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 Times’ T 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.