I must begin by admitting that I am obsessed with Madonna, and I don’t use the word lightly.
Ever since the glorious moment at the age of thirteen when I was struck by the celestially ascending laser-arpeggios of Lucky Star and its taut, quasar funk, she has exerted fascination over me. With her power; cold eroticism; that voice, and those beautiful, feline blue eyes that hold me like a medusa, it is a love/hate relationship that after more than a quarter of a century shows no sign of relenting. I am fixated.
I have dreamed about her continually since this time, probably more than any other person in my life – a fact I find almost inexplicable. Although I believe that Madonna has produced some of the most delectable, exhilarating pop music of all time, she is not my favourite musician, and I am not even sure I like her. However, a strange little book came out in the nineties – ‘I dream of Madonna’, that shed some light on the mystery and showed me that I am apparently not alone in having my subconscious so deeply penetrated by this beautiful, inexhaustible performer.
Despite my adoration, which I sometimes consider to be more like an addiction or virus (I remember in 1992 during the Erotica period feeling so possessed that I was literally anxious that she might be the devil, relinquishing the album to a friend so I could actually study for my finals), I don’t think I am actually what you might call a ‘fan’. Those uncritical hordes seem to be willingly ignorant of her faults, whereas I see them, in all their complexity and contradictions, with a sometimes painfully crystalline clarity.
For the fact is, despite her protestations, Madonna really is the ‘Material Girl’. It is a phrase that has become lazy shorthand for journalists but which ultimately encapsulates her. While I don’t for a moment doubt the woman’s sincerity in her spiritualistic soul-searching – Madonna is no fool – at the end of the day, those eyes are always on the money. It is a greed for mass-market success that has cheapened her music, and, unfortunately, her scent.
We need only look at her 2007 deal with Live Nation for evidence. Madonna is vastly wealthy, and at this stage in her career, could pick and choose her projects with a focus on quality and artistry. Take her time, make another classic. Instead, in a Faustian pact, Madonna signed a reported 120 million dollar deal with the tour and merchandising company that requires her to release albums every couple of years and then promote them by extensive touring (something that she herself admits to hating, apart from the first and last weeks of the shows, but which she does, as she mischievously says, because ‘a girl has to pay the rent’). Rather than leading to genuine inspiration – the five year hiatus between Bedtime Stories and Ray Of Light led to a startling transformation that surprised even me – Madonna now seems to be churning out music, enlisting of-the-minute producers with her unfailingly vampiric antennae, in a vain attempt to make her music sound relevant and of the moment. The commercial failure of her last two singles, the unconvincing bubblegum schtick of ‘Give me all your luvin’, and the gay-by-numbers ‘Girl gone wild’, suggests that the public (like me), aren’t buying it. We know she can do better.
But on to the perfume. Madonna’s late entrance onto the stage of celebrity fragrance – behind Rihanna, Mariah, J-Lo, Britney, Beyonce, and dozens of others is surprising, although the publicity for Truth Or Dare (the name comes from the documentary film from 1991 which I have seen more times than I care to relate), claims it has been 16 years in the making. Madonna, we are told, characteristically oversaw every detail and had final stamp of approval.
It is this, Madonna having director’s cut, that is so exciting for me as a perfume lover AND Madonnophile: we know that she has been smelling this perfume for years, on her skin, transplanted now onto my own, as though her DNA were somehow imprinted on every molecule. And here is the genius of the celebrity fragrance explosion from a marketing perspective: persona first, aroma second. We buy blind.
The creation process was also apparently a tough slog, and not easy to get right, feeding into the workhorse legend that Madonna has built up of dogged determination and sweat. Her perfumer, Stephen Nelson, from fragrance giant Givaudan, was apparently terrified by her into tossing the latest vials of his formulas over her high security fences to get her verdicts (” TOO SWEET!!”, “LESS MUSK!!”) and it took over 200 attempts to get what she wanted.
