SCENT SEMANTICS 4: TASTE

It was not easy choosing a word for this month’s Scent Semantics. At first, I was stymied. Potato, I thought. Dinosaur. Orphan. I wanted a word that was challenging and rich with possibility, but all I could come up with were shallow words (coffee, minty) or unserious choices (unprintable).

Finally, I settled on taste. I was inspired by an exchange that I had with an acquaintance who asked me for a recommendation for a perfume. “Well, I don’t really know you that well,” I demurred. “It doesn’t matter!” they replied, “I trust your taste!”

Do you?!” I wondered as I looked around my apartment, my gaze falling on a pizza-shaped pillow, a framed autographed photo of Mr. T., and a perfume from Zara that smells just like canned peaches.

Anyone who knows me probably expected me to choose a food-related word for this collaborative project. Although taste cannot be divorced from its gustatory roots (ie. to have a specific flavor, to eat or drink in small quantities, to perceive/experience/enjoy by the sense of taste), I would like to also explore it through its other meanings: individual judgment, critical evaluation, discernment and appreciation of aesthetic qualities.

De gustibus non est disputandum!”

In matters of taste, there can be no disputes!

Or so I thought.

Then I fell off a metaphorical cliff into an abyss of relativism where everything was subjective and all arguments were rendered moot. You like what you like, and who can argue with that?

“Tastes good!” my Grandpa says, smacking his lips in enjoyment of something that makes me gag. Chicken feet, cartilage, fish heads? Sorry, Grandpa, hard no. I don’t hold this against him. I recognize that my squeamishness reveals more about where and how I grew up, versus where and how my Grandpa did. He has every right to like what he does, as do millions of others who share his affinity for the squidgy, soft, gelatinous, and rewarding bits. Part of me wishes that I could appreciate those foods too, but I can’t. I don’t like the taste, the texture, and also the work it takes to get a minuscule amount of chewy, fun stuff off a single chicken toe.

Whereas Grandpa gets a pass, others do not.

I admit it: I judge.

You judge too. Everyone does. We do it every day. Judgment doesn’t have to be mean, but it often is. “Mask-hole,” I think as I give the stink-eye to another unmasked subway rider who is flouting NYC’s mask mandate. “Ugh!” I complain to Joel when we get an invitation to join friends at another restaurant where the food is bad and overpriced. “Y2K Jessica Simpson wants that back now!” I bark at my friend who meets me at a café wearing a straw cowboy hat.

This gets us to what follows saying “to each, their own”: if everyone is entitled to their own taste, does that mean that we all have good taste?

‘Taste is relative’ is the excuse adopted by those eras that have bad taste.”
— Nicolás Gómez Dávila

No one will actually own up to having bad taste. I’m not talking about people who humbly admit that they have no taste. I mean those who think they have taste, but don’t and don’t know that they don’t. To have bad taste is, well … bad! It’s not nice to say someone has bad taste. Bad taste is synonymous with ignorance, being uneducated, being provincial.

But can good taste exist without its opposite?

For good taste to be good, it must be rare. Not everyone can have good taste, which is why a discussion of good taste can be so incendiary. In addition to being an expression of expert discernment, it is also elitist, snobby, socially and economically classist.

Someone has to have good taste! Or at least better taste. Otherwise, what would be the point of criticism and reviews? Where would fashion magazines be if their editors and contributors were not considered to be credible authorities on what looks good? Would there still be awards for the best movies, books, restaurants, etc. without the votes of so-called experts? Would entire art collections be devalued? What would be the use of curators if it didn’t matter what you curated?

For this meditation on taste, I have chosen three banana perfumes: Blackbird Y06-S, L’Artisan Parfumeur Bana Banana, and NARS Audacious.

Banana?! Yes, banana!

