When I told the sales associate at Macy’s that I had come for the Madonna perfume, she didn’t question for even a second the fact that I'm a man or inquire whether I was buying it for a female relative. She knew it was for me and was totally unfazed, an indication that a lot of gay men must be buying Truth or Dare regardless (or perhaps because of) its Jungle Gardenia aspirations. The placement of the fragrance in the store could not have been an accident: it was not obviously situated at the men’s or women’s counters, but in between. Truth or Dare’s unisex intent is further established by its wonderful television ad that visually recalls Madonna’s “Erotica” phase (reviled at the time but now the hottest and most imitated aesthetic reference around) and the noticeable absence of the usually front-and-center gendered marketing terminology: the female announcer merely says, “Truth or Dare, the new fragrance by Madonna.” Not “perfume.” Not “for her.” Fragrance. Nor is it printed anywhere on the box that it is for women. Very clever.
To begin with, nothing you have heard about this fragrance is true, and the general puzzlement and overqualified, reluctant, tight-lipped simultaneous approval /condemnation of it in the perfume blogosphere reflects this. All the reviews thus far go something like this: the reviewer will begin with a disclaimer that she has “admittedly never been a huge fan of Madonna,” a sentiment that I hear every day from every single person every single time Madonna is mentioned that mysteriously belies the fact that Madonna’s tour dates sell out within seconds at astronomical prices and that she is still probably the most famous woman in the world. The reviewer will then marvel at how Madonna is so late to the celebrity fragrance game, insert an unfunny, irrelevant jab about her age, after which will be placed in block quotation the PR copy about the perfume. The reviewer will say that the fragrance smells surprisingly good, surprisingly “old lady” in that it has an extremely noticeable floral component, but will conclude that Truth or Dare is nothing to write home about because who has time for this when you can wear perennial snob favorite Carnal Flower or some other Edgy Cool Indie White Floral that’s not EMBARRASSING like the Madonna perfume! One reviewer cynically and prematurely bashes anyone who might be tempted to “applaud it simply because it is not a predictable cotton candy ditz department store fragrance.” All of this goes to show that Madonna is still a heated, relevant, and above all HIGHLY stigmatized cultural property, as much as she was in the 80’s and 90’s- everyone is fascinated with everything she does, and everyone is still too frightened to immediately embrace any of it until a few years have passed and a bolder critic has stated that it’s okay to like it.
I digress. Wait, no I don’t, because this is a celebrity perfume, and the public perception of the famous name affixed is as integral to the identity of the product as Bruce Weber’s cold, explicit images of Kate Moss were to Calvin Klein’s Obsession, or Victor Skrebneski’s spacious WASP mansion panoramas were to Estee Lauder . Any discussion of Truth or Dare must by necessity include a discussion of Madonna and the fragrance’s marketing. While Truth or Dare is stated to be retro tuberose gardenia floral—a tribute to Madonna’s mother’s unnamed signature scent assumed by everyone to be Fracas—it is in actuality an unexpected, complex, unusual, firmly unisex musk scent with floral, oriental, and gourmand elements in equal measure. It simply smells undeniably terrific: streamlined, sexy, sweet but not too sweet, floral but not too floral, rich but pleasantly cheap, but sniff closer and its shocking character is readily apparent: this is an indole, rubber, and musk fragrance! It is as if a creamy, proudly synthetic white floral accord that smells ambiguously of tuberose, gardenia, and jasmine is underlined by a fierce cocktail of every weird off note that goes along with those smells: big burnt rubber , big fecal indole (to rival Brent Leonesio’s Untitled #8). How is no one noticing how dirty this fragrance is? I have NEVER smelled such proudly displayed skank notes in any mid-range department store celebrity scent! Perhaps it is because the off notes are married so perfectly to a hippie-ish androgynous salty ambery oriental musk base with a beautifully executed burnt sugar note. Truth or Dare’s closest relatives are, I would say, Angel for its two-sided vulgar structure, Juicy Couture for its salty gourmand florals, and Jovan Musk for its loud, ungendered statement of cheap and fun sexuality.
Any complaints? It should probably be labeled an EDT rather than an EDP if only to encourage people to spray it on in great quantities. It is assertive but always pleasant and its ambery musk sticks around a shockingly long time. Depending on how much you wear, it can be a good-time clubbing scent or something more polite for the office. Totally versatile.
If it were approached without prior knowledge of the PR material or that it is endorsed by Madonna, Truth or Dare would undoubtedly be embraced for its originality, defiance of easy categorization, unisex potential, and unique, humorous bottle design that looks like nothing else currently in department stores except that wonderfully kitschy teal opaque Youth-Dew bottle. When was the last time I had this much FUN with a mainstream department store release? I love it to death.