Losing the Plot
It's the way of the world. Eventually even the world's greatest pop stars lose the plot in their later years, with the world not seeing them be great for quite some time. It's a question suitable for asking of Madonna ever since America has chosen to induct her into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, and it's one that can be asked of her Turkish male counterpart, Tarkan, ever since he blew the trumpet of his return to the Turkish music scene.
Consequently, although it seems that Madonna is currently doing things that aren't good enough to come from her, Tarkan's album Metamorfoz shows great promise that the artist has more in store for the years ahead.
Madonna v Tarkan
Madonna and Tarkan are not strange choices for comparison. The woman most of us have come to know as the singer, songwriter, actor, author, film director, wife, and mother Madonna, will ultimately be the greatest pop star this world has ever seen, while the man many Turks know as the singer, songwriter, soon-to-be-actor, bread to a thousand homoerotic authors, potential husband and father Tarkan, will ultimately be the greatest pop star Turkey has ever seen.
Let's start, however, by remembering what made Madonna and Tarkan the greatest pop stars in their own worlds. Starting with Madonna's early singles, in particular "Borderline", "Holiday" and "Lucky Star", it's difficult now to remember just how perfectly complete they sounded, and so very modern; instantly recognisable as pop music but with no discernible reference to the established cornerstones of Motown, punk or even disco, since hers was a sound that emerged from the dance clubs of New York when few outside were listening. Madonna's progress did seem slow at first however, as too with Tarkan. His first album didn't gain attention until an appearance on state TV, but his raw sound that harmonised sexual idolatry with Turkish beats was to come from his 1994 album A-acayipsin.
No matter the era, Madonna's and Tarkan's pop music sounded like no one else's and yet it was for everybody, whoever we were.
Then there was the look. Back then, all pop stars had to have a look. And they had to not look like us so that we could try (and fail) to look like them. Madonna was Marilyn Monroe dressed as Boy George. Tarkan was George Michael undressed. Madonna fused Dolly Parton's concept of slut-glamour with street-urchin chic. Tarkan bared his chest, hugged his hips and genitalia with bare hands. Madonna's clothes didn't hang in wardrobes, they collected in heaps on the floor and outfits were selected seemingly at random; jackets were borrowed from boyfriends, jewellery was pilfered, things were torn, layered, mismatched. Shockingly for a Turkish man in those times, Tarkan's wardrobe could have been out of Madonna's floordrobe, with the earrings to match.
Both, for all genders, looked like so much fun and so much danger.
Everything Madonna and Tarkan was at their start up times though ten years apart: a fearless sexual liberation that would arguably change the way Western women and Turkish men saw themselves from that point on.
After that came superstardom, in a way that had never really been but would, from then on, always be. Fame as a lifestyle choice, a social class, an addiction, an obsession.
As one-time boyfriend Warren Beatty sagely quips in the defining documentary In Bed With Madonna: "Why would you want to do anything if it wasn't on camera?" To Madonna, this was a rhetorical and absurd question. Here was the first separation between Tarkan and the Material Girl. When Tarkan tried to bring his doings on camera with a "I gotta pee" remark on national live TV, he shocked his nation to the point of a near reversal of his fortunes.
Madonna had shocked several nations seemingly unaware that women possessed sexuality; Tarkan had shocked his own nation seemingly affronted to be reminded that men have penises. But, herein would be the first deviation: while Madonna knew no boundaries, Tarkan was wise to take note that his playground had far stricter rules.
In their arena, both are known for the biggest, most enthralling, ravishingly danced pop shows ever produced. Madonna touches herself on stage and the Pope spins in his vestibule. Tarkan is stripped naked by dancers on stage and the fainting fans are carried out on stretchers. She changes how we dance just by doing a dance plenty of gay men were doing already; Tarkan belly dances and many wonder if he is a gay man doing it already. On and on it goes. Brilliance, after brilliance, scandal after scandal, reinvention after reinvention.
The warning signs for such pop stars are always there about potential danger, potential failure. The difference between Madonna and Tarkan is to this aspect: Tarkan has been more wary of the dangers, his risks have been more calculated.
Let's say, for argument's sake, that Madonna stops being brilliant after Ray Of Light – her best album – has run its course. Let's say Tarkan's Come Closer was his first boo-boo of an album. Sometimes you had to look the other way until a regrettable artistic statement, poor judgement or embarrassing misstep passed (that picture of rapper Vanilla Ice, in Madonna's Sex book, with his hand down her pants – that PETA protested Come Closer album sleeve of Tarkan wearing fur).
