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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Tarkan: Figuring Out a Firefly

Editorial by Mark Mayhey reporting from London, UK
(with additional reporting by Hatice Soylu from Istanbul, Turkey)

Tarkan's longevity is based on substance you cannot manufacture - on heart and soul. His heart speaking to your soul. Who else can do vulnerability in such an acutely expressive way, with eyes that go right down inside of you? Add a backing track to that and you have the greatest hit factory there is."

The pop music industry can often be a backbiting community of petty rivalries, filled with the snobbery of critics and the short-term memory of the "next best thing". In such a climate, even in the Tarkan stratosphere, criticism is bound to come from rival quarters and their trolling fandoms on social media.

As unwarranted as these attacks are, it comes with the territory. Ed Sheeran gets trolled a lot and has gone dark on social media a few times when the shade got too much. The 26-year-old recently revealed the abuse he got from Lady Gaga fans over an interview - and despite his most recent album breaking chart records, quit Twitter.

You can't please all the people any of the time, and DMC's Samsun Demir has been playing a tricky balancing act on his Twitter account after some of his label's younger signed artists publicly attacked Tarkan in the press. Successful Turkish artists pulling over a billion accumulative views on YouTube have openly shown their irritation at being overshadowed by an icon who for nearly three decades has defined their genre.

Following in footsteps you cannot fill can be ego-deflating: One male singer likened Tarkan's current explosive run as stomach gas that would blow out soon, while a female artist (and former fan) complained that Tarkan was being blown up out of proportion. She allegedly confessed to her inner circle that she didn't believe the dancers hired for the music video to "Yolla" - the first digital drop off 10 - were dancers from abroad, claiming they looked like local backstreet kids.

UPDATE: Super fan's dream comes true at the Harbiye >>

It sounds like bitterness or childish vanity (Tarkan refusing to a duet perhaps) and it is only to be expected. The most vociferous, however, amongst the current vitriolic sound-bytes (i.e., jibes over music video "Yolla" resembling a Justin Bieber attempt, the millions spent on promoting the album) has not come from a new generation DMC artist.

Established female pop artist from a rival label, Hande Yener, and her large following, have taken to trolling Tarkan since the release of 10. Initially Tarkan was caught in the middle of Yener's long-term squabbling and yearly summer rivalry with Demet Akalın: Akalın sycophantically praised Tarkan, Yener burst her bubble, which soon turned into Yener directing the full force of her creative energies on trolling Tarkan. She began posting in a way that seemed slightly mad, slightly sad, and wholly unnecessary for a singer of her status.

It reinforces the sense Tarkan is above such things, and rival artists are left looking as though they are creating celebrity spats for free PR. Fiercely protective over her recently released album, Yener rightly wants it heard. But Tarkan hasn't overshadowed her album ("zero-marketed" as she keeps reminding anyone who will listen) - her trolling of him on Twitter, and her fans following suit, have done that. It's a shame because it is a great album in its own right, and with Kral Pop allowing her to jump the queue to a top place of sorts to screengrab and tweet to her legion, you imagine it will calm her down. The tweets will now stop - like a child in a sulk getting what she wants.

Welome to the pop industry alla turca. Why spend money on promotion when you can just generate a non-existent celebrity spat? Sure, you need to be calculating in the pop industry anywhere in the world; Sheeran, too, does the maths. It's no coincidence he released after Adele and before Taylor Swift. But if he was going to go up against either, you couldn't imagine him trolling his rivals. Leave that to feuding rap artists.

And why not manipulate the charts, rendered meaningless as they are? In the UK, the Official Charts Company is rewriting the rulebook to stop the Ed Sheeran effect, where music fans are streaming records in full on repeat and propelling a takeover of the top spots by a single artist in the Top 20 singles chart. Adele's 25 would have done the same, if she hadn’t initially withheld it from streaming to encourage physical sales, and both are among a handful of artists with the power to distort the charts like this: Sheeran knows that the only act likely to dethrone him this year is Swift.

The UK singles chart revamp (or manipulation) includes limiting the number of tracks per artist, aiming to adapt to the rise in streaming and showcase new music. It was a difficult decision: Sheeran's sweep of the British charts was a double-edged sword. The overwhelming success of a British act is great PR for an organisation that’s dwindled in relevance next to YouTube and Spotify, with their more immediate metrics of plays and stats. But it's also terrible PR - proof, if it were needed, that the charts are now, essentially, meaningless.

