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The Scents of Memory Theater

In his manifesto-cum-pop-science book The Secret of Scent, Luca Turin claims that scent is “not about” memory. Turin is both the most well-known and the most respected—categories which do not always align—perfume critic in the world. He is also a prominent biophysicist, and has developed an outsider theory of the primary perception of smell, positing that receptors in our noses function like spectrometers to identify vibrations as scents (much as our eyes and ears work to interpret sights and sounds)—a theory that, if ever taken seriously by his peers, most of whom are heavily invested in the incumbent (but still unproven) shape-based theory of smell, and who therefore despise him, could well win him a Nobel prize. I think he is a genius, of the Renaissance Man variety—not only a brilliant scientist, but a brilliant aesthete, and a brilliant communicator of aesthetics. Nevertheless, on this point, I think he is wrong.

Turin claims that scent doesn’t have stronger ties to memory than the other four senses. But smells—simple, basic smells—are specific in a way that other simple sensory objects are not. Take the smell of Band-Aids—or rather, the way Band-Aids smelled in the ‘70s and ‘80s. (I fear, in twenty years, no one will be around that remembers how Band-Aids used to smell.) Band-Aids no longer smell like Band-Aids, but every now and then, I smell something else that does. The scent of Band-Aids is alive and well in single-malt scotch—I have no idea why. Certain kinds of leather, and certain leather perfumes, also smell like Band-Aids. There is something almost electrical about this recognition. The same is not true of things that are blue, or songs in the key of G. Navy blue, a G flat—these sensory objects don’t shock or jettison. They are simply not as singular, and therefore not as memorable. To put it another way, the lemon smell smells lemony in any context, but yellow is often just yellow.

While it’s true that complex compositions of colors and sounds (images, music) can trigger the same kind of immersive memories that scents do, I’d argue that only smell has the capacity to send us reeling with a single note—an isolated vibration, in Turin’s theory, which could be the smell of a single molecule—whereas a single musical note, or a single color (which would correspond to a single auditory or visual vibration) do not trigger specific associations. In other words, you don’t need a composed perfume to time-travel; you may only need Cis-3-hexenol (the smell of cut grass) or Galaxolide (laundry detergent), say, to conjure your parents, though a few “notes” in concert (the equivalent of a chord) works even better. I’m convinced it’s a specific molecule that gave Band-Aids their scent, and it’s either the same or a similar molecule that’s in scotch; it’s all that’s needed to read as “Band-Aids.” I’ve heard that insulin smells like Band-Aids as well. There’s something in the current version of Chanel No. 5 that smells exactly like the interior of a car my dad had in the ‘90s—I think it may be a material from the special leather conditioner he used to treat the seats. The chocolate note in Missoni smells just like Tootsie Rolls.

Smells from childhood are especially prone to triggering deep memories: the almond-and-raw-flour smell of Play-Doh, mentholic Vick’s Vap-o-Rub, Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo. Early memories feel monumental because we had less experience to compare them to; things seem novel and amazing when you’re a kid, and somehow get coded as amazing, though later you can recognize that they’re not. But this can happen with anything emotionally charged—I had a long-distance boyfriend in college who reportedly would smell Pantene, the shampoo I used exclusively from the ages of 16 to 20 or so, in drugstores and instantly get an erection. The scent your mother or past significant others wore is branded in your mind forever; you smell it again and automatically conjure your mother or lover. Sadly, reformulations and discontinuations have become so common it may be impossible to ever smell those people again.

Tastes, too, can be specific, but flavor is largely determined by smell. And in fact it’s usually very specific taste compositions that trigger strong memories, tastes that don’t vary over time. We can always recognize the taste of watermelon, for example, but the seedless watermelons you find at the store now aren’t nearly as succulent and sweet as the seeded ones from my childhood—easier to eat, but not as rewarding. Eating watermelon now doesn’t remind me in any palpable way of eating it as a kid. But the particular, specific taste of Dr. Pepper, or chocolate Pop-Tarts, or strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups, or the salsa at a Mexican restaurant in my hometown—these tastes are memories.

Certainly, the specificity of smells is not the only or the most interesting thing about perfume—perfume at its best, like any art, transcends real-world references. But this month, in the interest of exploring the connection between memory and scent, I’m revisiting some iconic perfumes from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Some of these I wore, some of them I didn’t, but all of them I smelled from time to time as I was growing up. They were as much a part of my natural landscape as the desert air, the imperceptible smell of my house, the shampoo in my hair.

