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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

To Criticise the Critics [3]

Tarkan criticised in the Turkish columns

A serious music review should be written to high standards, with an overall sense that the critic has striven to give a true critical appraisal of the artist's work. The clumsy rush of January appraisals in the national press about Tarkan's Metamorfoz resembled writers publishing pre-prepared obituaries of an artist having mistakenly believed him to have died.

Sticking to the Music?

Nowhere is this more clear than news channel NTV's report on the album, hastily prepared and aired on the day of the album's release. The critics in that report seemed ill prepared, admitting that they not had suitable opportunity to listen to the album (hardly surprising as Tarkan didn't distribute any advance copies). Naim Dilmener's improvisations and first impressions were to come back to haunt him in the following days, when a professional critic would have asked for more time to actually digest the album. In his later comments published by Milliyet, he re-thinks his initial postulations a little, but still comes off sounding insincere. Reiterating that Tarkan's 2007 songs sound just like his previous works, he does attempt to suggest alternatives and clarifies that in his opinion Metamorfoz is the artist's most average album in comparison with his other works, not the most average Turkish album in the market. He goes on to claim that had this album been released by any other artist, it would have been hailed as great.

Ironically, in the fervent search for a replacement for Tarkan, the critical axe has swung too much in the favour of new acts almost to the point of complacency, while the pop icon is hauled over hot coals.

It's not wrong to hold Tarkan to a higher standard, but Dilmener's fixation on Tarkan's image and his attempt to ridicule it on NTV revealed a failure to understand the concept of the album, and this "high standard" reasoning sounds little more than an excuse for a hastily prepared review that has eroded the credibility of a once-respected musicologist. None of Dilmener's statements regarding Metamorfoz stood the test of time in the short term, and for the long term he has taken a large bite out of his own critical collateral, which he built up over the years as a respected archivist of Turkish pop music.

Naturally, a significant event in the Turkish pop world as a new Tarkan album isn't going to slip critical scrutiny, but who now knows how the whole Metamorfoz debate might have been enlivened by the impassioned intervention of a critic who had actually taken the time to listen to the album. Tarkan took nearly two years to produce Metamorfoz, was it too much to expect critics to take at least two weeks to digest the album before running to their keyboards? For it is surely the critic's task to funnel discussion of big issues through the mediating experience of the work of art itself.

There are recent examples outside of the Turkish music industry, too. Maxim magazine's review of a Black Crowes album was written without a hearing of the whole album, and the magazine apologised to its readers following the discovery after the band broke a convention of silence and publicly complained. In today's world, it seems that an artist's work can be critiqued before its released. The axe swings faster every day.

The Critical Condition

As long as people are creating, there will always be someone there to mock or rock it, but there's a rising trend that indicates critics are losing their ability to separate popular snark from serious perspective, with priorities seemingly shifting towards "personality" writers with no background in their subject.

Criticism should be about widening the conversation by making fine distinctions; it should not be an analysis of the critic. Columnist Murat Beşer's cardinal sin of indifference when asked to comment on Tarkan's 2007 work was an insult first and foremost to his own profession. An "educated" elite in academia who divides music into serious and easy, and ignores one or the other, is doing a disservice to the trade. A critic is there to set out the reasons for or against an artist's claim on our attention, not just to say he or she "isn't worth bothering about". The essential factor is whether critics are doing their utmost to make the art come alive for readers.

How has the critic differentiated between his or her subjective taste and a more "objective" set of standards that we might call, for lack of a better term, Taste? Can criticism tell us more than just what's in a piece of music? As in, not just what's there, but what's there that's important. Does the writing home in on the important concepts in a work of art, try to set it in the context of its form, its contemporaries, its world?

Any and all critics should arguably as a minimum have a solid understanding of the history of their medium. An ideal critic should also be a good sociologist and understand how the arts reflect and refract the times; for example, it's hard to form a critical opinion past either a simple yes or no of the impact of Tarkan on popular Turkish culture without understanding what was going on around him at the time. We go from seeing something in one dimension to three.