It is a sign of how sick the charts are when it comes to pop music. Sheeran's album has broken chart records around the world and it's as if nobody has bothered listening to the music critics who pointed out that the album isn't actually very good. Writing in the Guardian, Harriet Gibsone said the album "reeks of... the sharp stench of a salesman's cheap cologne", and yet it seems the era of Sheeran's dominance is only just beginning, and there's nothing to be done. But as with Sheeran, it would be snobbish to lament Tarkan's dominance, because his music clearly means the world to millions. It's a brand that connects: His past albums have become part of the fabric of people's lives.

Tarkan's back catalogue still makes money

It's a heritage that is difficult to manage as artist, producer or music executive. Especially if you are all three. Dominance and success breeds contempt, ubiquity invites caricature. Sheeran is there already; in fact he is a trending and selling tool. Claims of plagiarism can hit the highest of profiles; Sheeran has been accused of copying songs "note-for-note", but little dents his calculating musical prowess. Often it's an example of cryptomnesia - inadvertent plagiarism - when you mistake a memory for a new idea, which can accidentally slip through in the songwriting process. Or possibly pop is finally running out of tunes.

Tarkan has been plagued by all of these. Songs from his 2017 playlist have not passed the intense scrutiny of copyright monitors. Little known artists and their tracks that went unnoticed before, now bask in 15 minutes of fame under the stark glare Tarkan's name brings. And his annual Harbiye shows, a sell-out smash as always, but as always (or so it feels for the last decade) more of the same. The same stage costumes (just let go of the leather, put it down and back away), the same lights and fire effects, the same photo opportunities (swap mum for wife in front row, kneel down, reach out, cue the tears) and the same thank you messages afterwards (almost word for word) when the series comes to a close.

Tarkan: A Freak of Nature

Although these criticisms are not without merit, it's also fair to recognise that being in a job for nearly three decades is going to mean repeating yourself. Do something for any length of time and see if you don't repeat yourself, or reuse a successful formula. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, as the saying goes - but what if it begins to play like a broken record? It doesn't hurt to give the turntable a good kick now and then. The point is to know when. Timing and delivery are everything.

In the uncharted waters of the future, it's never plain sailing. Where does Tarkan go from here? Will there be a backlash? Will his next album, whenever it arrives, be more of the same? It depends. I have my own pet theory that Tarkan's entire singing career is repeating itself. Rebooted in 2007 after a record label change, the similarities between corresponding albums are uncanny. If the theory holds, the album to follow 10 will be an equivalent to 2001's Karma, and critics and listeners alike may get the musical kick they are (secretly) wishing for deep down.

In all seriousness, one wonders does he have a Costello-type Shipbuilding track in his writing locker, or even a Cohen-esque Famous Blue Raincoat? A song, in other words, that shares the same sentimental ingredients of his previous work, but is less slang, less introspective and more observed. I hope so. His voice is such a fine instrument it deserves top quality material. It marks him out. It deserves to preserved in the timeless quality of an album like Karma. A signature that Tarkan's longevity is based on substance you cannot manufacture - on heart and soul. His heart speaking to your soul.

Who else can do vulnerability in such an acutely expressive way, with eyes that go right down inside of you? Add a backing track to that and you have the greatest hit factory there is. Madonna, Michael Jackson, Miley and their Turkish equivalents - in fact the majority of major pop stars - have relied on videos and spectacle to build their audience. Tarkan's reliance on singing and songwriting, so far, haven't let him down.

Expectations of him are high, and not just from critics. Fans perching Tarkan on Mount-Olympus-high pedestals cry havoc at the slightest wobble. And no wonder - that high up is a long way to fall and such expectation is never easily satisfied, nor is it justified. Expectation is destructive to talent if it ties it to the yo-yo foibles of popularity. What do the charts really signify? In the UK, being top of the charts has never been a pure reflection of an artist's success (certainly not talent), even back in the day when it meant something.