Happy (Clinique, 1997)

I wore Happy from time to time in high school and afterwards, less because I liked it and more because it was always around. My mother and grandmother both used Clinique products (as I do now), and for a while in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, they were giving away mini spray bottles of Happy and its flankers (Happy Heart, Happy To Be) in their gifts with purchase. A contested truth about perfume is that almost anything is better than nothing I think it’s this truth, which I accept, that led me to wear this repeatedly. It holds no happy memories for me. It’s a synthetic-smelling citrusy scent that reminds me of the very dated diet soda Fresca: orangey, lemon-limey, sweet and fizzy, laced with chemicals. There’s a slightly plasticky aspect that a reviewer on Basenotes cleverly identified as latex balloon. Happy also possesses the unfortunate property, probably due to some aldehyde or perhaps a dreaded woody amber, of seeming to zip straight up to my frontal lobe and make my brain hurt. It supposedly includes “boysenberry bush flower,” “morning dew orchid” and all sorts of silly floral notes, but Happy lacks the depth required to make one think of actual flowers. Instead it makes me think of movie theaters; I probably wore it to see Titanic. How this managed to take the nation by storm, I have no idea. The base, a sort of creamy musk, isn’t bad—it smelled a lot better after I tried to wash it off.

L’Eau d’Issey (Issey Miyake, 1992)

Ah, the memories. L’Eau d’Issey is what I considered my signature scent in high school, when cK One had worn out its welcome. Though it’s become a total cliché of the ‘90s, I thought I might still kind of like it. No such luck. I don’t hate it quite as much as Happy, but it’s pretty bad. Calone—the novel aromachemical that gave this, cK One, Escape, and a number of other ‘90s classics their fresh, marine quality—smelled so cool and surprising back then. I liked many of the big Calones, though of course I had no idea at the time they were designed around a common material. I think of Escape as the one that got away, the perfume I really wanted but never owned, and now I hear it’s drastically different. In my admittedly fallible memory, it had more depth than L’Eau d’Issey, which is fairly similar to Happy in structure, a sort of bland, generic white floral completely obscured with high-pitched chemicals. It’s like the smell of a chlorinated pool translated into the language of perfume. Perfume critics generally despise Calone, and I felt a bit protective of it until I smelled this again. Scents like this were considered an antidote to the powerful perfumes from the two decades prior, probably because they smelled like cleaning products instead of perfume. But in truth they’re just as easy to over-apply and just as headache-inducing—to this head, more so. It’s starting to look like the ‘90s stank worse than the ‘80s.

Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert (Bulgari, 1993)

After having it rejected by several major perfume houses, “nose” and tea lover Jean-Claude Ellena sold this scent to Bulgari, a jewelry-maker that was looking for something to perfume its stores and occasionally sell to customers. It was unexpectedly a huge hit. This groundbreaking perfume holds up better than many of its contemporaries because it achieves a striking freshness without using the now-tiresome Calone. It smells green and very clean—the latter a persistent trend in 2010—a bit citrusy and a bit sweet and, if not literally like green tea, the smell has come to signify green tea in functional products like soap and cheaper perfumes. In fact, this basically smells like soap. It suffers from the same problems as other Ellena creations: lack of presence and persistence. He’s now known for this kind of Zen minimalism. While I think this stuff would make a great room spray (which is basically what Bulgari selected it for), and it’s definitely better than L’Eau d’Issey and Happy, it just doesn’t feel like real perfume to me. It smells quite similar to his Osmanthus for The Different Company (2001), a very light citrusy green floral I find equally frustrating in its refusal to be more than occasionally perceptible and then only briefly. Ellena’s Kelly Calèche for Hermès isn’t far from this theme either, though it is stronger, and at a louder volume the osmanthus thing (a floral apricot leather smell) is sort of jarring. The three probably have several materials in common.

Pleasures (Estée Lauder, 1995)

I fancied myself far too edgy for Estée Lauder in high school, as did pretty much everyone I knew. I don’t even think they were bothering to target teens, in fact. The Beautiful ads always featured a bride, and the ones for Pleasures seemed squarely aimed at “moms”—the models were gorgeous, sure, but older and much more clean-cut than Calvin Klein’s waif star Kate Moss, and usually shown lying in a field of wildflowers holding a puppy (no joke), which didn’t exactly speak to the grunge aesthetic. I had zero interest in it at the time it was released, and even recently, though I’m a fan of the Lauders in general, which are unusually high-quality and distinctive for an affordable and widely available line, I kept skipping over this one at the tester counter. This is really a result of my disliking the marketing: terrible name in an awful cheesy font on a lame bottle. My thinking, if I’d bothered to articulate it to myself, was basically God forbid I fall in love with this and ever have to tell anyone I’m wearing “Pleasures.” But to qualify as a Lauder completist, I needed to get to know it, and this column was a good opportunity.

