An Anniversary to Sing About?
In his thirties, Tarkan is now a global pop superstar boasting six multi-million selling albums and sell-out international stadium tours and this month it is ten years since the release of the iconic Tarkan album Ölürüm Sana.
Widely regarded as one of the definitive Turkish music albums of modern times, sales of the album were to make it the second best selling album ever in Turkish music history, reaching sales of 4 million in Turkey alone. This third release was to give the singer two major Turkish music industry awards in 1998 and to world music the song that would become known as the singer's signature tune.
With Tarkan's distinctive kisses on the track, critics were to describe the entry of the fluffy song "Şımarık" into the European charts as the decisive moment European pop changed forever. His "Kiss Kiss" track shot to the top of the charts in Switzerland, Holland, France, Germany and Belgium. Australian singer Holly Valance repeated this success in the UK taking an English version of the song to number one in the country's national charts.
It also signalled a time when Turkish pop music caught up with the West, with the visual representation of contemporary artists beginning to take prominence, all in the name of image-making. In turn, the audiences in Turkey changed. Tarkan's pop concerts became scenes that we had grown accustomed to in the West; rows and rows of security officers, body guards and other intimidating figures holding back hoardes of screaming fans. This was the sound of Tarkan opening Turkey's doors to the "global village".
On the eve of this hallmark anniversary, I decided to take a look back at Tarkan's career, and whether it is one he should sing about.
When as a young Turkish artist he recorded his first album in 1992, no one could have suspected that he would transform the face of pop music in Turkey forever. Born to working class Turkish parents and brought up in Germany, Tarkan's music needed to evolve from its modest start to the combination of Turkish classical sounds with western pop and rock that was to prove massively popular with teenagers in his parents' homeland. Sales of his second album A-acayipsin (Oh - You're Something Else) pushed the three million mark in Turkey and sold over just under one million copies in Europe proving Tarkan's mass appeal.
Singers grow in stature and are appreciated by the public when they share their feelings through songs that exercise a natural attraction over you. Once you hear them, you cannot help listening to them over and over. And every time, you experience a new feeling, a new texture. This was Tarkan's one major difference from other Turkish popstars of that period that were under surveillance every hour of the day. However, in the dawn of image-making in Turkish pop music, releasing an album was no longer sufficient to remain in the public conscience. Aware that their music had the staying power of no more than a couple of months, singers had to make periodic appearances in order to maintain their reputations. Another song, another pop singer, would suddenly become the new favourite or staple of the day.
Not so with Tarkan. Quite the reverse, it was his distant approach that gave him a star quality saved for western stars. In 1999, he won a World Music Award in Monaco for a self-titled European compilation album, which cemented this belief in the eyes of his fans. Spectacular, choreographed stage shows in Europe and Latin America followed.
Dance remixes of his records reached even farther shores, featuring heavily in clubs in China and Japan, while South American fan sites began to offer Spanish translations to his lyrics. His star had never shone more brightly around the globe. Representing a vast mix of ages and races, language proved no barrier to Tarkan's devoted fans. In Russia, Tarkan became the old superpower's biggest selling foreign artist. And despite a backlash by the Turkish tabloid press in the late nineties, Tarkan's boyish image and emotive style has influenced hundreds of new artists in Turkey where he continues to dominate the pop music market.
After international success, Tarkan's music evolved yet again, to further fuse European electronica with the cultural heritage of his parents' country. This is no mean feat for foreign artists; it is one that requires them to appropriate a rich cultural heritage, to understand the wisdom and clarity of traditional songs. It seems that a veritable purification rite is called for in order for pop singers to truly embrace their culture. When he released his fourth studio album Karma in 2001, Tarkan's fame reached new heights and he was firmly established as Turkey's prince of pop. His bright green eyes beamed from billboards across Turkey endorsing everything from Pepsi to pre-paid phone cards.
Yet, art is universal and Tarkan had always wanted to sing in English, too. Since the West offers many opportunities, it is an attractive prospect for Turkish pop singers whom have wanted their work to be known abroad. Setting this as their goal, they seek to elevate their music to Western standards. But the doors of opportunity are sometimes open, sometimes they stay firmly shut. In the 1960s, the West was interested in Indian music, in the 1980s, to songs from the Middle East, and most recently in the 1990s, to African rhythms. The interest of the West is like a wave, where a crest is inevitably followed by a low point.
Tarkan has tried to ride this wave with some success, managing to make it to the list of hit songs across Europe with his oriental rhythms and tunes. His approach emphasised that his other-worldly rhythms and exotic texture of his dances had opened a door to the West.
However, Tarkan still isn't a household name in English speaking countries. A setback involving Atlantic Records may have held the answer once, but the question is still not redundant even with his debut English album finally released. As he struggles to make an international career as a pop singer in English, it is his domestic market that is a lifeline to his international fans via tourism, with chart success in America and Britain remaining a long awaited dream.
When it was reported that Istanbul would host a leg of the Live Earth series of concerts in July, I had suggested that this could be an exciting opportunity for Tarkan to hit back at his critics in regard to his English album being the wrong route to take in his career.
But the cancellation of the global concert in Istanbul - which the BBC reported as being scrapped because of lack of interest - left many questions unanswered. A lack of interest for what was seen as an American show probably, but with artists such as Shakira, Tori Amos, Avril Lavigne, Manic Street Preachers and The Smashing Pumpkins to name a few appearing in Istanbul in the same month for such festivals as Masstival and Rock'n Coke's 5th annunal celebrations, not a lack of Turkish interest for foreign artists. It seems more likely that the current trend of anti-American sentiment and pre-election frenzy put end to Live Earth Istanbul before it even began.
Or it could just have been a global issue. The Live Earth show was reported as a flop in Britain, too, peaking with only 4.5 million viewers, while a three-hour NBC programme marking the global day of Live Earth concerts was the least-watched show on mainstream US television on that night. Seemingly, all Live Earth did was raise Madonna's album sales, but it is not hard to envisage - that even if a global flop - it might have helped Tarkan in promoting his vision of closer musical cohesion.
Sometimes art mirrors life, and closing doors is a sign of the times. The shelving of the Live Earth show might be a possible indication of which way the wind is blowing in Turkey, and whether Tarkan's career may suffer as a result. When once Tarkan had been praised for opening doors, now those doors may be closing firmly in his face. Sales for his latest Turkish album rumoured to be released towards the end of 2007 may just indicate how tightly the door has been closed, and whether Tarkan's musical lifeline has been cut.
However unjust it may be to tie Tarkan's ultimate success to his achievements connected with his English works, his most risky venture may heighten his difficulty to achieve a lasting reputation as a Turkish pop singer in a throw-away music industry, and to be given iconic status even after death. How will Turkey remember Tarkan?
Turkey of course has pop music singers of whom they are proud. Sezen Aksu and Ajda Pekkan are two such Turkish divas who have followed consistent paths throughout their musical careers. Such real artists defy time, and rarely do they polarise the public like Tarkan has done so. They leave a legacy for future generations, through both their artistic achievements and their ideals.
Ten years on from his most successful album's release, can we say the same of Tarkan?
As with most things, it will be for the public to decide.
The views in this article are those of the author alone.
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