Today, thanks to the internet's endlessly personalisable technologies - YouTube channels, streaming, you-name-it-on-demand - pop has been at the forefront of a seismic change in listening. The endlessly niche way in which we watch and listen is growing. With everyone off doing their own thing - especially the young - what is the role of the mainstream charts and, indeed, of mainstream chart shows, in this age of fragmented, bespoke consumption?

Tarkan's "Yolla" on YouTube's NetD

The charts are an attempt to best reflect what music is most popular and if the charts matter to anyone, it is probably the record companies. Then there are the egos of high-volume artists to consider: The hit parade, after all, parades their hits. Yener's trolling of Tarkan was chart-ego mania at its worst. For fans who do care, it is more an emotional affair, broadcast to the nation, the rises and falls of your favourite song a matter of intense concern. Perhaps we have some innate need to know who is top pop dog from week to week. Buy enough of your heroes, send them up the charts: Your tastes are validated, and your sense of musical justice sated.

In Turkey, YouTube viewing figures are also considered a measurement of success in real time. None of Tarkan's videos on his channel have passed the 50 million mark at time of writing, and the decision taken by DMC to upload the "Yolla" music video to NetD's music channel (owned by the record label's parent company), as well as on the artist's official YouTube account, has made fans unhappy. Arguing it would cause a split in viewing figures, discussions between Demir and his followers on Twitter revealed that fans feared the video (which some believe isn't that good) won't attract anywhere near the viewing figures of other artists on NetD.

Having a video on a YouTube powerhouse like NetD - a YouTube partner channel with 6 million subscribers - is undoubtedly beneficial, but as this is NetD's only solo music video of Tarkan on its channel (2014's "Hop De" was taken off after 19 million views due to copyright reversion) fans have argued that the icon's viewing figures were sacrificed over revenue money for the channel - something which Demir strenuously denied. When disgruntled fans asked Demir what to do about two different viewing stats, his reply was to add them together.

YouTube viewing figures is only one area in which domestic fans are displeased with the way his current music label is treating him, and viewing figures have seen an effective split. Both channels notched up over a million hits in 24 hours, with the video on NetD with the most views by a large margin. Add them up last week and it was over 32 million views, currently it is over 50 million. At a time when some Turkish artists are notching over 300,000 million views for a video, the king of pop's diehard fans worry that if Tarkan can't manage to attain similar viewing figures it could ultimately dent his digital pulling prestige.

UPDATE: Tarkan first male artist to reach 200m views on NetD >>

The latter is the real fodder of trolls; his failure to become Turkey's first global superstar was always the comeback of the cynics, now it is YouTube viewing figures. Either way, love him or loathe him, as critics when we criticise it must be the music and not the man. We only know one through the other; Tarkan rivals himself, and the only thing that can dent his prestige in the Turkish music industry is his musical output.

Dig a little deeper, and you discover what counts: Singing in the face of adversity is Tarkan's real uniqueness. Picture a little boy with his sisters singing in their room to drown out the constant arguing of their parents; his childhood would prove to be a dress rehearsal for the power of song.

A rags to riches tale, his life has been filled with upset and scandals. The live TV gaffes, his evasion of military service, the rumours about his sexuality (and the blackmail scandal of his ambiguously posed stolen photographs), the uproar over provacative photos and videos, his drug sting arrest and sentencing for cocaine use - but throughout it all, he has kept on singing. The bigger the controversy the louder he sang. As he sang, he pulled at the heartstrings of all ages and affiliations across his nation, bonding himself to the country's psyche, paired as symbolically as the crescent moon and star on the country's flag.

And why do you listen to Tarkan? What bands a few dotted millions to trace his fire in the sky? There is no blueprint to one of a kind. It's what makes it so thrilling, and so fragile - watching a firefly burn trails behind him. But I would suggest a clue is in the picture of his album cover to 10. Before its release a female columnist had wondered whether Tarkan was suggesting "love him or leave", but I think what Tarkan is telling you is what he is all about: For ten albums he has been singing from the heart.

Ultimately, those who cock a snook at the likes of Tarkan, Sheeran or Swift, will likely have some accepted artist in their hearts, because music is about what speaks to you, what makes you listen. For all the importance of charts and figures, stats and reviews, when all is said and done, it is not if the world is listening that counts, it's if you are.

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