I thought I’d smelled clean florals, but this may be the cleanest yet. It smells like a cross between Lauder’s White Linen and Flower by Kenzo (Alberto Morillas worked on the formulas for both Flower and Pleasures)—there’s an undeniable impression of whiteness as it goes on, with some of the powdery aldehydic brightness of White Linen and some of the green violet sweetness of Flower, plus the kind of “white” musk that triggers associations with detergent. In a way it’s like a Chanel No. 22 with most of the offending sugar removed. It’s really much nicer than I expected given its deliberately bland image, but not as distinctive as White Linen or Flower. Still, if you like the idea of No. 22 but want something lighter and/or more affordable, this is a good option.

Be (Calvin Klein, 1996)

This was Calvin Klein’s other big unisex launch in the ‘90s, so “other” that I don’t even remember it existing. I was a devoted cK One wearer for a short while in eighth grade, though I was cool enough to realize after several months that it was too popular to really be cool. Be came two years later and wasn’t nearly so popular; accordingly, it’s less of a cliché now. It isn’t nearly as distinctive, but I’m not sure if it’s been changed. (The current testers of cK One, I’m positive, contain a reformulation.) Be is a very light scent, the kind you “literally can’t overdo!” (a phrase the editors of Lucky are always using, perversely, as a compliment). It’s herbal up top with juniper and mint, smelling very briefly like a gin and tonic, then settling into a very clean skin scent with some traditionally masculine fougère notes like lavender and opoponax and a lot of white musk, like freshly laundered sheets. In fact, I like to spray this on my pillowcase before bed—I find it soothing. Why is it the perfumes I didn’t wear seem so much better than the ones I did?

Tommy Girl (Tommy Hilfiger, 1996)

Tommy Girl reminds me of that Yogi Berra line, “That place is so crowded no one goes there anymore.” Tommy Girl was once so popular, it now smells really generic. It’s a very sweet, pink-faced fresh floral, like Gucci Envy (which came one year later) but without the neon-green notes making it edgy. In fact, it smells like a lot of current feminines on the market, if you were to remove their more obvious fruit chunks. It’s perfectly pretty and perfectly pleasant, but, no longer feeling new, it feels sadly irrelevant.

Rush (Gucci, 1999)

Rush is what I wore in college—not because it was ubiquitous (no one I knew wore it) or because I received it as a surprise gift, but because I chose it. I remember smelling it in a scent strip in a magazine (InStyle probably, what I read on planes back then) and thinking, “Yes. That is what I want to smell like.” I had no cause to analyze it then, and find it very difficult to do so now. Rather than an arrangement of notes I simply smell my younger self. To make things more difficult, the composition resists analysis—it isn’t easily placed in a category or easily described in terms of smells in the natural world, unless you invoke stuff most people wouldn’t want to smell like: a fog machine, butter, hair spray. It definitely doesn’t smell like fruit or flowers. When forced to conjure adjectives, I get things like fuzzy. Putty-colored. This has a reputation as a big, loud, going-out-clubbing type of scent, but when I wear it I tend to forget it’s there. I suppose it’s so familiar that it fades into the background. Others in the room, for all I know, are wondering if someone spilled gasoline on their pants leg. I’m almost surprised they didn’t market it as a masculine.

Calyx (Prescriptives, 1986)

The top notes of Calyx are incredible: sharp grassy green and a tropical fruity punch in the nose. (You really feel almost assaulted at first with the tingly citrus stuff, and may be forced to cough or sneeze.) There’s a very pleasing balance of acidic (maybe lime or grapefruit or pineapple) and creamy (papaya, mango, melon) in this fruit mix, but it doesn’t smell so much like candy as like a hair salon—or as a friend of mine put it, “the sexiest shampoo ever.” Sometimes Sophia Grojsman’s perfumes remind me of restaurants that put all their effort into the appetizers and whiff the main course, and unfortunately Calyx is pretty dull as it dries down, a woody floral with a bland, bread-like quality. But you can make the stupendous top notes last longer by layering sprays.