They might taste good, but bananas defy good taste! Bananas are vulgar. Their bright yellow color literally honks at your eyeballs. They’re a funny shape. (Yes, I went there!) I bet Anna Wintour has never “gone bananas”! Bananas are cheap. A single banana goes for almost pennies. Artificial banana-flavored food is tacky. Circus peanuts, anyone?

On a side note, if you want to know why banana-flavored things don’t actually taste like banana, do read the great story of the near extinction of the Gros Michel banana whose presence is gone, but whose flavor lives on as artificial banana flavoring (isoamyl acetate).

And is there any better representation of low-brow comedy than the classic pratfall of slipping on a banana peel?

Low-brow comedy is easy to understand. It is meant to appeal to the widest audience and is often physical and scatological. It is slapstick: humor contingent on surprise, boisterous jokes, physical contortions, pulled faces, and buffoonery. It is the laughter that follows a pie in the face or wiping out on discarded scraps.

High-brow comedy, on the other hand, is intellectual, ironic, absurd, and potentially obscure. High-brow humor is not funny to everyone. Like high art, you either get it, or you don’t. If you do get it, your membership in the exclusive club of thinking women and men is assured. If you don’t get it, you can take your place with the other plebs down below.

To understand bad taste, one must have very good taste.”
— John Waters

For all its popular appeal, low-brow humor can also be deployed to devastatingly effect to subvert, to overthrow, the bring down those who think they’re above the masses. The snooty businessman is just like the rest of us when he slips on a banana peel and falls.

Banana perfumes are subversive too. At first, they seem like olfactory gags. Laffy Taffy, but make it perfume. On second sniff, they are all much more than that. They are not for everyone. The audiences for these perfumes are either true fragrance connoisseurs or 4-year-olds. Apart from perfume sets for children, banana perfumes could only be categorized as true niche.

Take Blackbird’s Y06-S, which opens on the skin with the smell of an overheated VCR.* Slowly, the charged notes of warm electronics step aside to make way for a pile of underripe bananas and indolic jasmine. Kashina turned me onto this fragrance, which was her enthusiastic response to my wish for a perfume that smelled like animatronic monkeys in trees. It smells like that, but it also smells more urban — like the most fabulous dumpster in Bangkok. Imagine the olfactory glory of discarded green bananas, trashed garlands of jasmine whose white petals are quickly turning orange, and plastic-sheathed wires tumbled together in a giant receptacle. When I smelled this for the first time, I laughed out loud. This is the Warhol of banana perfumes.

L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Bana Banana is the most perfect banana of the three. A gorgeous, bright yellow, unblemished fruit served on the whitest cloud of musk. It is a banana hologram, so unreal that it is practically surreal. Despite that, it still feels accessible. I know this banana. I’ve thrown it countless times into my backpack before running out the door to school. I’ve peeled off its stickers and stuck them to notebook covers and cafeteria walls. I’ve pulled apart its sticky bunches in supermarkets and tossed it carelessly into shopping carts. I’ve blended it into smoothies, sliced it onto crêpes, and arranged it on top of peanut butter. It is the Sistine Chapel ceiling of banana perfumes, both profane and divine.

With its sleek dark bottle and minimalist presentation, no one would ever suspect that NARS Audacious smells like bananas. I assure you that it does! Banana is not listed as one of its given notes, but that is what makes this tropical floral fragrance feel the most subversive. What is more audacious than a banana perfume trying to fool you? NARS Audacious does not smell yellow, green, or even brown. The scent is more like the steamy whisper of a peeled, chalky banana in a Balinese spa, It smells luxurious, glamorous, expensive. But it’s still a banana!

As you know by now, Scent Semantics is a monthly perfume blogger collaboration curated by Portia Turbo to bring together six writers from around the world to meditate on a single word, and then write about a fragrance(s) they’ve chosen to represent it.

I can’t wait to read everyone else’s takes on taste this month. Please visit their blogs and subscribe to support (links in the navigation and below).

* I hyperlinked VCR because some of my students have told me that they have never seen one before.