Like flowers, but with garbage
May 10, 2017 5:07 AM   Subscribe

In American Hustle, Jennifer Lawrence urges her companions to sniff her scented nail polish, exclaiming, 'Smells like flowers, but with garbage!' There does seem to be an idea that a note of 'garbage' makes a perfume more delicious or compelling. Is there a word for this phenomenon? (I'm already aware of the concepts of Jolie laide and wabi-sabi; these aren't quite what I'm looking for.)
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Not your term, but related commentary from the Yesterday's Perfume blog: "This paradoxical combination of lightness and darkness, freshness and bodily funkiness, makes me think of the song Suzanne, by Leonard Cohen: "She shows you where to look/amid the garbage and the flowers." Because, at its heart, [Diorella by Dior, 1972] smells like garbage on the verge of going bad that someone has thrown a pile of flowers onto, Diorella shows you how to find beauty in the intersection of garbage and flowers. I know this doesn't sound like an endorsement, but it is!"
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:26 AM on May 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Other potential avenues: this discussion of animalic notes in perfume; this one on indolic scent; one answer to "American Hustle"'s reference.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:38 AM on May 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Maybe it was a riff that you can't hide the base smell of nail polish, so it was a nice smell laid over a bad one?
posted by hwyengr at 5:40 AM on May 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure that there's a word for it, but it is recognized that what normally would be an unpleasant taste or aroma can provide a pleasant character when present at a low level in combination with other flavors.
posted by exogenous at 5:54 AM on May 10, 2017

Response by poster: Hello, OP here! Thank you for your responses so far.

Just realised I should've phrased my question better. I'm wondering if there's a word that describes this phenomenon not just in perfume but in general: the idea that a dash of something repellent can make something overall more compelling.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 5:54 AM on May 10, 2017

There should be. It would be helpful to have a word that describes that extra jolt of poignancy or zest or beauty that you feel/sense/smell/see any time the antithesis of [wonderful thing] touches [wonderful thing], even for the tiniest moment. That juxtaposition makes it ineffably elevated.

Looking at you, German or the Scandinavian languages... this is where you usually come through with exactly what is required. ??
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:23 AM on May 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Not it, but it-adjacent, is the Italian sprezzatura. That's more in line with wabi-sabi, though.

Really hoping the German speakers come through here. I never knew I needed this word, but I really do.
posted by still bill at 6:37 AM on May 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

"cassolette: A French word referring to the scent a woman's perfume makes after it has mingled with her body oils and pheromones and sweat and heat. Heavy sexual connotation."
posted by Carol Anne at 6:39 AM on May 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

Yes, a term for beautiful decay must exist.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:41 AM on May 10, 2017

When I teach traditional Shetland fair isle, I always point out that amidst all the beautiful heathered shades, you need a poison colour to lift up the colour scheme. A terribly ugly, disastrous colour. I have no idea if that is an official term but "the poison" works for me & my students. You don't need much - just a few stitches in one row every now & then.
posted by kariebookish at 7:11 AM on May 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

In the late 1700s "picturesque" was used to describe scenes that mediate between the classical greek ideals of beauty (in symmetry, proportion, and uniformity) and the savage but sublime horror of great craggy mountains or man made ruins.
As Thomas Gray wrote in 1765 of the Scottish Highlands: “The mountains are ecstatic […]. None but those monstrous creatures of God know how to join so much beauty with so much horror.”
posted by muddgirl at 7:14 AM on May 10, 2017

From toxicology: the dose makes the poison.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 7:59 AM on May 10, 2017

Very general: The exception that proves the rule.
posted by at at 9:10 AM on May 10, 2017

This makes me think of "memento mori" still life paintings--paintings of luscious fruit or beautiful flowers with the inclusion of something that is rotting, decaying, skeletal, or poisonous in order to remind the viewer that life on earth and its beauty and luxuries are just fleeting (compared to the afterlife). It's a moralistic Christian message meant to remind people not to get too attached to earthly things, but the contrast also serves to heighten the beauty of the other elements.

I have no idea if the term "memento mori" would capture what you are looking for, but it's the phrase that popped to my mind on reading your question.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:48 AM on May 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've seen the word piquant used this way in literature, although the strict definition of the word isn't quite in line with that usage.

Your question inspires me to share a bit from one of my favorite pieces of writing about perfume (from Tumblr...apologies for the lack of attribution) that addresses this dynamic in a very evocative way, although it doesn't provide a single word in the way you're asking for:

"...vintage women’s scents aren’t the flighty, strawberry candy scents women wear now, they’re often bodily, contralto, plush, smoky-dark, dry, astringent, sultry, leathery, mossy, sexy…and many male collectors wear classic vintage women’s scents because our modern tastes have refashioned them as unisexual. [A man] could wear vintage Chanel Cuir de Russie, which smells like fine glove leather with this tiny, furry sort of dirty furstink note underneath. It’s civilized and polite with this undertone of filthy sex."
posted by merriment at 11:58 AM on May 10, 2017 [6 favorites]

MonkeyToes brings up indolic, which is the perfume scent of flowers as they begin to rot. Think about a bouquet of lilies with their heady, heavy scent and now smell that again when it's a day too late to throw them out and the lily scent is over the top, almost disturbing in its sexual connotations, and add in the scent of the green leaves and stems rotting in the vase. Indolic. It's in lots of floral scents, and is sometimes even considered a fecal note.