Paris (Yves Saint Laurent, 1983)

This rose scent, also by Grojsman, has a reputation for being an elevator bomb, one of those ‘80s florals like Poison and Giorgio with too much of everything. Paris smells familiar to me, but I was four when it came out—it wasn’t exactly gassing out the playground. Even without the traumatic memories, I think this is what people who don’t like perfume think of when they think of perfume. This kind of powdery, sweet rose has come to smell not just dated but kind of bathroomy. The associations are a bloody shame, because objectively I know it’s pretty. It smells different on paper, richer, less powdery and a bit boozy, like rosé. I wanted to love this, but simply can’t wear it. On skin it just feels too pink, too sweet, and too cheap.

Trésor (Lancome, 1990)

My first thought upon smelling a new sample of Trésor was that this isn’t Grojsman’s best work. Possibly it’s been reformulated to death, but I seem to remember not liking the mini bottle I had in junior high much either. Grojsman’s signature is a rosy floral with fruity top notes, as in Calyx and Paris above and to some extent the magnificent White Linen. This is a dark revisiting of the big pink rose and peachy overtones of Paris, but there’s something else in there, something weirdly woody, herbal and vegetal (the lilac?) that gives it a medicinal flavor, like Echinacea cough drops. If you can make it past this stomach-turning opening, the drydown is much more pleasant—same basic idea, but softer, muskier, more vanillic. It’s too bad fragrances can’t be fast-forwarded..

Cool Water (Davidoff, 1988)

I guess it’s a testament to how much this scent was copied—the top notes of Cool Water smell like Gillette deodorant and shaving gel in the default blue and gray packaging. Such is the degree to which I’ve come to accept this kind of “fresh” masculine accord as “generic guy smell” that at first it was a struggle to pick out any notes—I just thought deodorant, so it came off feeling even cheaper than it is. Upon closer inspection: The first blast involves lavender and a surprising tangy note like green apple candy, bolstered with some musk and maybe a woody amber. It’s not really overly “aquatic” as compared to stuff like L’Eau d’Issey. Cool Water then settles into something I don’t associate with men at all—a sweet, clean scent that stays close to the skin, like the smell of your hands after you wash them with fruity soap. This also has the same plasticky green soap note I was first dismayed to find in Tocade (an ultra-feminine rose-vanilla), which makes me think of washing dishes with rubber gloves on. I got a bit of Cool Water on a sweatshirt and weeks later, this is what remained. Possibly it’s the remnants of dihydromercenol, an aromachemical that is now almost omnipresent in masculine scents. Cool Water was one of the first to use it in large amounts, but it had been, and is still, used frequently to fragrance detergents and soaps. There are definitely worse things for men to smell like, but unless you only have $10 to spend on a fragrance, it’s hard to see wearing this without irony.

Carolina Herrera (1988)

Because my mother has very sensitive skin, she uses unscented everything, so there are very few smells I associate with her. I have always remembered, however, the perfume my best friend’s mother wore when we were in junior high and high school: the original Carolina Herrera, in the polka-dot box. I found her quite elegant, and I perceived the perfume as very pretty but very grown-up. I filed it, along with short hair, straight-leg jeans, and Naturalizers, in the category of items best suited to moms. Once I had a few decades behind me and had reassessed at least some of these items, I felt moved to try it on, and was pleased to learn it hasn’t changed. Carolina Herrera is similar to Paris, but the powdery, peachy notes are layered on tuberose, jasmine, and ylang-ylang rather than rose. This essentially makes it a weirder scent, both greener and creamier, with a hint of a funky, barnyard twang. It is still sweet, and still loud, but not as candy-like as Fracas, considered by many to be the reference tuberose. There’s something so appealing about it, like Julia Roberts’ cleaned up hooker in Pretty Woman, perched between classy and inappropriate. Carolina Herrera really only works outdoors and in the sunshine, but on a garden-party kind of day, it’s perfect.

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Elisa Gabbert is the poetry editor of Absent and the author of The French Exit (Birds LLC) and Thanks for Sending the Engine (Kitchen Press, 2007). Her latest chapbook co-written with Kathleen Rooney is Don’t ever stay the same; keep changing (Spooky Girlfriend Press). Recent poems can be found in Colorado Review, The Laurel Review, Puerto del Sol, and Salt Hill.