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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

To Criticise the Critics [2]

Tarkan criticised in the Turkish columns

Scrutinising the critics is not about questioning the validity of music criticism. Good musicians take and learn from a constructive analysis of their work by others. What should be scrutinised are the differences between a bad review and a bad critic. A bad review can shed light on an artist's development, a bad critic unwittingly sheds light on their own bias.

A Bad Review or Just a Bad Critic?

A bad review might recommend listening to someone else, but will touch upon the music and maybe even give some clues on how something could be improved. Bad critics are obvious. They do things such as comment on a musician's clothes rather than the music or the album's concept as a whole, which on average might get about three words. They use general terms such as "the worst album ever", but fail to express with any logical process why they disliked music, usually because the criticism isn't about the music. This makes the critique feel as though it has been hijacked as an opportunity not to clarify but to crucify the artist for some reason or another unrelated to the current work in question. The reader is left wondering whether they have just read a critical music review or a character assassination.

Due to the personal nature of music, buying a record is not like purchasing the latest digital music player. Most often people listen to their own ears than to what music experts say, because the personal preference of listeners is usually all the qualification necessary to know what "good music" means to them. Critically acclaimed albums don't necessarily sell very well. Despite writer T.S. Eliot's description of the critic's job as improving public taste, critics should keep in mind that they often don't have as much power as some might think they have if they believe they can push a personal agenda. That's why they should be wary of squandering their reputation on bias. If readers stop trusting their columns to be musically sound, they'll stop reading or attaching any weight to what they say.

In this sense, a bad critic damages his or her own reputation instead of the artist under attack, and so achieves the opposite aim. For a music critic not to be made redundant, their reviews need to focus on the music. It's the same for an artist. To be taken seriously, the focus must be on the results of their creative labour, not on an indulgence for celebrity spats that might score points with the paparazzi press. However, in Turkey, it is because Tarkan refuses to play the celebrity game that he is shunned by its most seasoned players, with critics claiming that he is taking himself too seriously.

The real issue therefore is the increasing failure of the Turkish critical shorthand to write anything that shows foresight, integrity or balance - even from its most respected writers - to persuade Tarkan to relax his stance. It is dangerous for the artist himself if he loses faith in his home nation's music experts, because to whom can he turn to for objective guidance during his musical development? Yet, if critics continue, in their mistaken belief, to fall into the trap laid out by the false bravado of the celebrity press, which boasts it is they and their press exposure that creates talent, what can Tarkan do? Accede to the threat, and play their game? Or try to play them at their own game, and in doing so risk losing the artistic high ground?

A Musician's Perspective

In the music world it is generally thought that the most dignified response to a bad review is silence, but what can they do about a bad critic? There is some talk whether musicians, like the owners of restaurants after a landmark Australian court case, should be able to sue their critics, on the grounds that performers - though they might not affect actual sales - are often dependent on good reviews for future bookings and sponsorship deals. In current times of music piracy, these are arguably more lucrative to an artist than hard CD and DVD sales. However, like the general public, sponsors will always listen and decide for themselves, and not make financial decisions based solely on the view of one or two critics.

Musicians often wonder, too, what authority critics have to publish their opinions in the national press. This is not to say that there are no committed and knowledgeable critics out there - there are. But an arts critic needs no training. No qualifications have to be achieved before you can become one. There is a huge imbalance between the long training and private practice that goes into being a performer and the preparation that goes into being a critic. As a performer Tarkan know this, and it lies at the heart of his uneasy relationship with critics.

Some will argue that it makes more sense for critics not to have a musical education, because they are reviewing an artist for the benefit of an audience who mostly don't have a musical education either. Ultimately so the argument goes, critics provide a service to the audience, not the musician, even though they might benefit from any constructive criticism. It has never been easier for musicians to record and distribute their music; a critic's job is to help their readers choose among the vast amount of music available. Subsequently then, perhaps Tarkan's critics could affect his record sales in certain quarters if they were more reliable, and didn't throw up contradictory reports, as so many have done with the artist's Metamorfoz release.

Arguably, rather than the personal effect on any one artist, it is this downward spiral of standards where music experts are sounding like celebrity head hunters that is a more worrying trend. Critics merely shine a light; grass-root fan promotion, word of mouth and technological advancements such as social networking have proven that no one can stake a monopoly on information distribution any more. The real question that should be asked is this: what does it say of the quality of the industry as a whole, if the level of so many critiques is to aim below the waist?

What Are the Critics Saying?

Since the release of Metamorfoz in the last days of 2007, Tarkan has taken up a lot of space in magazine sections of the Turkish press with over 1,756 articles written about him. Not even a third of these have focused specifically on the artist's music; most centred on a complete fabrication of Tarkan's fee for performing on state broadcaster TRT's New Year show. While reporters tried to impress on the public that Tarkan was taking over half a million dollars of the taxpayer whose money subsidises TRT, the reality was he made the TV station over a million dollars in revenue, saving the taxpayer money, not stealing it.

Another example, dated January 21, 2008, is an article by Mehmet Sarışın for H2, in which he sets himself up as a music critic to compare US artist Justin Timberlake and Tarkan and asks the question "Why can't Tarkan be a Justin Timberlake?" Sarışın himself admits he knows nothing about music and quickly passes over Tarkan's 2007 efforts to compare instead the two artists on their taste in women as an indicator of Timberlake being the better artist, because he has the better taste in women.

Reporter Bade Gürleyen's attempt, for Turkish newspaper Milliyet (January 13, 2008) does concentrate on the album itself by collecting comments from prominent critics. In the report, three such music experts stand out for the way they slate the artist, Naim Dilmener, Mehmet Tez and Murat Beşer. Dilmener, slightly backtracking from his initial harsh stance on news channel NTV, continues to penalise Tarkan for his image and for producing an album that comprises of all his own songs, while Tez begins by declaring that the album is the worst he has ever heard. Beşer completely dismisses Tarkan as not important enough to talk about.

Representative of the general critical climate towards the artist, these recent high profile comments in the papers during the first month of 2008 seem to show that - for whatever reason - even critics with hitherto good reputations are not giving Tarkan bad reviews, they are just being bad critics.

Part one | End of part two | Part three

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