Smells Like Proximity

Media’s relationship to fragrance is vast and prime for exploration. This is what I’ve discovered in the process of researching it since last winter. I originally intended to write about it during my first semester as a PhD student, but lucked into an opportunity to contribute to an anthology and shelved the idea. With some encouragement, I returned to the project. As I revised my dissertation proposal for defense, I imagined what I wanted to say about the subject.

I had modest ambitions for this project. Originally, I thought of it as a respite from various check points on the path to pushing a much larger boulder up a hill. Dissertating is a long game. If you’re fortunate, this unwieldy thing you’ve spent several years crafting as a graduate student will someday become a book, and thus require more crafting. As a result, dissertators are vulnerable to doubt, fatigue, and endless deferral. This was to be a pretty curio, something I could look at and turn over if I struggled to form an argument from the other thing I was writing.

What’s exhilarating and terrifying about research is its undertow. If you’re doing it right, you’ll end up in a different place from where you started. Last summer, I started to form my findings into an argument. I looked up and it was October. At this point in my studies, such lapses in time feel like indulgences I can’t afford. This project was designed to be small and contained. My dissertation analyzes the relations between television and recording industry labor in the post-network era in order to understand music’s functions in the cultural and industrial work of identity formation through a series of interlocking fields, televisual, and musical genres. There are loose thematic connections between the two projects—both consider how recording artists use licensing to extend the commercial life of their music—but there’s no overlap in case studies.

My interest in media’s relationship to fragrance actually originates from my sense memory of Madonna’s Like a Prayer. I encountered it as an object, which Nigel Thrift argues “must be understood as involved in multiple overlapping negotiations with human beings and not just as sets of passive and inanimate properties” (292). In an earlier post on record collecting, I cited Sara Ahmed’s claim that objects’ intentions are shaped by the expectations we place in them. Though Ahmed is specifically talking about family as a symbol for the uneven distribution of subjects’ sense of personal fulfillment, I was particularly struck by her assertion that happiness “can generate objects through proximity,” resulting from objects’ closeness to each other and to bodies (32-33).

I was five when Madonna’s fourth album came out in March 1989. So I probably didn’t encounter it at that age. In my mind, Madonna lives in my collapsed recollection of 1992, where A League of Their Own, Truth or Dare, the Sex book, Dick Tracy, and Erotica blurred together as context. I turned nine that summer and recognized that, apart from marrying my father, Like a Prayer was one of the few things my mom and stepmother had in common. My mom had it on cassette. My dad’s second wife had it on CD, along with Erotica and a VHS copy of Truth or Dare. So, my proximity to Like a Prayer was shaped by its presence in my mother and stepmother’s music collections, their shared fandom of it, my different connections to them (I love my mother and I never loved my stepmother), and my dawning awareness that the album in my hands was a thing.

I didn’t revere Madonna. I like many of her hits and the creative authority and strength she demonstrated in her innovative and collaborative video work. I thought her conceptual treatment of female sexuality was interesting. But her reckless attitude toward mentorship and racial appropriation—character flaws that bell hooks documented in real time—gave me pause. As a kid I felt like I had to pick a side, because culture teaches girls to form allegiances for and against other women. I chose Janet Jackson—and later TLC, Aaliyah, and Destiny’s Child—who used pop music and dance to express attitudes about gender, race, and sexuality that felt more nuanced and inclusive to me. Now, Erotica and janet. co-exist for me. But I remember gently pulling Like a Prayer’s liner notes from its jewel case. This was a struggle, because it was printed on thick cardstock and I was very nervous that I would get caught.

What I remember most about Like a Prayer—a memory I apparently share with film critic Wesley Morris—is its scent. Not only was Like a Prayer a thing, but unlike other albums I encountered, it smelled. Madonna wanted to perfume Like a Prayer’s packaging with patchouli, the fragrance she associated with her Catholic upbringing. Within her oeuvre, Like a Prayer is the singer’s most overtly confessional record. “Promise to Try” mourns the loss of her mother. “Dear Jessie” asks “what if” of maternity. “Oh Father” confronts the abuse she survived from her father. “Til Death Do Us Part” documents the disillusion of her physically and psychologically destructive marriage to Sean Penn, a relationship that Karina Longworth, host of “You Must Remember This,” documents in the first installment of a two-part Madonna episode that came out of research she did for a 33 1/3 book proposal on Like a Prayer I’d very much like to read. Such introspection even influenced the album’s packaging. Like a Prayer came with an insert educating consumers about safe sex, an overtly political gesture at the height of the AIDS epidemic and a tribute to some of the friends and fans Madonna lost to the crisis. As a result, the album’s thematic content and scented packaging form into something proximate to a sacrament. You know, like a prayer.

Yet there’s also the juxtaposition of Like a Prayer’s fragrance and its cover image, hinting at Madonna’s more profane qualities as a pop star. The cover art is a picture of the singer’s jean-clad pelvis, an image that recalls the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. The group commissioned Andy Warhol to do the cover art for their ninth album. He worked with photographer Billy Name and designer Craig Braun to create its iconic image of a male figure in tight denim. The abundance of the subject’s bulge—and the presence of a working zipper and buckle to advance his denuding—gestures toward the synesthetic potential of music’s packaging. Like a Prayer’s album art presents the listener with similar possibilities, yet its tacit invitation to “smell” Madonna promises more a complex engagement with female sensuality. My memory of the proximity between patchouli, Madonna’s crotch, and my nose resulted in a life of asking questions about music culture, gender, and women’s work. These questions led me to consider what gender and media can teach us about fragrance. I can’t see exactly where it’ll lead me yet, but I can smell it in the air.

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