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Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Politics of Pop

Editorial by Mark Mayhey reporting from London, UK

Pop art Tarkan hanging on gallery wall

In my series of essays about youth and pop culture I gave the view that pop stars shouldn't ever get serious, or take themselves too seriously, but of course pop stars all too often do. With celebrity popsters busying themselves outside of music with the activist fad - like Turkey's own pop child Tarkan - do they do so at the risk of damaging their mainstream popularity, by ignoring pop's own politics as to what being popular means?

Pop in Politics

In America, even those that fall outside of the pop remit, musicians have often served as irresistible, and frustrating candidates, for political branding. Elvis Presley offered his help in the government's war on drugs; Bob Dylan taunted his admirers by implying that he was for the Vietnam War. Louis Armstrong, accused by fellow blacks of being a grinning Uncle Tom, shocked the world when he called President Eisenhower "two-faced" on civil rights and said "the government can go to hell."

US politicians, in turn, have a history of celebrity fascination/revulsion - from the Washington legislators who condemned Ingrid Bergman as an adulteress to Jimmy Carter quoting Dylan's lyrics as he campaigned for US president in 1976. Tarkan, too, has had his fair share of strife with politicians in his home nation, even taking one of them to court - the late Mehmet Gül over public remarks about his sexuality - while showing an active interest in social causes as far back as 1993.

It is possibly a natural development then that, since releasing his 2006 English album, the Turkish popstar has signalled in interviews an interest in "being Bono" - the term we comically use in the reporter handbook - for musicians that want to take up political causes, like its most famous proponent from the Irish rock band U2.

"Being Bono"

The desire to be Bono is a relatively new term coined by commentators, but musicians in America have taken up political causes and written songs for social change since the sixties, while in Turkey, the musical folk tradition had moved away from spiritual invocations to socio-politically active lyrics in the seventies and eighties, following a humanistic route tracing further back than the sixties to their own cultural roots and thirteenth century philosopher and humanist Yunus Emre.

The Hand of Chris: Coldplay's Chris Martin seems possessed of the belief that two black lines inked on his hand can somehow help end poverty; Picture/Oxfam
The Hand of Chris: Coldplay's
Chris Martin seems possessed
of the belief that two black lines
inked on his hand can somehow help end poverty;
Picture/Oxfam
However, the singer as charity campaigning, politician bothering, one-track-record is a more recent phenomena and one reserved exclusively for multi-millionaires.

While British musician Bob Geldof certainly kick-started the craze with Band Aid (with Michael Jackson's own take with USA for Africa), it was Bono who paved the way for a one-man-show – proving that presidents and popes were so dismally desperate to seem in touch with the populace that they'd happily let degenerate, badly dressed, sunglasses-sporting rock stars tell them how to run the world, in exchange for a photo opportunity (Jackson mixed with the elite but was too soft spoken to ever demand anything).

It's a role that Coldplay's Chris Martin seemingly can't wait to fill – while determined to appear humble and unaffected by the third-world-debt sized wads of cash rolling in to his royalties account, he still became possessed of the belief that two black lines inked on his grubby hand would somehow help end the highly complex problem of poverty.

I wonder if it can only be a matter of time before pop artists all across the globe demand a sit-down summit with Barack Obama to demand an end to all war, famine and general unpleasantness?

Popularism, Partisanship or just Pretentiousness?

Tarkan could be in danger of a little bit of this pretentiousness himself; take just recently: Doesn't it sound a trite wrong for a pop singer to talk about children in run-down schools one moment, while literally in the next jetting off to deep sea dive in a luxury hotel in sunny Egypt?

His many and varied critics back home will say that he could have donated proceeds or built a school in that region, rather than gearing up for another social campaign - something which could also be seen as a promotional vehicle for him, or (to be real cynical) just another opportunity for one more photo shoot.