What was always clear from the start was that any scent by Madonna would be a tuberose/gardenia composition. All fans know that she loves these flowers, and will regularly arrive at interviews drenched in Gardenia Passion (Annick Goutal), or Fracas (Robert Piguet), the classic tuberose which this perfume is supposedly modelled on. Backstage, Madonna’s dressing rooms (always painted white to show her off to best effect, according to her brother, Christopher), are filled to profusion with these flowers and their exotic exhalations, which in such close confinement can be almost suffocating (wearing the scent liberally on Saturday night I feared I might also asphyxiate a Japanese couple who were standing in the elevator with me). The scent, therefore, had to be BIG. And it is.
Like the moment when I finally saw her, in 2005, at Tokyo Dome for the Confessions tour, after 25 years of never quite managing to get to a concert, and almost passing out with the excitement (screaming so loudly I thought my head might burst) when this perfume arrived to me in the post I could barely touch the envelope. IT was within. I had to run around the house a bit to compose myself, get ready….
And despite my wariness and skepticism, I am still, at heart, a Sagittarian optimist, and was willing myself, as I pulled off the papal orb of the cap and sprayed the scent on my skin, to love it. In my head, having read extensively about it beforehand, I had imagined exactly how Truth Or Dare would smell.
The creamy white flowers; the ‘benzoin tears’ (so ‘Like A Prayer’!!), the ‘caramellized amber’; I had imagined it would be a gorgeous, enveloping thing that would make me swoon with pleasure and ecstatically start gnawing off my arm. Instead, what greeted my nose, as the alcohol evaporated, was a WHAAAATTT?!! – a reeking miasma of shrieking, sugared florals; a familiar, tangy tuberose, and pungent whiffs of rhubarb on the boil at 78 RPM: Madame M at the decks, rocking the graphic equalizers up to +10 on the jasmine, neroli, n’ lily; the effect, on my skin at least, unhingeing. No modulation or gradation, just a big smudge of overbearing, floralicious sweet.
Under this oily, synthetic tuberose there is also a strange watery, plasticky note – a crackle of 12″ vinyl still unwrapped in cellophane – like chlorinated flowers in a San Diego pool. A chlorborose onslaught that continues for an hour or so, when a more pleasing white gardenia scent finally – FINALLY! – emerges against a backdrop of fruits. And at this point, the scent is quite nice: a decent white floral gourmand. But the Ciccone maniac is not yet satisfied; he keeps inhaling, yearning for an epiphany, for a mirage of the Madonna to appear (she MUST be there, surely, somewhere in the mix), but the formula, ultimately, is too cheap for that to happen. While not a resounding failure, like Kylie’s grotesque ‘Darling’, Truth or Dare feels incomplete.
The reason is this. During its creation, Madonna was constantly drawn, as you might expect, to high quality, expensive natural ingredients, but these essences, tuberose absolute and the like, cannot be used for the mass market. Thus, as she has often been doing recently, she compromised her integrity by going for a lower common denominator (the latest album has many such moments as well: the cretinously saccharine ‘Superstar’ makes me want to burn my entire record collection). But imagine if, rather than chasing another ‘deal’, she had, instead, insisted on the best, cost no object (like the fragrance houses of Amouage, Clive Christian and the like). We might then have had a perfumed grail of veneration, a bottle to covet and adore like some holy reliquary. Instead, we are left with a plastic bottle of fake gardenia nougat.
To be fair, at karaoke (where many, many of her highness’s hits were performed this Saturday), as the hours progressed, the scent became more pleasing to me, more fun (though that might have been because I was singing ‘Dress You Up’). But it was only hours later, after taking a bath and the top and middle notes were washed away to reveal the base, that I cracked it, realized what it was that was so familiar. Once the ersatz bouquet had faded, this is what I discovered: the entire backbone of the scent is in fact the relentless, never-ending smell of the Bodyshop’s legendary Dewberry, a scent that was once so strong it could fill a stadium. It was then that I really began to smile, and had a wonderfully nostalgic remembrance of the eighties: of Into The Groove, of dancing at teenage parties; the smell of Blond Ambition.
Madonna’s Truth Or Dare: notes of gardenia, tuberose, neroli; jasmine, benzoin tears, white lily petals; vanilla absolute, caramellized amber, and ‘sensual musk aura’.