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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Parody of Pop

When the song you drop drops you in it

Thursday was not a great day for Tarkan fans. He not only dropped a new single that had many scratching their heads wondering if it was a belated April Fool’s Day joke, but it coincidentally heralded in a failed coup attempt the very next day.

A joy to Summertime (sic) indeed.

One day before the tanks rolled over the Bosphorus, initial social media response to Tarkan’s surprise musical offering was more than unkind. It seems that a new pop album for 2016 may be delayed, and the music artist made an impromptu decision to release one of its tracks digitally as a taster of things to come.

It left a bitter taste in the mouths of some. The majority of the celebrity media's dissection of the track (aside from one or two serious music critics) followed on the same lines as the public. The track is by old mentor and friend Sezen Aksu, and online opinion (as if a mirror to our times) has ranged from bafflement and bemusement to outright rage.

Notwithstanding that Tarkan’s later songs have a history of initial dislike followed by widespread adulation over time, some of the response was, if not the deliberate campaign of hate becoming commonplace on Twitter, still vicious in the extreme. Why some would blame Tarkan’s recent nuptials for what they see as his “musical deterioration” is beyond me. Dropping the single now because Tarkan needs money for his wife’s nose job before they fly off to Miami was another, with others complaining about why they should patronage such musical garbage merely for the singer to spend on his wedding bills.

I know that these days even Taylor Swift gets a deluge of social shade but, call me old school, such comments are disrespectful. Furthermore, it’s foolish. It assumes an intimacy where there is none. How would you know what the man does in his private life? More importantly, a critique on music should be on the music.

My musical sensibilities were offended by the lackadaisical attitude Tarkan showed his Turkish classical album, but I wasn’t offended personally. I don’t know the man, he doesn’t know me. I certainly wouldn’t declare Tarkan’s career as finished, either. No single song or album can finish a career as prodigious as Tarkan’s has been domestically. His last three albums have been mediocre compared to his earlier three and even then they were the best albums in his market.

This is Tarkan we're talking about here: It's obvious that Tarkan fans want to see the artist drop the song of the summer and a failure to do so can cause an uproar. Maybe they expected a slow romantically tormented jam, mashed in provocative summer beats or a studio performance that was above and beyond what we have heard out of him so far.

But Tarkan’s unpredictability has always been the key element to his evolvement. With each new release, he has proved that there’s no predicting exactly what we’ll get from him next.

Dangerous Songs

I do understand the disappointment of fans, however, having listened to Tarkan’s latest track. As addictive as it is, its release has been badly timed, and so, too, has its concept.

Dangerous times demand dangerous songs. It demands sincerity. Music and meaning are always on a collision course in culture. All music, and art for that matter, has a political point of view. Saccharine pop hit-makers encourage escapism. In the basement canopy of punk rock, dangerous truths are revealed.

Arguably you can’t do both with a serious face – asking people to ponder the harsher realities of our world while simultaneously inviting them to dance the night away.

Music has the unique property of speaking to the individual and community in the language of our most ancient ancestors. Since humans found a voice, the right combination of rhythm and rhyme, when it washes over a throng or transmits through an ear bud, can feel like the truth and resonate deep in our beatbox brain in a way that can provide a spark to the senses.

Music not only can change the world, it can and does change us. Possibly because Tarkan’s songs have changed so many people’s lives throughout the years that now a faction of this fan base is so vociferous in its criticism of Tarkan’s pseudo-political pop song. Their passion comes from the very real pain of disappointment.

Tarkan at his singular best was harmonising and hell-raising, poetical and political, singing and striking, rhythm and rebellion. The message was a simple one: “Be yourself. Don’t be anyone else.”

But how do you frame activism in a pop song without sounding pretentious when you are rich, over forty, happily married and just happen to be safely overseas as the tanks rumble across the streets? And what is the responsibility of the artist in troubled times to speak to the issues of the day? The only responsibility we have as people, not just as artists, is to tell the truth as we see it.

There will be artists who have no political point of view and they shouldn’t pretend otherwise. But if you are an artist who has a point of view and has censored himself out of passivity or fear of saying the wrong thing, then you are doing yourself – and the people who have followed your career and invested their money in you – a great disservice.

To weave one’s convictions into one’s vocation is a responsibility that extends beyond the arts. As Martin Luther King famously said, “The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral during times of moral conflict” and I have to agree. If you are a lawyer you do it via your talents in that field. If you are a singer, you sing. You sing loud.