Still, the reality is that Tarkan is need of neither, and doesn't seem to be making too many grand gestures - no where near in the league of his British and US counterparts at any least - and it's a miracle that the Turkish singer hasn't fallen victim so far to the trappings of celebrity (to be as shallow as the fashion industry or patronising, fake and pointless as a fashion magazine for example). But is he opening himself up to the danger of falling into the mine field of political issues, in trying to look more substantial by giving his time, if not his money, to good causes?

Celebrity Activism

It's dangerous territory. Mixing celebrity and activism of any kind is always a risky business; it takes good timing to put star power to good use at the most opportune moment, and not have it stink of a publicity stunt. However, because more and more celebrities are now hitching up to the social wagon, it has almost become an expectation, just like the public expect corporations to be socially conscious.

And though increasingly stars of all stripes find themselves under pressure to use their fame for a higher purpose - as media mogul Oprah Winfrey put it: "To whom much is given, much is expected" - the winning formula seems to be that the celeb must do their homework, be committed, and get involved for personal, and not political, reasons. American actor Michael J. Fox is a good example of this, who started his foundation for Parkinson's research after announcing eight years ago that he had the disease.

A little charity work can go a long way, and in other cases, it's the charity in need of a celebrity spokesperson that approaches a VIP - and as long as the celeb isn't getting paid for it - if the public feel they're sincere (or as sincere as any artist in the pop industry can be) then it can only be a "win-win" situation.

Clearly, with Tarkan as choice luminary for Turkish nature society Doğa, the Turkish singer falls into the second category. Yet, does the news coverage of the nature campaign he's spearheaded since 2008 show the singer has a full grasp of what is a veritable obstacle course of political, historical and even national defence issues mixed up with environmental concerns to see it to the end? Is he committed enough; is it an issue close to his heart? Are his reasons personal or political?

Protecting the World's Heritage

Tarkan at the opening of Doğa Derneği offices in south-eastern Turkey
Tarkan at the opening of Doğa Derneği offices in south-eastern Turkey
In reports about his campaign with Doğa to stop the building of a controversial energy dam in south-eastern Turkey, Tarkan has been quoted as saying that he has been inspired by the Turkish environmental movement, and that the people in the region "love" what they are doing.

Speaking to Germany's Der Spiegel magazine last May, the artist also tried to balance regional concerns with global ones. While emphasising Turkey's wealth of beautiful places, and his wish for it to be economically strong enough not to have to sacrifice its natural landscape in the name of progress, the singer showed his world citizenship status, too, by declaring that this issue is "about the whole planet."

No doubt the subject of nature and the environment is a matter very close to Tarkan (it's well documented he's been a nature lover since a child). However, the image of activist Tarkan meeting dignitaries and attending summits - or being photographed with police officers and fans alike on a visit to the ruins of an ancient city's historical centre - hasn't been taken too seriously or sat so well with some.

The Turkish minister for the environment treated him like a well-intentioned but misguided do-gooder, advising him in a fatherly fashion to come to him to get his facts straight. Worse still, those working tirelessly behind the scenes excavating in the region have criticised the singer of merely putting his mouth where his money should be, while in the other camp big corporations with financial interests in the dam project have publicly suggested the singer has unwittingly become a pawn in a negative political campaign against Turkey orchestrated from abroad.

Looking for Compromise

From the media coverage, it can sometimes feel like Tarkan is the only celebrity name attached to the region's cause - which is far from being the case - and it does appear unfair that the singer's name is used as a catch-all phrase to criticise celeb activism. Even displaying the best of intentions, Tarkan has always been someone whose timing has let him down now and then.

Yet, it's an indication that the popstar has brought greater public awareness to the issue, and - by the environment minister taking a softly-softly approach to Tarkan's protests - that politicians in Turkey have also begun to acknowledge the importance of public opinion in government policy.

On his side, Tarkan has appeared on Turkish news programmes to renew his pledge for the campaign, underlining that his support is based on scientific evidence, not political sympathy with any group - and that he is acting in defence of his country, not against it, by wanting to protect its historical heritage.

