The Stink

Pop Star Perfumes: Effigies of Girlhood

From Britney Spears to Ariana Grande, how the scents of pop stars shaped us, just as much as their songs.


The Stink is a monthly column that analyzes the desires and cravings evoked by scents, particularly those of New York City.

Sure, music and smell are poetically linked by the mysterious qualities of their effects—an olfactory accord can impact the soul inexplicably in the same way a chord progression can— but I’m going to focus on the ego behind music that is linked to the idea of perfume, specifically. Male musicians are usually stinky- I won’t list names, I think the reader can come up with their own list anyhow. “Unless they’re a nepo baby,” Taraneh reminds me. She’s right, though even behind the DS & Durga, nepo babies, too, have disowned deodorant … well, at least the ones with any talent have. The guys sort of treat it like a form of instant legacy— walk into a room and expose us to their truth. But I haven’t observed it to the same extent with the female musicians I know. Maybe I’m mistaken.

However, perfumes released by female pop stars are famously potent and similar in their olfactive DNAs across the board. They are often incredibly sweet, floral, fruity, you know the rest. The sweeter pop-perfumes end up scenting our youth and decorating their bedrooms simultaneously. The marketing around the fragrances is the main event. Still, in the background, there are very quiet shifts in those saccharine formulas that attempt to represent that particular musician’s brand and define the loyal fans who wear them.

Many pop star fragrances come to mind, but Britney Spears’ Fantasy (2005) is by far the most outstanding of its kind, or at the very least, the blueprint. Fantasy gave us the most iconic perfume bottle of all time. A bottle made for a princess— pink and round, sparkling with jewels. It is reminiscent of a pillow in cartoon Versailles, or a beautiful little decorated cake. Fantasy is relentless. It is pure, unabashed, glucose excellence. While the perfume’s description lists jasmine, orchid, kiwi (throwback to kiwi’s Capris-Sun-glory-days as a y2k staple in commercial flavor trends), litchi, and woodsy notes, these are imperceptible alongside the white and pink notes of quince, white chocolate, and cupcake. There is no tang, no floral bouquet, nothing to interrupt its soul mission: sugar rush. For this reason, Fantasy is aggressive in its sweetness. It does not offer complexity for release; it does not cool down or open up. It strands you on an island of nothing but itself. Fantasy turned the person wearing it into a dessert, a candy.

“However, perfumes released by female pop stars are famously potent and similar in their olfactive DNAs across the board.”

This smell goes perfectly with Britney’s "Oops… I Did It Again" and "Soda Pop" days. But by 2005, the year of the perfume’s release, those days of pure sparkling pop chords were somewhat in the past. Fantasy was born after her album In The Zone (2004) and the two following singles "My Prerogative" and "Do Something" (2004), all of which began to pair the singer's girlish nasal perfection with dirty synths and sexier themes of going out and getting toxic… sweaty, even. There’s no sweat in this perfume, no spice, no noticeable musk, just a powerful juice that could perhaps cover up the sweat in question. She was recently engaged to Federline and was approaching the dawn of a media storm that would come to define her chaotic public image… but I digress. There’s certainly a dissonance between the perfume and her music at the time of its release. The perfume served almost as an extension of the original Britney era, to stretch out the bubblegum pop she entered the scene with and, by extension, prolonging her childhood. Britney’s Fantasy defined girlhood for a generation of noses.

Many similar pop star perfume releases with younger demographics came about after 2005. Gwen Stefani released her Harajuku Lover perfumes, various Japanese-inspired doll-like bottles released between 2008 and 2014— the cool creative girl’s dramatic, scented, pre-problematic collectible. Nicki Minaj gave us Pink Friday Eau de Parfum, a staple in the pop princess perfume cannon. Released in September of 2012, this bottle is categorically iconic: a pink and gold Greco-romanesque bust of Nicki Minaj herself. Pink Friday Eau de Parfum is an effigy of the back-to-school girl, giving us a somewhat tangier and fruitier take on the classic. Beyonce’s Rise, Jessica Simpson’s Fancy Nights and Kim Kardashian’s Kim Kardashian arrived too, though targeted to older consumers. All of these were important pieces in the pop star perfume industry, though nothing came close to being as widely emblematic of American girlhood through smell.

“All of these were important pieces in the pop star perfume industry, though nothing came close to being as widely emblematic of American girlhood through smell.”

Fast forward to 2018, after previously releasing several perfumes, Ariana Grande gave us Cloud. Cloud, in my view, was the first perfume since Fantasy to truly present a new definition of girlhood. It portrays the same confectionary department store idea as Fantasy, but from a different angle, one that’s more textural. The fragrance description lists pear, coconut, praline, whipped cream, vanilla, cashmere, and blond woodsy notes. It is a youthful gourmand sugar bomb, no doubt. But these pear and woodsy notes sort of create a fuzziness that sits below the bridge of your nose. With the utmost respect, it’s a musk that moves through your nose like a cheap faux fur blanket. In this sense, it has the same suffocating quality as Fantasy but with the illusion of a whipped softness. The bottle is also perfect. It’s blue and white and shaped like a cloud. It looks like some adorable animation that, if you were to tap it on a screen with your finger, would disappear to the sound of a cute, wet “Pop!” It sits on your dresser like an imaginary friend. Cloud comes on the heels of Ariana Grande’s album Sweetener, which swapped the maximalist pop anthem compositions of "Break Free" and "Dangerous Woman" with the minimal, ticking sounds of stripped-back R&B and hip hop beats. Her harmonies sit layered over these tiny little beats, airy and soft.

While Brintey’s Fantasy seemed to be a descendent of Victoria Secret’s fruity body mist Love Spell (1999), a duo that together cannibalized girlhood, Cloud’s predecessor is none other than the warm woodsy powder of Glossier’s You (2017), a new duo that evaporates girlhood into a mist of consciousness. It’s the girl of the internet, the Nickelodeon Girl Supreme to Britney’s Disney Princess. Her skin is like glass, her breath is a thought, she smells like herself, she smells like her phone! Sure, she’s like candy, but it’s just her VIBE! Through Cloud, Ariana presents girlhood as an idea floating around inside an oversized cotton hoodie in its bedroom, alone.

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