Chandler Burr Brings a Point de Repère to Perfume Criticism

The New York Times' new perfume critic explains what "smelling fresh insecticide while locked in an aluminum cell" might be like.

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, weighed in earnestly on Burr’s new Times gig: “This is not a joke. This is very, very real. [The New York TimesT: Style mag will be running a perfume column …” and, “Your Grandmother Certain to Enjoy New ‘T’ Style Perfume Column.” And later, this was Gawker’s review of Burr’s first perfume review: “Oh. Hell. No.”

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.

LCB: You’ve written a play and two books - one that is perfume-related and one about the biological origins of homosexuality. You have a Masters in International Economics and Japan Studies, you studied international relations in Paris and Chinese history in Beijing. You’ve covered business, science, food and travel for assorted magazines. Now you’re a perfume columnist. Was this part of the plan?

CB: Absolutely not. Not in any way, shape or form. A complete surprise. It resulted from the Eurostar [train] being 20 minutes late when I was in Paris going to London one day. I started talking to the guy next to me in line. He was a guy named Luca Turin, a biophysicist primarily and a perfume genius and he was researching the sense of smell. [This conversation eventually became a book by Burr called “The Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Obsession and Perfume.” Then Burr was asked to write for the New Yorker “a behind-the-scenes account of the creation of a perfume” - “The Scent of the Nile,” published last year. And by then, his perfume-related writing career was off and running.]

LCB: Did you have a particularly acute sense of smell before all of that? Were you unusually interested in or attuned to smells prior to meeting Turin?

CB: No. You don’t have to have an acute sense of smell. You have to have an interest in smell and in perfume and in art and in science. That’s absolutely what I have.

LCB: Are you aware of a precedent anywhere in mainstream journalism — some other perfume critic — or are you the first of your kind?

CB: As far as I know, Luca [Turin] does a [perfume criticism] column in [the German magazine] NZZ, in German. As far as I know I’m the first in the English language.

LCB: What is your mission? What do you hope to bring to your column and your other perfume-related writing for T?

CB: I hope to both inform and entertain — to put it in a very formulaic way. I’d like to order the universe of this very commercial art. In exactly the same way that A.O. Scott at the Times orders movies or Ben Brantley orders plays. It’s a wonderful art, a brilliant art. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun as a commercial product, perfume is, and it’s nice to be able to bring a sense of point du repère — How do you say that? Sorry, I’m really not trying to be a snob. That’s awful. I hate when people do that — you need to have a sense of where you are.

LCB: I confess, I was surprised to find I enjoyed and learned something from your article that accompanied your first “Scent Strip” column (about why people are — but shouldn’t be — snobbish about synthetic scents as opposed to “natural” scents) and the science behind all of that. What do you say to people who might dismiss your job as frivolous?

CB: I suppose all art criticism is frivolous on a certain level. People perceive perfume criticism — I mean, me, since I’m the only one I know doing it in English — as particularly frivolous because perfume is perceived as a sort of an excess luxury item, like socks or stockings only less necessary. The fact of the matter is that perfume is a great art, exactly as is food or music and let’s face it, nobody needs music to survive, nor do they need Mario Batali, anymore — Gristede’s, fine, but that’s a very, very different thing from Babbo, you know? There is an entire world of beautifully constructed, aesthetically astonishing, innovative works of art that speak not as music and painting do to the senses of hearing and sight but to the sense of smell.

LCB: And that’s the universe you cover?

CB: That is part of the universe. I’m also happy to cover, you know, perfume by Hillary Duff.

LCB: Speaking of such things, you wrote a piece for the New York TimesT magazine in 2005 about Sarah Jessica Parker’s perfume, Lovely. You spent time with Parker walking around her New York City neighborhood and talking smells. Of Parker’s perfume you wrote: ” … what’s interesting about the structure of Lovely: it is, in fact, a risk, successfully negotiated to a degree I suspect even Parker doesn’t totally realize. Lovely is a piece of extremely interesting technical work. In its most immediate incarnation, it is an instantly legible, placeable perfume …” Is this how a perfume critic pans a celebrity perfume — talking about how it is “interesting” and “instantly legible”?

CB: Not at all. You’re thinking it was a backhanded compliment? I meant that it in a prima facie way. When I pan things I tend to pan them. There’s a perfume by Davidoff that I review in T: Men’s coming out on September 17 that I describe as “like smelling fresh insecticide while locked in an aluminum cell.”

LCB: Who would want to do that?

CB: A lot of people, it turns out. Hugo Boss is one of the top-selling brands of perfume in the world. It is utterly antithetical to any sort of innovation, beauty, originality or human life.

LCB: The Times press release announcing your hiring had a subhead about how the magazine “has the largest total advertising pages since 1984” at 194.4 pages. And, I happened to notice, that among those 194.4 ads, there were only two of those annoying perfume ads with the fold-out sample strip. Surely the Times is hoping to have more of those stinky ads in future issues? Was your hiring at the Times a business move — an advertising grab?

CB: First of all, I actually love those fold-out strips. I grab them whenever I can. They don’t give you a completely accurate experience of the perfume but they can be helpful in finding something that might be new or interesting.

My hiring — the editorial side does not in any way make decisions for the ad side and vice versa.

LCB:: Of your hiring, the Associated Press wrote: “If Burr follows in the tradition of other opinionated Times critics, perfume makers beware: scents had better be up to snuff.” Will you be the Michiko Kakutani of scent?

CB: Do you know, a lot of people have asked me this. I never thought about this when first discussing the column. Someone else asked me, ” How do you feel about the fact that your quotes are going to be used in perfume ads for Dior and Chanel?” I’d never thought of that, either. It’s interesting and I assume it will happen. It’s logical but it’s not something I ever thought about when we were creating the column or that I intentionally write for in any way.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.