Furthermore, a symbol of compromise, the singer indicated they were looking for greater understanding; they wanted suggested energy alternatives to be taken into consideration by the government. And although the artist has not publicly admitted it, some sources at the society say Tarkan helped pay for the nature society to establish an office in the region to oversee the campaign to protect a region over 10,000 years old.

Plus now, with recently discovered historical artefacts dating the ancient site back even further, it could be that Tarkan was right to believe the evidence regarding the importance of the region. Add to that the rumours - from a newspaper columnist, one of a few to applaud Tarkan for his efforts - about plans for a commercial release of the 2008 song "Uyan" Tarkan penned for the environmental organisation, there are signs that this is one issue the pop celebrity is not going to stay silent on.

Whether he will eventually release "Uyan" for general publication, however, and whether it will continue to inspire popular opinion is another matter. We wait and see.

Singing for a Cause

A hit record with a powerful message about our impact on the environment is a very rare thing. Only Jackson's attempt in the mid-nineties really springs to mind.

The "King of Pop" himself was cautious in his politics, as he was daring in his music. He advocated self-improvement over organized action and favoured uncontroversial causes such as education and anti-poverty programs. After Jackson's death, his music that stood for something more than its commercial value helped underscore his humanitarian side - numbers like "We Are the World" (1985) and the anthem for his charity, "Heal the World" (Dangerous/1992).

Although it's his cloying environmental anthem "Earth Song" (HIStory/1995), his biggest selling single in the UK, which he will be remembered for the most - even if the issues in its video single are now dwarfed by climate change, the most compelling and over-arching environmental issue of our age.

In fact, Tarkan's environmental video single echoes Jackson's own, with them both sombrely walking through scorched, desolate landscapes, and rewinding back the stock footage damage towards the end by the power of song. The subtle (or not-so-subtle depending on how you look at it) difference comes in the pomposity of Jackson's tribute that Tarkan's successfully avoids, possibly because the Turkish artist had the foresight to compose an understated, folksy song about uniting for the survival of the planet rather than an over-blown anthem about dead elephants and deforestation.

Instinctively, Tarkan realised that pop music just wasn't serious enough (or wanted to give a nod to Turkish folk music's socio-political past), but that shouldn't distract us from the song's impact on his fans. If like Jackson's song for the earth, it catches mainstream success and wins repeated showings of its powerful video, it's highly likely that years from now in Turkey commentators will say Tarkan's "Uyan" was the spark that made many people - particularly young Tarkan fans, which, even in the late-2000s, numbers hundreds of thousands of people around the country - stop and think about the environment for the first time.

And to those that would say Tarkan reminds them of Jackson at his peak - someone looking for compromise between different groups and for ways we can all get along - it will seem weird to see people attack him for it now.

Crucified for a Cause

Nevertheless that is what seems to be happening, although it's unlike the usual bad press he has suffered for a generation. It's more subtle, with articles about his peers claiming he has lost his sex appeal because of his charity works, or with papers giving less and less space to report his shows - despite them being as packed as ever.

For instance, the British DJ Norman Cook (a.k.a Fatboy Slim) concert received more news coverage than Tarkan's Harbiye show, two gigs that played at the same time at two different open air events for rival mobile companies at the start of August. Alternatively, it could be because Tarkan has managed to pull large crowds for so many years that it's no longer news - it's old news.

Having a low turnout for a show would be news, or something new for his domestic media to pounce on, but it is also the dirty politics of pop. It commands its leaders to give their life fully to its cause; if the public wants sex with their serving of star, then they must get it, and if not sex then give them scandal.

The late Jackson is perhaps the best example of a whole life given over to the voracious celebrity entertainment industry. It's the only existence he ever knew and for most of the time, he happily reaped its benefits. Towards the end, the machine turned on him.

Politics in Pop

Tarkan and Michael Jackson hanging on gallery wallJackson had lampooned the tabloid view of his personal life and public image in his video single "Leave Me Alone" (Bad/1987) - while Tarkan did the same to some extent in his video to "Dilli Düdük" (Metamorfoz/2007) - to show the pitfalls of celebrity branding. Notwithstanding the stress living your life in the public eye must bring (Jackson was human after all), the thing the attention-seeking star was lampooning was the exact reason why he crossed over to all communities; he reached the status given to world leaders because of his constant exposure to the public.

