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Detail from an advertisement for Madonna's Truth or Dare perfume
Detail from an advertisement for Madonna's Truth or Dare perfume

Lynn Crosbie: Pop Rocks

Madonna's Truth or Dare: Is this the scent of celebrity desperation? Add to ...

It is a respectable 15-centimetre-high, gold-crown-stoppered, bevel-edged white octagon.

On its belly is a thin, stylized gold M impaled by a cross.

Described by one commentator as “a cocktail of sweet flowers – a heady mix of jasmine, lily, tuberose and gardenia … mixed with a touch of neroli to give the effect of hot fleshy flower buds and pale green stems,” Madonna’s new perfume, Truth or Dare, launched in Canada this month, was designed as a tribute to her deceased mother’s “intoxicating” smell of gardenias and tuberose.

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I am holding the bottle, which feels and looks like a devotional icon. I have sprayed a small stream of the fragrance into the air.

It smells so bad. Is this an augury? Has Madonna lost the sweet smell of success?

On the other hand, virtually every celebrity perfume I have ever come across has the same cloying, cheap essence.

By contrast, look at the new Prada perfume Infusion D’Iris. Its prim contents (Iris pallida, muguet, violette, galbanum essence and heliotrope) make the ingredients in the celebrity scents look like a shopping list for a meth lab (unless you are sentimental about the smell of butylphenol sulfonate or methoxydibenzoylmthane).

The Truth or Dare perfume’s reviews have been mixed (its sentimental concept is undeniably appealing), and this week, the Australian artist R.J. Williams stepped forward to claim the logo was plagiarized from his own, copyrighted M-like image.

The queen of pop will surely dismiss him like a loathsome hydrangea: The designs are similar, but hers is very clearly a hyper-compressed sign of her brand – that unfailing clash of heresy and faith, sex and torture, beauty and arch style. Further, Madonna has been in the business of riffing off, ripping off and biting off the extremities of art, fashion and design for so long, Williams (had you ever heard of him?) should be both unsurprised and flattered. Because he is almost a celebrity now, and maybe one day he can have his own cologne.

Why people buy such perfumes is not a difficult mystery. Regardless of their uniformly repellent nature, they imply, by their very nature, that they rest too, on the flesh of the star promoting them.

Such heady thoughts arise! Of Marilyn Monroe’s response to an impudent reporter, “What do I wear in bed? Why, Chanel No. 5, of course.” Of Kate Moss walking through a mist of her own devising; of Elizabeth Taylor, idly splashing on White Diamonds as she adjusted her lapdog’s priceless tiara.

The desire to get next to celebrity skin does not account for such fragrances as those endorsed by Bruce Willis, or Chanelle Hayes, or Cliff Richard, but the deranged-chic factor is high when wearing one of, say, Victoria Beckham’s many, violently bad perfumes.

While it seems obvious that stars never wear the aroma-plonk they sell, it is a nice enough act of noblesse oblige to offer, as Madonna has, a holy relic of herself in an affordable vessel ($40-$80).

As the smell of the Truth or Dare recedes from my room, it leaves a fresher, sweeter smell: the comparison to the lady herself is irresistible.

The advertisements for the new perfume are black and white homages to Alek Keshishian’s 1991 Madonna documentary Truth or Dare and are racy enough, evocative enough of S&M, to have generated significant sparks. Madonna’s synth-singing about “good” and “bad girls” is also a gesture back to her early-career command of the facile argot of carnality: She appears to be looking back at both her mother and herself in this strangely poignant enterprise.

According to music producer William Orbit, Madonna’s creation of this fragrance took a lot of time away from the production of her new record, MDNA, which is now sinking, showing an 86-per-cent sales drop in its second week.

As Madonna toughs out the Middle Eastern leg of her world tour, we are left with the lingering sense of her failure.

Has everyone had enough of this magpie’s snatching up of shiny new underground trends? In MDNA’s case, she has entered the growing field of dubstep, or bass-driven electronic music. The appeal of the genre is understandable: It is club music, the music of her youth and roots, and its use of sampling is similar to hers.

With each record, or enterprise, Madonna has found a new voice and style, a new way of representing herself within the changing contexts of culture, politics and art. She has carefully documented, as Terry Eagleton has in his work with critical theory, and explicated emerging music for decades as well.

Unfortunately, in this age, we do not need her to do this hard work: It is all accessible online.

But we still need her to remind us, more and more critically, to “Get up on the dance floor!” Or just to get up and move, instead of passively watching the exceedingly documented lives of others.

The smell of the perfume in the room has all but disappeared. In its place is a faint, clean track. Like a world without Madonna: pleasant, but bland.

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