Lady Gaga was after semen and blood. The neo-burlesque superstar announced months ago that those racy substances would inspire or even infuse her new perfume, a Coty release called Fame that made its department-store debut at the end of August.
I imagined bleachy and metallic. But, unbeknownst to me, Gaga had back-pedaled on her big bloody plans before I made my way to Macy’s, surrendered $83 and took home my own egg-shaped bottle of purple-black liquid. I was predisposed to like the perfume because I often like Coty’s mass-market confections, including Sarah Jessica Parker’s Lovely, but the Fame bottle is topped with a horrid brass top with three deco-gargoyle talons that seem to clutch it. The talons rattle unpleasantly. I hate the top.
The scent, Gaga had later said, would be “based on molecules” of blood (her own!—that was further rumored). In 2011, Gaga promised that Fame would smell like “an expensive hooker.”
The liquid would also look black in the bottle, though it would spray clear. In reality, it’s the color of prune juice in the bottle, and even, briefly, on the skin.
“Black,” reads the ad copy on the back of the box, “like the soul of fame.”
The copy on the box is not bad, actually. It emphasizes, with some originality, the violence inflicted on ingredients that give up their essences that blockbuster perfumes might be made to broaden the franchises of pop stars like Lady Gaga. “Tears of Belladonna,” it reads. “Crushed heart of tiger orchidea, with a black veil of incense, pulverized apricot and the combinative essences of saffron and honey drops.”
Blood and semen are nowhere to be found.
Because Fame no longer has its origins in Lady Gaga’s own circulatory system, its hook is now that it’s black, though invisible when airborne. That’s clever. Perfumes are notoriously hard to tell apart, visually, when they’re out of their packaging. On eBay, you can pass off a vial of Teen Spirit as a decant of something from Guerlain; with a black liquid you’d have a tougher time. Black also sets the tone for something frightening and goth—clearly what Ms. Gaga is going for, even as Fame emerged as a sweet, bland floral.
Fame does not smell like a hooker, or a vampire, or a pop star in a dress made of meat. Fame smells like a department store. It smells like whatever. It smells fine.
It’s jammy and fruity and fake at the start, with something of a “grape” popsicle to it. As it wore on, I found a girly teen kind of floral with maybe some very faint incense, like the kind that sellers burn on New York City streets.
Or wait, no: teenagers in church is about right. Lady Gaga, as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, studied at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattan. Maybe Fame smells like a confirmation ceremony in a Catholic Church. Not sacramental, though. More festive and nervous and pretend-pious. I see that church as packed with adolescents, trying to be serious, mostly psyched for the after-party. And—I’m inhaling Fame deeply now—it’s possible that one of these kids, for whatever reason, smells of blood and semen.
Perfume is big business, a gigantic business. According to Women’s Wear Daily, Coty will spend around $30 million promoting Fame in its first year.
There’s a reason for this. It’s hell making money from digitizable objects now: music, videos, movies. But stuff in 3-D, like perfume bottles, and stuff that simply can never be distributed on the Internet or in apps, like perfume itself—that stuff people will pay for. That’s more than the zero dollars they spend listening to Lady Gaga on Pandora and Spotify and YouTube. They buy the perfume, I believe, as a token of their commitment to a set of inchoate digital experiences; the perfume is a concrete souvenir that says I have been to the Gaga headspace.
Like so many pop stars, then, Lady Gaga has moved to merchandising her intellectual property (the songs and dances and videos, which are all spirited and interesting) with non-intellectual property. In this case, she’s offering a banal floral perfume. And, because life is a mystery and maybe has the black heart as Gaga surmises, fans currently pay for the derivative stuff and expect the masterwork for free.