Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Fine Art of Pretending Not to Have an Opinion


I rarely visit the boards at makeupalley.com, mainly because I put my time in at high school and don't see any reason to go back. Still, the attraction is there. Maybe it's like high school, sure, but a high school where everyone's talking about perfume. At least when they're being bitchy, one hopes, it's about Habanita, rather than the new girl in Social Studies and the weird, even stupid knee socks she has on. When I do stray into that minefield of insult and injury, I often wish it amused me more. But I don't derive much if any pleasure from people saying ugly things about each other, and a lot of sadism seems to permeate the tommygun posts on the boards. More often than not, you're pepper-sprayed with lazy, arm chair negativity.

Like in high school, some of the most frequent posters are really rather chummy. It's only when they're talking about people unlucky enough not to have been deemed worthy of their circle that they get downright pissy. The funny thing about writing a blog that people within a tight community of interest read is that you become a little bigger in their minds than you really are. At the end of the day, even Chandler Burr and Luca Turin--shock!--are fan-boy geeks. We all are. We're all just expressing our opinions. So it's weird to see Abigail slammed on makeupalley.com as if she's a celebrity or something. It's like I've strayed onto perezhilton and there's a picture of her with little hand drawn farts and squiggles superimposed over her figure. What is it about someone who puts herself out there that makes her a legitimate target of verbal abuse and childish graffiti?

When I do go to makeupalley, and I do a lot, I use it as a resource, an alternative to basenotes.net. I read the user reviews. Call me kooky, but I like to hear what others are saying about a fragrance. The more people sound in, the happier I am. I can take the overload of negative reviews from, say, user-names "Caltha" and "Trebor", and though I disagree with much of what Foetidus says (I'm bound to, as he's written 2064 reviews--and counting) I never tire of the way he phrases it. I can't think of a time a review, or even a series of overwhelmingly negative reviews, dissuaded me from buying or loving a perfume. Typically, reviews help me articulate my appreciation for or defense of them.

What I do find amusing on the makeupalley boards is the oft-iterated idea that an opinion is a harmful thing when it comes to perfume criticism; or, more plainly, that perfume criticism should make a commitment to being unbiased. I love the idea that a careless or thoughtless reviewer might ruin your favorite perfume for you. They say cumin, perhaps, and all you can smell, forever after, is sweat and stale food. They say cat urine, rendering Joy Joyless. What if they have their facts wrong, and think that galbanum is eucalyptus, or that Lyra was composed by Marc Buxton rather than Maurice Roucel? Then they've damaged not just you but the sanctity of a great artist's reputation. I love the idea that anything I say on my nothing little blog has that much sway, as if I wield the power to thrust the planet off its axis, bring the perfume industry down to its knees, get the damn postman to bring my perfume orders first thing in the morning, or entice niche lines to send me free bottles of any perfume I review favorably (hint, hint), when in reality I can barely remember what I was saying five minutes ago.

All of this becomes even more amusing when you consider how blatantly hypocritical it is. Without exception, everyone I've ever heard decry unbiased perfume criticism on makeupalley makes it a habit to offer his or her opinion on a regular basis. Recently, several people were saddened and disappointed when Abigail failed to merely regurgitate the Serge Lutens ad copy during an unforgivably opinionated review of Nuit de Cellophane. How dare she call it a bid for mainstream ubiquity. Who died and made her the last word on Sheldrake? It amazed me that anyone bothered to embarrass themselves by making this kind of complaint. It seemed surreal that the chain would go any further than that (26 comments, last time I looked). Then again, people got really upset when Dan Rather dispensed with so-called journalistic impartiality to verbally challenge Bush Senior.

Then too there's the fact that to post at all means having an opinion. If you think as everyone else does, what's to post? Someone else has already said it for you. Posting stems from the urge to distinguish oneself, to express a singular opinion in a way, you believe, no one else can, has, or will. Here's a newsflash (and sit down; I don't want you to pass out): If you're posting, at all, on makeupalley, you're a critic. Write me, I'll send you your membership card. With membership: a clue. If you respond to a Lutens review by saying reviews are only much fun for the person writing them, well, I mean, have you seriously surveyed everyone on that issue--but you would know, I guess, wouldn't you, having written, the same day, that "Cedre = the powdery sexiness of Tigress plus tobacco; a tiny pinch of cumin & sweet tobacco." Great. You party pooper. Thanks for ruining Cedre for me. And I was just about to go buy some. Before that, you'd written that someone ruined your newest favorite by comparing it to Cabotine. And you hate Cabotine. And now you must kill yourself, for whatever else can you do but save humanity by terminating this insidiously contagious brain poison?

It seems so obvious that we never say it, and I speak for Abigail here too I think, but we write this blog because we want to throw our opinions into the pot. Neither of us has any interest in playing authority or even in being the last word on anything. We met on a fragrance blog, where we both made it a practice to consume as many biased reviews as humanly possible. It never occurs to us that some reader on makeupalley might be crushed by our opinion or anything we write on our blog. We assume people are made of stronger stuff than that, and really, if you don't want an opinion, we wonder what the hell you're doing on the internet, or why you ever leave the house (assuming you do), or turn on the TV, or smell a perfume in the first place. Another newsflash: perfume itself is a perspective (i.e. an opinion). Michel Roudnitska's Emotionelle is said to evoke France (for HIM). Whether or not it does for you is what we're all doing here. If you don't want an opinion, for God's sake, keep a cap on it.

