’t include a blue blood or a Rothschild scion. His chemistry is better, even. And, man, he can write incredibly clear, astute descriptions of scents. (Most often, they remind me of Ada Louise Huxtable’s critiques of architecture.) But where Parker is doing the job of a sadly shrinking generation of knowledgeable shopkeepers –– the firm handshake, the recommendation of something singing for just under fifty –– Burr is doing the job of a popularizing critic in an industry already rife with pop. Beyond his ability (impressive, I must say) to rattle off the chemicals responsible for the olfactory confidence-game the big names are playing, he merely confirms what in many cases we already know. My beef with both Burr and Parker is the arbitrary assignment of scores and stars to things which, in most cases, defy that sort of evaluation. Isn’t there some other way to let the noses and the marketers know whether, through mere sloppiness or lack of art, they’ve angered the olfactory Grand Inquisitor? Rue the day, mes amis, when young women (and young men) enter department stores armed with their list of three- and four-star scents and kiss their sense of themselves goodbye.

As he finished with us, after an impromptu evaluation of Juicy Couture, Chloé and Elle Yves Saint Laurent, I thought to myself whether he himself ever tired of the big brands and the Siren-call of the publicity offices. I wondered whether I’d ever find in a hidden vein somewhere in his book an admission that even the five-star marvels were somehow toxic beside the rich yet fragile search (of people like ourselves) for something to remind us of home, of a lost paradise or love, or the thrill of waking up in a different bed under a different sky, or of just being in the right place at the right time, no matter what the smell.

I guess I’ll just have to wait for Chandler Burr the Perfume.


Blogger carmencanada said...

C., your point about Robert Parkerism is interesting: the exact same analogy was made by a prominent perfumer I discussed with a couple of days ago (I won't drop names, as this was a private conversation and this is a public venue).
As for Chandler "pushing" widely available, commercial scents, one can understand that his articles are aimed at the NYT readership, so if he praises a Lutens bell jar scent, he might need to balance that out with something his readers can actually access.
There is a real need for a different schools of perfumery criticism and his work paves the way for more and different voices.

January 11, 2008 at 4:48 AM  
Blogger Vetivresse said...

D., I take your last point very well, and the sheer fact that a great number of informative, sensitively written blogs have flourished in the last few years proves it.

January 11, 2008 at 6:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love your perceptive and beautifully written description of Burr and the thoughts it lodged loose in your mind. Thank you! Reading your post was like talking to a smart, insightful friend.

January 11, 2008 at 8:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello -- delurking to second Angela's thank you for your sharp post on Burr. It helped me to clarify both the excitement and the unease I've been feeling over the past week as he shows up in in both the mass media and our little corner of the blogosphere (specifically, on Sniffapalooza and Perfume Shrine).

I described my unease to a friend as hearing "the sound of the great machinery clanking and creaking in our direction." In theory, I totally agree with carmencanada about Burr clearing the way for other critics, but your Parker analogy, especially the bit about people entering department stores clutching their list of starred perfumes, helped me understand my slight sense of sadness.

In my dreams, the perfume world opening to a much wider audience involves the mass education of the consumer, so that more people can pursue their memories, their changing tastes, the desires, their appreciation of the art of fragrance. In my nightmares, this education becomes another opportunity to sell people's desires back to them before they even know what they are.

So much more to say about this -- but this comment is too long already.

P.S. V -- if you could e-mail me I would very much appreciate it. I have some questions for you re: your upcoming pieces on Middle Eastern fragrance and couldn't seem to find your contact info -- aharad at gmail dot com.

January 13, 2008 at 11:39 AM  
Blogger Vetivresse said...

Angelas and Sweetlife, thanks to you both for yr most kind words. I'm just trying to play it as it lays, and my admiration for CB (as who cannot fall under his relative charm) is tempered by a very unambivalent suspicion of his scoring. I say, Teach people the difference between s*** and artfully composed fragrances, and do what you will. But please leave the stars on the flag and in the sky. Indeed, what WILL it be next: un flacon, deux flacons ...??

January 13, 2008 at 4:19 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

As much as I enjoyed meeting Chandler and find him incredibly entertaining, I do have a certain unease, though I think the blog world is plenty big for people covering several different areas of scent.

And most of the world does buy mainstream fragrances. I just wish we would hold them up to the light of "this is what they should be with that kind of money behind them" standard. I find myself not reviewing very many of them because I have to too in too many disclaimers.

January 15, 2008 at 8:31 AM  

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