Sunday, 16 January 2011

Trust Me - I Know What's Good For You

If you like to keep tabs on what's happening in the perfume blogosphere, you'll certainly have noticed that the last few weeks have seen the publication of several Best Of lists to mark the end of 2010. There is, of course, nothing especially remarkable about this: summative lists have been compiled for years in all fields of the arts. However, whilst glancing at some of them, I was reminded of recent thoughts about the possibility of objectively assessing whether a perfume is good or bad.

I suppose one of the purposes of such lists is precisely to arrive at this sort of objectivity: the unwritten principle seems to be that if enough people mention a certain scent, it must be good. On this premise, one could conclude that Ropion's Portrait Of A Lady and Duchaufour's Traversée Du Bosphore are both highly laudable, but it doesn't take a great deal of analysis to detect several flaws in such a strategy. And besides, it fails to bring us any closer to identifying the actual features that make a "good" perfume good.

I suspect most people for whom scent is a relatively serious business are happy to accept that it is possible to make the following statement: "I think fragrance X is good, but I just happen not to like it very much." In other words, they consider it possible to make an objective judgement that is distinct from personal preferences. This may sound impressively rational and intellectual, but I'd argue that all so-called objective criteria ultimately have to give way to the quirks of subjectivity.

Take tenacity, for example, which is frequently cited as an important characteristic of a 'good' fragrance. We all know what the word means in relation to a perfume, but who's to decide what is the right 'amount' of tenacity (if such an attribute can be measured in terms of amounts)? You may say it all depends on the overall nature of the scent, and of course you'd be right, but then who's to decide what is the right level of tenacity for a fresh cologne as opposed to a soft floral or a heavy oriental? Several scents that are considered too fleeting by some are judged by others to make their exit at just the right moment.

Another attribute of a 'good' perfume is what we might call seamlessness: a smooth progression from one moment to the next, with no jarring 'gaps' or awkward diversions. Again, this sounds eminently sensible when expressed in such dispassionate terms, but surely a great deal of subjectivity is involved here too. Perhaps one person will perceive a particular transition from, say, bergamot to lavender as graceful, whereas another might see it as clumsy. A perfume that follows a slightly less orthodox trajectory might be considered a failure by one wearer or a brave innovation by another.

Subjectivity also raises its head in all the other criteria used to judge a perfume: volume, diffusiveness, complexity, even originality. To greater or lesser degrees, all these are tempered by the different experiences and perceptions that each individual brings to a fragrance.

Every ten years, Sight & Sound - one of the world's most highly respected movie magazines - invites critics and directors to provide a list of their top 10 films of all time. The results are then collated to produce a final, overall list. (In case you're wondering, Citizen Kane has been at the top since 1962; the next grand survey is due in 2012.)

What's interesting about this exercise is not that certain films appear in individual lists a sufficient number of times to earn a place on the final tally. What's interesting is that when you look at each critic's or director's personal choices, you see a tremendous variation in their preferences and what they consider to be praiseworthy movies. (Equally interesting is a comparison between the overall Top 10 as voted by critics and the Top 10 as voted by directors: it shows quite clearly that the people who make movies and the people who critique them don't necessarily agree about what constitutes greatness.)

This open-mindedness must also be permitted to apply to perfume. I am not for one moment suggesting that all opinions should be granted equal weight, regardless of how vapid they are. "Perfume Z is rubbish because it's rosy and I can't stand rose," doesn't really get us anywhere. I absolutely believe that anyone who would like their fragrance appraisals to be taken seriously must make an effort to put aside - as much as possible - overly personal views on mere likes and dislikes. But the whimsical human element can never be erased completely, nor should it be. We need different conversations about perfume in just the same way that we need different perfumes. Indeed, we probably need the conversations more than we need a limiting, reductive sense of good and bad, because it's the conversations that will keep pushing the art into areas and forms that we can't even begin to imagine - or judge - at this moment in time.



  1. I think that in the same cultural environment objectivity in choosing the best movie is much higher than in choosing the best fragrance. And I'm not sure if we even need that objectivity: behemoths will live or die with or without the blogosphere's approval (I seriously doubt all those millions who bought Britney Spears' perfumes are even aware of NST, PST, etc.) and niche or indie perfumes will only benefit from bloggers' positive subjectivity (it might be my subjective impression, but it seems I read much less negative reviews for small brands than for mainstream ones).

  2. Some of you may have noticed that over the last day or so, I've been playing around with a new comments facility called Disqus. The experiment hasn't been wholly successful, so I'm disabling it for the moment. Unfortunately, I seem to have lost a few comments that were left in the last 24-36 hours.

    I'm sorry for any inconvenience caused by this odd little technological blip.

  3. Undinaba, I'd like to ask why you think it would be easier to arrive at a view on film, but I'm also wary of moving the discussion away from perfume.

