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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Transcending Forms

Part one | Read part two | Read the Statistics

In December 2007 Tarkan released his Metamorfoz album with a title that promised a transformation of the artist and the Turkish music industry. It was a bold statement by the artist, but did he deliver?

Opposing Critics

Tarkan's MetamorfozWhen Turkey's English daily paper Turkish Daily News selected Tarkan's Metamorfoz for its album of the week slot on January 9, it allocated the record three stars citing that the album wasn't "a real metamorphosis". In the review it expressed that Tarkan's "vocal performance and star presence are" what added "a touch of quality", but complained about the same old formula, with only "a slight improvement in production". Tarkan "should have a reason for naming his record "Metamorphosis" ("metamorfoz" in Turkish) and fans have every right to expect a radical change in style from that title," it claimed.

At the same time, certain sections of the music industry have criticised his 2007 album for opposite reasons, in that Tarkan's radical departure from his signature sounds has been deemed unfavourable for not sounding like Turkish music, or borrowing too heavily from American music artists instead. Rolling Stone magazine's Turkish editor-in-chief Mehmet Tez's comments printed a few days after the 2007 album's release by paper Sabah elude to this.

Like most of Tarkan's critics, Tez is not consistent in his critiques of the album, with contradictions between his comments printed by Sabah and those published by Milliyet. Whereas in the Milliyet he tags it as the worst album he has heard recently, in Sabah he gives the appearance of an attempt to review Metamorfoz track by track, confessing that he has three favourite songs. His main point of contention is, however, that Tarkan's transformation has been influenced greatly by American pop artists.

Meanings of Metamorphosis

The word "metamorphosis" has more than one meaning. Along with a definition of a development to maturity, in regards to Tarkan's 2007 album the Turkish press had initially locked on to the "complete transformation" aspect of the word, drawing analogies with Franz Kafka's novel The Metamorphosis, which tells the tale of a man's transmogrification into an insect. The roots of this word are meta-, which according to Webster's Online Dictionary means "going beyond or higher, transcending" and -morphosis of form. Thus, a metamorphosis might also be a "transcending of form".

Known for being a provocateur, for pushing the pop envelope, for never taking no for an answer and endlessly reinventing himself, Tarkan has earned a reputation for being many things. If the artist's musical development has shown us anything, it is this: We have to strip our musical prejudices with Tarkan. His main agenda is to continuously transcend known forms.

If Tarkan's Metamorfoz has been an attempt to break free of the stereotypes of previous successes, than the title seems an apt one. Whether Tarkan's latest incarnation succeeds in being a true metamorphosis or not is open to personal interpretation, but when Tarkan is criticised for his music not sounding like Turkish music or for spearheading Western music trends in Turkey, what does that mean exactly?

Pushing Boundaries

What Turkish music should sound like is a question for Turkish artists to answer by defining and redefining musical boundaries, and for critics to intelligently scrutinise that development. Even if at some level the criticism is of a positive nature (for example calls for Tarkan to sing solely in Turkish), when dealing with positive or negative views of music tied to racial stereotypes we are liable to fall into a discriminatory phase that doesn't allow us to hear new music with an open mind.

Good music can cross boundaries and so generic labels in music, while useful, can be contrary to its basic nature. As humans most of us have a need to categorise in order to make sense of our world, yet in musical terms categories shouldn't limit artists willing to merge and push boundaries. The risk to Tarkan with the release of an album that deviates from a successful formula is higher than any other Turkish artist, because he has more to prove and lose. If he is to be held to a higher standard, then it must be realised that his risks are higher, too.

The artist's history indicates that he takes this risk every two albums or so, and it is a calculated one. If we look at Tarkan's musical history there is a pattern of changing concepts between A-acayipsin/Ölürüm Sana and Karma/Dudu, with the corresponding works being continuations of each other, while Tarkan's creative control has strengthened with each release. Looking back, the musical transformation perceived in Metamorfoz can actually be seen as a natural progression of change that has culminated in his 2007 album; a metamorphosis of all his previous styles to a new style helmed almost solely by Tarkan's creative input.

Taking Risks

Like other artists who want to exist at a deeper level than simply be gawped at,  Tarkan wants to exist at another level, Marie Clare magazine photo shoot, 2001An artist that is ready to take risks, even calculated ones, indicates he or she is still in it for the music and not the money. If it was just about money and album sales, Tarkan could have released a Turkish tribute album from a score of hits notched up in a successful catalogue of his previous four albums, which have all surpassed sales of over a million copies (including his European licensed self-titled compilation album of A-acayipsin/Ölürüm Sana hits, the sales of which earned him a World Music Award in 1999).