In Dangerous Times

When I first listened to Tarkan’s 2016 track my brain tried to make excuses for both singer and songwriter.

It must be a parody, I thought. It is satire. Especially when the arrangements feel lazy and make the track sound like a mashed up caricature of every Tarkan song ever produced. The absurdity of the title, the Mickey Mouse music, the brevity of the lyrics themselves all fit perfectly as a parody of pop and a mimic of our micro fetish times – where we want our fiction flash, our news summarised and our social life tweeted in a few words.

If indeed a musical parody, in a time where the world is divided between celebrity squads and political gangs, the track could not be more spot on. Tarkan is not really asking his audience (or gang) to turn their back on their troubles and dance it off in these dangerous times, he is actually satirising people who are doing that, while at the same time taking a dig at the terrible carbon copy state of pop music in his country. Brilliant.

On one hand, he laments everything is put up for sale while asking you to buy his track. He opines how we get violently offended about everything (kind of a foreshadowing of the vitriolic comments he would get over his track) and it comes true.

Translation notes: What does "Cuppa" mean?

Add to this mix his vocals on the final verses, where he emulates a cutsie accented suffixed surrejoinder reminiscent of the Istanbul “It” crowd, and it could all indicate that Tarkan is asking us not to take him seriously, but the world around us instead.

One Turkish pop expert seems to agree with me that there is more to Tarkan’s track than first meets the ear, which is only let down by a poor musical arrangement, but, unfortunately, it could just all be wishful thinking on my part. With Tarkan’s accompanying tweet to the drop (and reported comments) and his overall lyrical interpretation, it feels as though the singer is taking himself and his song seriously.

And if you are going to ask people to abdicate their responsibility from their convictions and dance the night away, at least make the music something to listen to without turning it into an earworm – even if it is arguable how much of a good idea that is when your country is very literally teetering on the edge of an abyss.

Tarkan’s musical context, whether he likes it or not, is placed within a backdrop where our world seems to be less humane, just or decent. We no longer have the luxury of taking a back seat. If we are silent here online, it should be because we are active elsewhere.

Had the public in Turkey abdicated themselves from recent events, or just switched off their phones to go clubbing until the morning, their country would have seen its fifth successful military coup, pushing their democracy – as slim as it is – back by decades.

Democratic Witch-hunts

But political situations are always complex, and pop music isn't meant to be. The irony of a president who once told the public to stay indoors during democratic protests now calling people out onto the streets to save his ass is the remit of rap artists, not popular escapism.

There are lessons in there somewhere: A political godhead who blocks social media sites at a whim, harshly censors domestic media agents and political critics, to then be protected by those self same tools of freedom when a military coup is about to take place is a field trip for serious artists and playwrights.

Especially when the coup fails, to see an elected administration retaliate with a witch-hunt purging lock down that makes the unelected coup pale in comparison is pure Greek tragedy, and the meat of political drama and conspiracy.

Can you blame people in Turkey for feeling like they are in Pompeii with the volcano erupting and the only boat out of town is the Titanic? We are all beginning to feel that way. How else could you respond in the world of today?

France feels the need to respond in the same way to stop the public jeers at its politicians over their national security. But if you feel you have to cut off the head of the problem, you need to be aware that for every head you cut there might grow multiple more in its place.

I believe every solution we have tried so far has been part of the problem. Our actions are symptomatic of the infection of hate we have allowed into our lives. However, when Turkey went through its failed coup, I also saw how military tanks could not break through a united front. For a second it seemed as if people on the street of every political persuasion, colour, race and creed had joined under a single flag to get democracy back on track in Turkey.

But these issues are not for a pop song. Pop songs are avoidance. Saying fuck it while the world burns around you. Blaming Tarkan for that is like labelling people who are playing Pokémon Go while France mourns the Nice attack as heartless and unfeeling. Pop doesn't mourn life, it parodies it. It's an exaggeration. The minute you become the latest fad you are larger than life. Open to imitation, you become one.

So Thursday wasn’t a good day for Tarkan. Friday a worse day for Turkey. But even if on the face of it, it may seem like the end of the world, it isn't. The sun will rise again. Better. Stronger. Without our help. So will Tarkan and the Turkish Republic. You heard it here first.

After all, when it comes to a global response, Turks are accustomed to getting the job done alone.

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