In the future it's been said everyone will have fame for fifteen minutes, but you need a lot more exposure to be crowned king. Along with music hooking up with social change, out of the sixties also came American artist Andy Warhol, famed for depicting social leaders in a graphic style that likened them to commercial products like Coca-Cola, in an effort to show how politicians ascended to celebrity status as a result of their constant representation in the media. Jackson was no less a commercial product twenty years later, when Warhol depicted him, too.

Thus, if Jackson is the people's megastar (and I don't doubt it for a minute), then the truth of it is people will choose to remember him not just for the zombies, but also for the chimp, and for turning from a black man into a white woman.

It's because pop is indiscriminate; it can't separate the man and the music from the celebrity. Jackson understood this when he made his bargain with pop in the eighties. Pop is us. We are the world. He sold himself to pop, so pop owns him now. The celebrity lives in the pop machine, and the minute you work against it, it devours you.

Working the Pop Machine

Let's think about it: Pop leaders are ludicrous, loveable figures, with an affliction that changes otherwise reasonable men and women who sing into microphones into ego-maniacal freaks wearing all kinds of silly clothing, talking all kinds of outrageous nonsense and alienating musicians, fans and friends alike with their strange behaviour. Why? It's because when pop promises all the the attention, money, sex and drugs it's hard to kill the subsequent messianic gleam in the eye.

In the case of U2, it's not hard to see why people always focused on Bono. He was always a peacock with a powerful voice and a knack for drawing attention to himself. And up to a decade or so ago, he was good-looking, too. The rock star paying homage to the pop machine has resulted in him being consulted on matters of international medical and economic crisis by dignitaries of world government - but is Bono hanging on to social causes to give back what he's been so generously given, or because music can't feed him all the exposure he needs any more?

Every time he stands two paces in front of his band mates and makes a weird face or cocks his head at a strange angle in a photograph, you can see plainly: Bono has got the pop disease, and he knows it. And the fact that he also loves having it is either his saving grace or his ultimate downfall.

And when after the death of Jackson people became confused and cross about how to react to the passing of pop royalty, it was because they couldn't separate the music from the man and the scandal. Some people thought it grotesque to worry about one man when millions die all the time, others thought it disrespectful to speak ill of a man who changed their world - citing his humanitarian works to show he had a soul, positive proof he hadn't sold it to pop celebrity. Surely the magnitude of his fame showed that he had?

A Pop Product

Tarkan, too, whose celebrity has managed to outgrow any socio-political theories and any one community - and who has tried to drink a little from that famous pool of pop since his 1999 brush with international superstardom - is he trying to show he has as much soul as some of music, or merely trying to get exposure overseas?

Fans will think that an unfair question, but when you swim in a shallow pool, you might not think so deeply - and like Tarkan's art, his social campaigns will not only benefit by his star power, but be tainted by it as well. It's the nature of the beast. The pop artist must show the pop machine that it comes first, and serves no higher purpose - social causes are just to show that even a tin man can have a heart.

And if Tarkan believes he isn't a pop product (as Turkish singer/songwriter Serdar Ortaç foolishly commented about himself in a recent news report) then he needs to talk to the machine, because we're not listening.

But finally to end on a diplomatic note, and round off this long talk on pop art with fine art: in its unique reformation of pictorially prohibitive Islam, the foundations of Turkish culture has an illustrious love affair with international art. It's no surprise then that the first art collection ever to be formed "by a child of Islam" (as termed by Théophile Gautier) was a Turk.

It's no surprise, either then, that the finest specimen of a pop artist celebrity ever to be formed from out of the old Orient has been a Turk, too. However, only time will tell whether - like Tarkan's international counterparts - he'll be remembered mostly for his social causes or his saucy kisses.

The views in this article are those of the author alone.
Read more Mark Mayhey articles on Tarkan >>

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