But now with Madonna it was different. Now it seemed like every step was missed, all her judgements were flawed, every artistic statement inconceivably naïve and clumsy. Worst of all – she's forgotten how to dance.
The same is being said of Tarkan by Turkish critics today.
Madonna made an album everyone likes called Music. But it is not a great album. It is an album by someone who used to dance in sweaty nightclubs pretending they still do. It features the most embarrassing song lyric ever written in "Impressive Instant": "I like to singy singy singy like a bird on a wingy wingy wingy". It doesn't get better with time, does it?
Again similar criticisms have been aimed at Tarkan. He made Metamorfoz, unquestionably popular but dashed by the critics, expressing it is an album by someone that could have done better. Its song lyrics were also attacked by some, stating that winning a plaudit from a Turkish language association should be a mark of shame. But, Tarkan's 2007 songs are already getting better with time.
Madonna does 'controversial' things like scaring grannies in the video for "What It Feels Like For A Girl", and kissing Britney and Christina at the VMAs as if doing controversial things is all she is, all she was, all she's supposed to be.
But Tarkan with insight has realised that no musician can ever really be controversial in a post-Madonna or Turkish post-Tarkan world. It's expected of them, and a pop star should never be doing what's expected. Arguably, Tarkan with Metamorfoz has surprised everyone once more. Positively or negatively, it doesn't matter. He's causing a reaction by finally covering up; Madonna's no longer causing a commotion.
Plus Tarkan has never expressly used his private life to be controversial, which can only be a good thing for what many see as shallow artists in a shallow industry. Often the celebrity dream starts to unravel plunging the illicit depths of stardom, with the drama of a star's descent documented daily on the front pages of their nation's newspapers. Tarkan has saved his fans from that, and Madonna has been clever in evading it, too, unlike more younger talents like Amy Winehouse that have high-profile stints with drugs and depression.
New or Used?
Clean as a spiritual whistle, but Madonna's records get worse and worse. Instantly dated, she is behind the times; jumping on musical bandwagons long after they've been driven into a ditch and left for scrap.
It's no surprise then that producer Timbaland is breathing so heavily down the neck of her 2008 single "4 Minutes To Save The World" (featuring has-been Justin Timberlake). The woman who pioneered modern popular culture as we know it is copying what Nelly Furtado did two years ago (who's allegedly been doing some thieving of her own sampling from a Turkish folk artist in her "Wait for You").
Again the same criticism has been made of Tarkan, but loudly by Turkish critics that ring false on closer inspection. The 2007 album shows that Tarkan needs no help from other producers to say something new, and his music is still instantly recognizable in his own market.
When Madonna was great it was when she had everything to prove, Tarkan still acts as though he has something to prove. The man is still hungry, you can see it in his eyes, Madonna's stomach is full and as a result her every gesture seems slow and muddled.
Tarkan has never had any pretensions about working for world peace, but does Madonna think that by covering the worst song ever written - John Lennon's Imagine - she is in some way an ambassador for peace? Because Madonna was always an ambassador for self, it's the job to which she's most suited. To see her jumping up and down pathetically at Live Earth, trying to persuade us to turn our light bulbs off, contrasts starkly to her hijacking Live Aid to make barbs about the emergence of photos of her with her clothes off.
It was a blessing in disguise that Turkey participated in neither.
Losing the Plot
Pop stars are only ever good when they want something. They start out craving recognition. When they get recognition they need love, when they get love they need critical approval, when you get that you lose love. Madonna got that, she's in the Hall of Fame, but she lost love. Tarkan hasn't got the critics on his side, but with his 2007 album shifting over a quarter of a million copies in two weeks, he's still got the love.
They both need us. Yet, Madonna now is married, with kids, all the money in the world and the sure and safe knowledge she's the greatest pop star the world has ever seen. She has faith, health, wealth and respect. She doesn't want for anything and because of that she sucks. Tarkan hasn't checked off half what's on that list, and yet because he is still creating, he is making his domestic critics that continually predict his downfall suck.
Neither of them need to make any more records. Madonna doesn't need to do anything. No one will ever be as exciting, as daring, as beautiful, as independent, as smart, as inspirational as her again (at least not in the field of pop music). The same can be said of Tarkan, just add the Turkish proviso.
Her place in history, not just the Hall of Fame, is assured. Tarkan may never have a place in the Hall of Fame (of which co-incidentally Ahmet Ertegün was a founder), but his place in European and Turkish pop history is safe, too.
However, let's just hope Tarkan's insight continues and that Madonna's returns. It's never pretty to watch a great pop star lose the plot.
The views in this article are those of the author alone.
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