9 comments:

Tania said...

Word!

I like to read people's opinions, but I won't make my mind up til I've sampled the perfume. It's the same with films, books, music.
I thought that was what everybody did. I have no problem with biased viewpoints, they add to the picture. The Stepford Wives have no place in criticism of any product.

brian said...

Exactly! But at least the Stepford Wives was entertaining. I get awful ornery when people start demanding I be "objective". Perhaps when I start getting paid for this, I'll try. What movies DO you like, btw? What were the last five you saw?

Olfacta said...

Gracious. I haven't been to the MUA boards in awhile. What the heck is going on over there?! If I'd seen the chain you're discussing, I'd certainly have jumped into the fray in Abigail's defense.

I will say that if I'm thinking about buying perfume or seeing a movie (just went up to $10 at our local) I will look at a mix of pro and amateur reviews, and if they're uniformly bad, I often pass. If they're mixed, I'll try to consider the source of each review. If it's a renowned critic or someone whose opinion I respect, that gives the review more "weight" in my decision making process. If its a three-worder on MUA, well, I'll keep looking, generally.

I've bought many records and books, seen many movies, eaten in many restaurants and also bought my fair share of perfumes (in sample form) based on rave reviews. I've learned, though, with perfume especially, to wait for the lemming stage to pass.

Ines said...

So true. Although I have to admit I no longer read MUA reviews, I rather just stick to blogs - it annoys me to no end how having opinion that is different from someone else's can make people turn, well to put it mildly, defensive.

sakecat said...

I gave up on reading the MUA boards simply because they were too noisy.
As long as the author tells me where they are coming from (something both you and Abigail do quite well), I glean a lot of information from "subjective" reviews.
Don't let the haters get you down. Love your blog!

Dane said...

I'm afraid I started said Nuit de Cellophane discussion. I thought it was a very interesting review, and that I would share...how wrong was I!!

For the life of me, I don't understand why anyone would get offended by another person's view on a perfume...I mean, come one, we're all adults here. If someone says that my beloved Mitsouko smells like floor wax, I could care less...more for me!

I've met a lot of great friends on MUA (and various other forums), but I wonder how long it will be before something I say gets torn apart...lord knows some of my reviews are down right mean, and I have no plans of changing that.

Abigail said...

Hey Dane,

I think I've told you before - I LOVE your reviews - especially the downright mean one's! Being so utterly candid is great, because it separates the good from the bad from the ugly! ;-)

-A

Tania said...

Brian,

movies? Hmmm let me think. I rarely go to the cinema, because audiences nowadays don't know how to STFU! So my five most recent films were mostly DVDs:

'Gone Baby Gone' - a nicely done mystery, with good performances & direction.

'PS I Love You' - no, actually, I don't. Contrived and over-long. Whoever decided Horseface Swank was a romantic heroine? Only worth it for the two-second shot of Jeffrey Dean Morgan's fiiiiine ass.

'The Lives of Others' - bleak but very, very good.

'Iron Man' - popcorn fun with added snarkiness. Me like.

'My Bloody Valentine 3D' - ok, this I did see at the cinema, for obvious reasons. A so-bad-it's-fun slasher. And yes, ok, I did go for only one reason. What can I say, Jensen Ackles is a pretty, pretty man.... ;-)

Generally, my film tastes are fairly catholic. My main criteria are: no torture porn, no Tyler Perry or his ilk, no chick flicks (unless they have some other merit, such as being funny and/or well-made), and if it's stupid, it had better be GOOD stupid (I'll take 'Snakes on a Plane', but 'Pearl Harbour' need not apply).

Favourite films include 'The Shawshank Redemption', 'Thelma and Louise', 'Serenity', 'Casablanca', 'Groundhog Day', 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'.

How about you?

brian said...

Ok Tania, so it's nearly twenty days later, and I'm finally getting back to you. I LOVE Groundhog Day and Serenity. Was Serenity great or what? And for me so unexpected. I caught in on cable one night and couldn't believe how good it was. Joss Whedon, the writer/director of that and Buffy, has a new TV show now. I haven't seen it yet. I never watched Buffy either.

I like horror and suspense but anymore it's hard to come by any good stuff. The genre's always been about people (usually women) in peril, but the contemporary crop takes so much pleasure in the prolonged torture part, which typically used to be inferred for the most part. Descent was fantastic. I could barely sit still. Very scary; very creepy, too. And you actually cared about the characters in some way. One of my favorite movies ever is Rosemary's Baby.

Liked Iron Man. Liked Lives of Others. Let me see, the last five...?

Sex and the City (last night, with friends. It was good but also kind of strange. It seemed so much more about money and materialism than the show, or more serious about it)

I Love You, Man (Fluff, really, but pretty good, goofy fluff. It was fun to see Paul Rudd playing someone a little less snarky for once. His ineptitude and awkwardness were pretty sweet)

Hud (Patricia Neal was great in this, even better than Paul Newman. A voice like an alleycat gargling gravel)

Religulous (I like Bill Maher fine. I wondered if I'd like this much. I'm agnostic myself, so atheism can seem like as much of a dogma drag as the religious right at times. But it was good. It was more thoughtful than I expected, and funny in ways I wouldn't have thought it might be)

Let the Right One In (Man oh man a good movie. I recommend it)