I'm also thinking of the word putrescence. The process of moving from something alive (flowers) to rot.
posted by littlewater at 12:07 PM on May 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

I can't think of an exact term for this, but I'm sure there is one - it's very familiar. Like the "poison" color kariebookish mentions - I come across that a lot in knitting and color combinations in general. (There's got to be a color theory term for this, but I'm blanking.) My painting teacher used to caution against making things too "precious" or "sweet"; if the composition is too perfect or the color palette too uniformly pretty, it ends up taking away from the overall effect. I'm also reminded of consonance and dissonance in music.

I also think of this sort of thing in terms of M&Ms: the brown ones are my least favorite, but when you've got a big bowl of all the colors, the brown ones add depth and interest to the mix.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:40 PM on May 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Not the expression you're looking for, but a phrase I once heard someone use that I've grown to love: I like a little dirt in my salad

I've taken up using it as a shorthand for not wanting something to be overly fussy or prissy, to have a little earthiness to offset the ethereal.
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 4:16 PM on May 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Isn't that is usually meant by "complex" when describing tastes and smells? Something that was all flowers and candy could hardly be complex.
posted by bongo_x at 7:09 PM on May 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Another fun thing to do is spend a while reading the Wikipedia entry for the word "fart", the history of which seems to indicate that humans have always found the concept, physicality, and odors of offgassing funny and fascinating, probably since long before we were even Homo Sapiens.

This quote from the 16th century's Desiderius Erasmus' Adagia, Suus cuique crepitus bene olet - To each person his own his fart smells nice - on the surface a kind of "My shit is fine it's yours that stinks" mindset, but the language and phrasing used demonstrates to me that we're ok with and in fact drawn to certain notes of funk, that we might even revel in the foul, even sometimes against our own conscious mind or best interests. (Fun fact: this expression was somewhere in history reworked into Icelandic and has gained a false reputation as a folk proverb: sæt er lykt úr sjálfs rassi, translated by MeFi's very own Kattullus as "Everyone thinks his bird pretty or sweet is the smell from one's own ass")

I've come to think of this subconscious pull of the gross as the seemingly intentional flaw of being, that would appear to exist as a built-in check on humanity getting too big for its britches. Depending on how we approach it, it can be our undoing, subverting our nobler ideals and sabotaging our sense of self-image, preventing us from achieving internal and societal harmony. Or we can choose to view it as a strength if we challenge ourselves not to recoil from our gnarlier tendencies and embrace them as a fundamental part of our whole makeup, accepting ourselves as complex creatures instead of torturing ourselves with guilt.

That way I see it, our fascination with funk is like a congenital, pre-programmed humbling device, in that it's amazing we've come as far as we have being who we are. Like wabi-sabi, our flaws enhance our beauty. Or to paraphrase the immortal Bootsy Collins, funk is the outline, and you fit the other notes in there in that space.
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 8:33 AM on May 11, 2017

I don't recall that she has a specific succinct term for it, but in her book Essence and Alchemy natural perfumer Mandy Aftel discusses the thin balancing line in perfumery between what one finds repellent/repugnant/disgusting and intriguing/attractive/sexy, and how that goes for things beyond scent as well (indeed, a lot of darker-tinged art and literature through the ages focuses on this sort of thing WRT sexual desire). I found out about Aftel and the book through Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses, which might've briefly touched upon this as well (sorry, it's been a long time since I read either!).

And I know you mentioned you want something that recognizes this goes beyond scent ('cause it totally does, I agree!), but I will say you might get some leads if you look at reviews (either on Fragrantica or some of the well known perfume blogs like Kafkaesque, Bois de Jasmin, Now Smell This, Alyssa Harad's, thedrydown newsletter, etc.) for infamously divisive-in-this-way perfumes, stuff like Dior's Jules (has a shocking topnote of urinous sage but is supposed to evoke your SO, and due to the three-act change in story as it progresses, it kind of does!), Caron's Yatagan, Yves Saint Laurent's Kouros (smells like an '80s men's locker room which should be kind of disgusting but I find delicious), vintage Bal a Versailles, Miller Harris' L'air de Rien (has a "wet hair" element), vintage perfumes with civet, modern niche perfumes with castoreum (aka beaver butt), Germane Cellier's two famous perfumes Fracas and Bandit, some of Guerlain's classics pre-reformulation (to me a lot of their most famous chypre offerings smell like flowers growing near a port-a-john), Amouage's Opus VII, etc. And any scent articles or reviews on forums like Basenotes etc. about indoles/white florals can bring up the odd way to some people (I'm one of them) they smell like overripe garbage and mothballs. When people mention that phenomenon, or the '70s-and-'80s-fougeres-that-feel-vaguely-like-locker-rooms-or-bathrooms thing, they may use terms that get close to what you're looking for generally. Hopefully.
posted by ifjuly at 10:19 AM on May 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

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