    As for the question of whether the blogosphere is kinder to niche perfumes, I think you may be right, but I'm not sure that's a problem. Perhaps it's a sign that many bloggers are aware of the influence they may have on the success of a business that isn't anywhere near as powerful as a multi-national, LVMH-style giant.

  4. Hello. Chiming in as a blogger who reviews niche/indie perfume (and other) brands. I'd rather write positive reviews about small businesses, wherever possible. I'm not interested in trashing someone's livelihood - if I buy from somewhere and the product isn't for me, I just wouldn't review it (although, touch wood, I have had nothing but genuinely positive experiences so far).

    As far as the larger corporations are concerned, I'm not so interested in writing about them at all, but with the profits that they make I do feel justified in saying if I don't think a product is worth the cash they're charging for it.

    On your original point, a scent may not be to my particular taste, but it can still be well-executed. Ormonde Jayne Tolu for example; I don't generally get on well with orientals, but I can recognise that this is a beautiful one (and in the right circumstances I'd wear it).

  5. What Grace said, essentially. With a niche brand - and I do review a few - you're much more aware that there is an individual behind it, with a livelihood to defend, whereas with a multinational, it's easier to write something that may be considered negative, as there is no face to attach to the product, as it were.

    So, bad indie products tend not to get reviewed as often, it's a touch of selection bias - for an ethical reason, one could argue.

    To get back to your original point though, it's very difficult sometimes to differentiate between "best" and "favourite" on a film board I used to frequent, arguments on this topic used to flare up quite regularly, and end up quite heated as a result.

    Sometimes, what is good is hard to love, so people tend not to have so much of an interest in writing about it, maybe?

    In essence - I don't know.

  6. Grace London, thanks for your thoughts on reviewing the output of the niche world.

    As for perfume assessment: what would you say counts as "well executed"?

  7. Get Lippie, I can just picture what some of those film discussions may have been like.

    There's no easy answer to this particular problem. In fact, I'm not sure there's ANY answer. But it's important not to pretend that reviewing is totally objective.

  8. I think you got the nail on the head when you said, "they consider it possible to make an objective judgement that is distinct from personal preferences." I think this method of reasoning applies to so much else too, like film, music, art, heck even people.

    If you appreciate something's worth, but dislike it, that shows reasoning. Similarly, if you disklike something and don't even appreciate it (whilst everyone is entitled to their opinions), it's much better to back up your reasoning with sound arguments.

  9. Liam J, thanks for writing.

    How do you personally try to 'appreciate' a perfume's worth, as opposed to just deciding whether you personally like it?

  10. Well there's the rub - I guess it's well-executed in my opinion if I say it is! ;)

    I suppose I mean I can be somewhat objective about notes and fragrance families that I wouldn't necessarily wear if they're put together well (in my opinion), but that's still through my own filter of what makes a 'good' perfume (I know I have a bias towards, and prefer, natural scents rather than synthetics). Which means I'm not really objective at all.

  11. Grace London, thanks for replying. I suspect there are VERY few areas of life in which total objectivity is possible, but that doesn't mean we should stop striving for it. I think problems arise when we try to deny the existence of subjectivity.

  12. The way I get round this issue when I am "reviewing" a perfume (keenly aware that my neophyte nose is a blunt instrument at the best of times) is to say that I "admire" or "respect" a scent whilst not being drawn to it personally. Which is the case with many of the most lauded recent launches on the niche scene. By the same token, I "tune out" to most classical music, but objectively I am in no doubt that it is better than your average indie song or nursery rhyme.

  13. Vanessa, for a start, I'm sure there's nothing wrong with your nose.

    I'm intrigued by your statement, because if you read it a certain way, it makes it sound like you always say that you 'admire' or 'respect' the very perfumes you dislike... which can't be right, can it?

    And by the way, I can't agree that classical music is necessarily better than an indie song. Surely they should be judged against completely different criteria.

  14. Hi Persolaise,

    I think I appreciate a perfume's worth when I consider the following, in no particular order:

    Whether I personally like it. Simple. It is so hard to shake this aspect off. It's hard to appreciate something you don't particular like or are fond of. So maybe this point is mute.

    The quality of it's odour. I think it's fair to assume that something that smells real and full of life is more appealing than a fragrance that smells in someway fake or adulterated. In this regard it's worth is diminished.

    Perhaps to a lesser extent the amount of time and effort put in to a creation would be a deciding factor in a fragrance's worth. Whilst it is easy to spin a web of effort and labour onto the masses from big houses, you can't ignore an artists passion and creativity.

    Maybe also how ground breaking it is. Is it an entirely new, never before like smell. Does it break boundaries and stereotypes?

    In the end, worth is objective, ultimately.


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