Reading Chandler Burr on perfume is like being trapped in a complex weather system, like looking down into a well of cool, black water; it is at once warming and cooling, and instantly mesmerizing, like a compulsively listenable rock album.
No, CJR Daily — down two editors — has not succumbed to the pull of purple prose. This is how Burr himself, named on August 22 the New York Times’ “first-ever perfume critic,” described the experience of smelling Bigarade Concentrée and Black XS for Paco Rabanne, respectively.
We admit: the news that the Times — in this age of newsroom cutbacks and insufficient coverage of “gathering threats” overseas and at home — had opted to beef up its fragrance coverage, hired someone to “review and rate new and classic perfumes as well as other scents such as perfumed candles” in a column called “Scent Strip” for the Times’ style magazine, T, caused some eyes to roll around here.
And we aren’t alone. Burr’s hiring piqued media interest (he has made the rounds to NBC’s “Today Show,” NPR’s “On the Media,” and the “Wake Up with Whoopi [Goldberg]” radio show in recent weeks). Eyebrows were raised online and off.
In a column titled, “Smell of Excess,” the Contra Costa Times’ Joan Morris wrote: “Those of us who toil in the trenches of journalism often fantasize about that ‘dream job.’ Restaurant reviewer. Movie critic. Animal columnist. We never knew we were aiming too low until we learned the New York Times has hired a perfume critic. That’s right. Let’s say it together. Perfume. Critic. In other words, this guy — who goes by the improbable name of Chandler Burr — will be paid for smelling ….”
There was this, from the Chicago Sun-Times’ Paige Wiser: “Why didn’t the New York Times consider me for the gig? … OK. I know I’m not qualified to be a perfume critic. But, my God, I could fake it. I could sniff Chanel for a living. I could review Lindsay Lohan’s new fragrance with an open mind and a forgiving heart. I could get all excited about the bottom notes of Love’s Baby Soft. … [I]f perfume critics are getting snapped up by newspapers, sign me up. I smell an opportunity here.”
Observed the Wisconsin State Journal’s Bill Wineke: “The New York Times has just hired a perfume critic and I’m not sure what that says about American culture.”
Gawker, of course,
We took a look at Burr’s body of scent-related work (he has also written for the Atlantic, the New Yorker, the National Review, and Food & Wine, among other publications, on topics ranging from perfume to politics to public health, and he began his reporting career as a stringer for the Christian Science Montitor). Here, to our minds, are some of Burr’s more memorable odor descriptions:
“Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue is an absolutely terrific perfume, rich without a trace of heaviness, sweet without a hint of stickiness. It smells like the freshest lemon-cake batter. Ever.”
“Narciso Rodriguez’s For Her smells like talcum powder and confectioner’s sugar sprinkled over slightly unripe plums sitting on an aluminum plate …”
And, our favorite:
“… what is wonderful about Diorella is that it smells like a new fur coat that has been rubbed with a very creamy mint toothpaste. Not gel. Paste. It is a great, great fragrance …”
When, we wondered, has Burr had occasion to smell “a new fur coat that has been rubbed with a very creamy mint toothpaste?” Was PETA involved? And, is there any thing (sentient or otherwise) — or combination of things — the scent of which Burr has not inhaled?
We had questions.
Liz Cox Barrett: First, when did you have the occasion to smell “a new fur coat that has been rubbed with a very creamy mint toothpaste,” which is how you described Diorella?
Chandler Burr: I’ve never obviously smelled a fur coat with mint toothpaste. You wouldn’t, by definition, smell most of the metaphors I use — well, actually, I shouldn’t say that, some are very, very literal. It all depends. It really is a matter of seeking to communicate in as visceral and effective a way as possible the experience of the work of art. In this case, the work of art happens to be a perfume.