Skanky perfumes in the Age of Febreze

To those who are disgusted by so-called “dirty,” “skanky,” or “animalic” perfumes — and many mainstream folks may never actually have smelled one — it can be utterly baffling that anyone would find them appealing. And this may be more than a trivial difference about individuals’ attraction to particular notes, of the “I like lavender and you do not” variety. It may actually reflect a more fundamental disagreement about the nature and purpose of perfume.

Some may innocently ask, then, “Isn’t perfume supposed to smell good? To be pretty?” But because we are animals, creaturely to the very back of our reptilian brains, many of us know that attraction is a far bigger, and sometimes dirtier, issue than what our frontal lobes might prefer. On the one hand, I feel zero identification as I watch my dog press her damp nose into a snow bank, huffing away to get a deeper whiff of canine piss. And I’m more than a little disgusted by her fascination with cat litter boxes, bunny turds, bird carcasses, and the cute little trash can next to the toilet. To be clear, these are not hobbies I would consider taking up.

And yet. Don’t I sometimes find myself oddly drawn to scents as diversely skanky as fish sauce, skunk, blue cheese, and moldering black walnuts in Autumn? Don’t I lean in for a closer experience of my partner’s body after a warm walk in the woods? And don’t I thrill to Cuir de Russie, Musc Ravageur, and even (gasp!) the “polarizing” Amouage Gold Man, Salome, and Hyrax? I may claim to be a completely different species from my dog. I may even feel a little embarrassed when she turns back to fondly sniff her own shit. But it’s a pretense I can’t maintain very completely or convincingly, at least not to myself.

The experience of dirty scents is one that many perfume lovers have approached with loving attention. Pointing to notes of cumin or castoreum or civet, they seek ever more evocative descriptions, referring, for example, to “a ballerina’s slightly unwashed hair,” “a black leather jacket after a hot motorcycle ride,” or “the gap between a woman’s suede jodhpurs and her horse’s bare back.” They write lovingly of “cloying, nearly rotten, peaches on a Georgia night,” of “an opera diva’s damp ashtray,” or “a sweaty guy pushing a gas mower through tall, damp grass.”

There is such an impassioned art to describing this dirty, abject, shadow side of perfumery that I sometimes wonder if this may be one of the blurry, porous dividers that separates more casual, mainstream fans from those who see themselves as descending into perfume’s dank niche depths. “Why would you want to smell like THAT?”, more mainstream folks may reasonably ask. And the phenomenon of dirty niche perfumes may be even more inscrutable in this era of mercilessly scented household products, a Febrezed milieu in which even our garbage liners reek of “seaside breeze.”

As I write this, the screeching odor of Tide Fresh is being pumped from dryer vents all over my neighborhood in a bid to persuade me that I am primarily a rational, pristinely transcendent being. In fact, I suspect that one of the reasons I’m so taken with dirty perfumes, and increasingly so, is because they keep me from falling for the siren songs of Glade, Bounce, and Yankee Candle. Mind you, there are any number of clean scents that I very much enjoy and I’m definitely not anti-soap. But it’s the dirty scents I rely on to remind me of the larger, more beastly truth.

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