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Friday, August 21, 2009

Pop Comebacks

Editorial by Mark Mayhey reporting from London, UK

Robbie Williams and Tarkan; Kings of comeback?

Pop music careers are buried or resurrected on the whim of the mob. And as we are the mob, what we say, goes, but even we don't know when a comeback will be successful or not.

In the British music scene there have been a rash of comebacks in the last couple of years, almost certainly inspired by boy-band-now-male-group Take That's remarkable return to the top. Some, like The Spice Girls, were relative successes, others, like East 17, were little short of laughable.

If the truth be told, for an artist to reclaim their position in the musical firmament is pretty difficult once they've fallen out of favour with the public, but there are always those rare exceptions to the rule.

In the US, Mariah Carey did it in 2005 after being dropped by her label, her movie début was panned, and she checked into a psychiatric unit following reports of unhinged behaviour. Johnny Cash, Tina Turner and Elvis Presley (who wasted years on silly films) all did it. Michael Jackson had plans to do it with a set of London gigs, but died before he could do it. Whitney Houston is going on Oprah Winfrey's show in September for her first full-length interview in almost seven years hoping to do it, too. Comeback that is, not die, although best-selling artists past their prime can do both.

Now, ex-Take That member, Robbie Williams is coming back to the British music scene. This November will see a new album called Reality Killed The Video Star preceded by a single, "Bodies". That's good news for the fans, who have been on hold since 2006's Rudebox album.

Williams denies it's a comeback: "A comeback record? No it isn't. It's the next record after the last one... but alas... it looks like I'll have to follow the script that has been written for me in my absence… If you find a way of not getting papped, they think you've died."

Robbie avoided the limelight by moving to quiet San Fernando Valley, not far from Hollywood, for several years. With that simple unfashionable act, he disappeared from the world's radar of tabloids and gossip magazines.

On the eve of a new album, the Robbie machine is ramping up again (if only the Tarkan machine worked so well), but even so, the comeback - that's what it is like it or not - is a difficult sell, because of 'the Rudebox problem'.

Pushing at Limits

Robbie WilliamsShould Williams build on Rudebox's brand of surprisingly-credible retro electro rap, however much of a perception of a flop it has been, or should he return to safer musical shores that has earned him his popular status in his home music industry?

As my articles show when I've written about Tarkan's 2007 Metamorfoz, my sympathy will always lie with an artist who is trying to express something and push at limits over those who watch their target market and push the buttons they need to satisfy it.

Rudebox was quickly recorded with quality collaborators (Pet Shop Boys, Mark Ronson, Lily Allen) and thrown together lyrics and revelations that included being kicked out of Take That. A lot of it was shoddy, throwaway and personal, but sometimes what appears to be casual production and irrelevant anecdote can become something worth keeping.

But riding a wave of nineties nostalgia - which is slowly taking effect on the Turkish music scene, too, with calls for Turkish pop to celebrate one of its greatest decades - Take That reformed (minus Williams) and became Britain's biggest band again, selling more of comeback album Beautiful World (2006) than any William's record, at just the time Rudebox was showing itself to be a comparative failure.

It could also be why Tarkan's double award-winning Metamorfoz has been perceived as a comparative failure to his other records - a failure to shift as many copies, or to respond to the growing nostalgia for Tarkan at his greatest. So, it hasn't been perceived as the definitive comeback the artist would have wished it to be.

However, as most in the industry are aware, it's a global fact that sales aren't what they used to be, either. It was all physical hard copies before, now it's down to someone pressing a button on their computer, not what's on display in the shop.

The Devil in the Artist

There are how-to manuals for just about everything
There are "how-to" manuals for
just about everything
However, I'm sure if there was a way to write a easy step-by-step "how-to" manual for getting rich, they could both sell the book rights. Williams has taken £80 million of EMI's money; Tarkan is one of the wealthiest artists in Turkey. I doubt either of them wants more money. The success is a draw for them, but that isn't all of it.

They are both entertainers that have shown they can be whatever entertainer their audience wants him to be – but they've also shown that doing so makes them very unhappy indeed. Their personalities generate as much attention as their talents earn them accolades. For them it's about the bit of the devil that's always in the true artist - a thirst for knowledge and constant striving to see something bigger and better.

They may not be creating the stuff of life - synthetic or otherwise - but they want to give the impression they are. They want to push their musical limits, do different things, but they want to solve the commercial problem of needing to capture the mass appeal of the mob as they do so.

While William's new album might be a success, because it sounds like he's trying to sort the Rudebox problem by appealing to everyone, he says: "My album's a killer.. Old Robbie, new Robbie and a Robbie that neither of us have met... I really hope it's as good as I think it is".

Is it then, sensing this, that Tarkan has re-enlisted the collaborations of songwriters he worked with in the nineties - as well as his musical mentor Sezen Aksu - for his follow-up to Metamorfoz?

And will it be an album that gives us a bit of the old Tarkan, a bit of the new, and one that we've yet to hear?

We wait and see.

The views in this article are those of the author alone.
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