This is something most critics fail to note, and most others fail to realise. In addition to being one the few singers in the world to chart across three continents with a song other than in English, Tarkan is also the only artist in the Turkish music industry to have four successive original studio albums consistently sell over a million-plus copies. However, Tarkan knows self-produced tribute albums are a careless way for a relatively young artist to spend their hit collateral, rather than - as he has been accused of wasting - for experimenting in different musical pools, and refusing to make music that's expected of him.

We can debate whether the music is good or bad, but what Metamorfoz does indicate at the very least is that with nearly two decades of music behind him, Tarkan is still productive and and running on his own creative steam. Despite of or maybe because of the attacks from the media, he still comes to his job everyday as though he has something to prove. It is only human to want to build things, to create stuff and creativity is about original production, always trying something new. Tarkan, like other artists who want to exist at a deeper level than simply be gawped at, has the right to say something different, to show his listeners how he has changed and developed as an artist.

There is plenty of time for tribute albums once an artist is dead. In a period of the Turkish music industry where tribute albums have become the cheap way to make money off old work because music piracy via the Internet has severely disabled CD sales, Tarkan has found the courage to bring out new work. At the very least, that bravery should be lauded.

Releasing something similar to his Karma album after a space of seven years might have delivered to those fans and critics asking for more of the same what they wanted, but it would have also signified stagnancy. Tarkan should aim for the timeless quality of Karma, but not to remake the same album. This is where the line gets blurred in what an artist is doing for his art, and what we may personally like to hear; because whether we like it or not Tarkan is signalling with this work that he wants to mature, too. At least until the next reinvention, he wants to let go of the female influences that made his sexuality too prevalent in his music; he wants to grow up and make his own music.

This has been another criticism aimed at Tarkan's 2007 work. As opposed to the huge creative teams behind previous albums, Metamorfoz is mainly a product of Tarkan and his long-time music engineer Ozan Çolakoğlu, with Tarkan penning all the lyrics and the music to seven of the songs. However, it has been conveniently forgotten by critics - while he has obviously benefited from collaborating with some very talented women - Metamorfoz isn't Tarkan's first attempt at song-writing. The artist has been publishing his own songs since 1992, and Tarkan's lyrical and musical composition "Kuzu Kuzu" after nearly a decade is still the only single ever in Turkey to manage over a million sales in an album orientated market, a figure that any Turkish pop album would be happy to claim today.

The critics that criticise Tarkan today for not working with other song writers, are the same ones of yesterday that criticised his successes for saying they were not his own songs. As one Turkish journalist was perceptive enough to write, it is Tarkan's critics themselves that constantly provoke him to change or to stop working with successful collaborators. By fuelling rumours about the people he has worked with and their disputes, and even leaking song information pre-release, arguably the celebrity gossip mill has done all it could to trip up the artist in the run up to Metamorfoz.

Tarkan has always been about questioning prejudice by striking the right balance in his albums. He may not always get the balance right, but he has the right as an artist to express himself freely in an attempt to further that aim. As critics and listeners, we have to allow the artist the opportunity and space to be productive. Criticism should be a guidance not a hindrance to creativity.

Segregating Artists

Therefore should Tarkan be mauled in the press for not locking himself in some stereotypical cage of sound perceived as Turkish or should critics be intelligently discussing if he went far enough? If we know that Tarkan is all about breaking stereotypes, then isn't arguing the former futile? This raises the question whether Tarkan is being criticised by these critics because he has failed to produce good music in his attempt to sing outside of this cage, or simply because he has the audacity to want to break free. How are we to find out, when for the most part those that criticise him fail to do so on the merits of the music?

Moreover, it is a form of aesthetic segregation to say an artist should only sing in certain genres and grotesque that one would even need to explain why Tarkan should manifest in any other genre than pop, or give us his own take of the sound trends in the more recognized music markets of the world. Tarkan needs to move beyond a mere hip co-modification of world music, to a genuine racial and cultural integration in Western music itself, because that has always been his aim. If we argue that the artist should keep on making the same music, surely then we subconsciously practice a type of musical racism that presumes to define racial forms of taste and ability.

Music thrives on diversity. The music catalogue of the Ottoman Empire is vast because it had no ethnocentric perspective to blind them to the many forms of cultural expression directly in their midst. Consequently, due to its successful combination of a multitude of musical traditions, with Greek, Armenian, Turkish, Polish, Romanian, Hungarian and more all bringing their own identities to the music, it is a rich art form. In contemporary times, the likes of Bedük, Emre Aydın, maNga and Mercan Dede (a list of artists that span various categories) continue the true tradition of Turkish music, by fusing current trends from home and abroad.

In their journey towards a definitive sound, some will re-work centuries old traditional music to new age beats, while a few failing to strike the right the balance will sound like carbon copies of an original export. But the key word that connects them all is "fusion"; because Turkish music due to its unique history and empire culture has always been about fusion.

Thus in this sense, Tarkan's music is the epitome of what Turkish music is all about.

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