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The Middle

I try to fight the urge to be hip and non-conformist merely for the sake of refusing to follow fashion. If I needed a reminder, I found it the other day on Cracked.com, in a piece that elegantly and hilariously laid out for me the inherent ridiculousness of making choices solely on the basis that they are not mainstream. Some things that “everybody likes” are good, and everybody likes them for a reason.

I am, however, bothered by the homogeneity of a world in which The Middle is elevated, celebrated and often the only game in town. I like the soft center of a good oatmeal cookie, but the real sensual delight for me is in the edges with their crisp and concentrated essence. In restaurant offering, perfume, clothing, books and popular music these days, I see a pattern of sameness and safeness that undoubtedly comes from the need to survive in a tough economy, but which seems to leave the world all soft center with no crispy surprises.

I have always loved perfume, and the scents that attract me tend to be strong and not typically “pretty.” I love the sharpness of chypre, the surprise of masculine leather or tobacco note, or a dark and moody incense. I have noticed that all perfumes available in local stores smell the same to me these days; they are all sweet, inoffensive, and virtually indistinguishable from one another in their floral/vanilla/laundry soapiness. Perfumes that I loved in their original incarnation have been re-formulated to hew to the safe middle ground; Chanel’s Coco is now the lighter “Coco Mademoiselle,” and most of the beautiful, interesting Dior fragrances I used to love have been made over into crowd pleasers. Although I am not a drugstore perfume buyer, I did recently engage in a little sniff testing which revealed the not surprising fact that they all smell pretty much the same – like Christmas cookies with flowers in them.

According to an article in “Elle” magazine, mainstream perfumers have figured out the notes that are non-threatening and perceived as pleasant by most people; that’s what sells, and that’s what’s available at Macy’s and Walgreens. If I want to smell like something that arouses my senses and makes me feel powerful, sensual or simply like myself, I have to stalk the online outlets that sell vintage scents and the products of perfumers catering to those who do not wish to smell like Floral FusionGlade or Apple Mango Tango Gain. I do not want to smell like freshly baked cookies, spring flowers or fresh laundry. I want to smell like a Parisian prostitute who has tumbled out of bed and wandered into a cathedral redolent with incense, by way of the opulent leather seats of a vintage Rolls Royce. This is not about nonconformity for its own sake; it is a matter of self-expression and making life juicy.

I could go on about this forever; most movies are either predictable action thrillers or predictable love stories, most bestsellers are chick lit or police procedurals, most Top Forty songs involve idiotic lyrics and a smattering of auto-tuned Bieber or Spears, and most restaurants in this town serve dumbed-down and denatured versions of “Italian,” “Mexican” or “Chinese” food and/or a safe assortment of salad-with-chicken, burgers, and preternaturally huge platters of nachos. There are fringier options, but they are always fraught with difficulty, particularly in my neck of the woods. We had one art film house which went broke and folded, so there is Netflix. There are a few interesting, authentic restaurants in this town, but they struggle, and often close before we’ve had a chance to try them. Books and music are easier, but there are almost no independent booksellers in the college town that I live in. The Middle sells, and unless one lives in a city, The Middle is what’s available.

I am bitchy, arch, elitist, and probably many other things I can’t think of at the moment. I readily admit that. I have mellowed considerably through my years as a mother, an observer of humanity, and an appreciatrix of looking below the surface. I read the “Twilight” books, I have been known to enjoy a family dinner at Olive Garden, and I’ll readily admit that some bestsellers and blockbuster movies are popular precisely because they’re really, really excellent. A lot of the time, though, wading through the pillowy softness of the warm, sweet and safe Middle, I am longing for the disarming, potentially offensive wakeup call of all that is crisp and edgy. I so adore the bite of chypre scent, the crisp surprise of pig ear, and the tumble of thoughts at the end of a movie that raises more questions than it answers. Those are the edges where the sugar is a little burnt, but infinitely more interesting for its complexity.

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