Anyone (and it doesn't have to be only those under the age of 30) who wants to read about pop music, new film and television knows where to go. That place is not in the monopoly of media moguls any more, but specialist magazines and the Internet. With the Internet and wide availability of information, the idea of the paper critic as a singular, priestly authority is now defunct and was always a bad idea, both antidemocratic and anti-intellectual. The technology available makes the online conversation about entertainment much more of a two-way street. Criticism thrives on contention and debate, and the Internet provides oxygen for that.

Yet, even though we need to ask questions in our own critiques of the critiques, as readers we do want a sense of authority, to feel that the critic actually knows what they're talking about. The characteristic sound of a critic should not be him or her continually barking up the wrong tree, or barking at all for that matter. Even if we generally trust those whose tastes agree with our own, critics have to earn our trust through consistency and quality. Like all good art forms, all they have to recommend themselves to us is the quality of their work.

There can be a fine capacity in violent opinion, but that impact comes from a trustworthy critic who knows how to cheer, is not afraid to hiss, out of love and respect for the music.

Critical Clowns

In music, new work matters as much, if not more, than revivals of classic tracks and tribute albums. Great artists like great critics are rare birds; rare birds, though, need a welcoming aviary. Australian critic, Peter Conrad said in the Observer: "Critics are the means whereby society becomes conscious of itself, aware of the direction it is taking. There can be no culture without them." The argument isn't that we don't need critics, the point is we need better ones.

Tarkan is not just an imageThe language of most Turkish music critics suggest that musical opinions are fair game for anyone who can turn a phrase and has an interest in celebrity. It's analogous to a sports editor hiring a soccer reporter on the credentials that he knows what football shoes David Beckham prefers to wear on the pitch. It's not just a Turkish affectation, either. When Financial Times' first music critic Andrew Porter reminisced about his own career, he declared that there were "plenty of good music critics - but ever less encouragement for them to say their says in a civilised way."

Style and humour cannot compete with a well informed review, yet editors are sending in the critical clowns in the true joke spirit of contemporary journalism, to be as bitchy, or as acidic as possible. In that sense, reviews fail to do little more than describe something as "great" or "awful". This is not a matter of requiring critics to be po-faced; wit and intelligent criticism have often lived together. However, Tarkan is trying to push some envelope of extremity in pop music and the critics should be trying to work out whether or not it should remain sealed, not commenting on his latest image.

Moreover, Tarkan's treatment might be indicative of a global blind spot that affects most critics: when something really extraordinary comes along it is greeted with incomprehension even by the clever ones. It takes a certain amount of courage to see past the shock of the new and make a prediction as to its future.

Editor-in-chief of US magazine Rolling Stone's Turkish division (and a man that had previously called Tarkan "Turkey's last greatest star") Mehmet Tez's U-turn under the direction of the US magazine's unrepentant rockist rhetoric had elicited such comments as Metamorfoz in his view being "The worst album listened to recently", and that Tarkan "hasn't brought anything new" to the industry. It's apparent that the critical failings of RS in America has simply been carried over to its Turkish counterpart. Arguably Tez's comments are indicative that it is not Tarkan, but RS that will be offering nothing new to the Turkish music market. The US magazine has been criticised in the past for its failure to acknowledge both newly emerging genres and reconsidering albums and acts it had once dismissed, like Led Zeppelin and Nirvana. Possibly Tez might reconsider Tarkan again after a few more years and shift to another extreme opinion.

Tarkan may not be a Justin Timberlake, but he is challenging received notions of form and content in his own way, and he is undoubtedly talented. But the air of critical torpor that surrounds his music suggests that there is no one in the critical ranks to clear the decks and point the way. With Turkey's most prominent critics and TV stations beginning to sound like rank amateurs, it's time to take a step back and remember that in art nothing is ever secure, not even the place of critics.

What can be more mediocre than a review that deals in circulated celebrity gossip? For shouldn't an argument that someone's music is bad stick to the music? Rather than a demolition job on an artist's character (whom they sleep with, what they drink, what they smoke), the harder task is to sort out the good new work from the bad and to identify new currents of artistic activity; even those few critics that have written favourably about Tarkan ("Tarkan Sets the Standard", 9 February 2008, Tolga Akyıldız) spent no more than a couple of paragraphs on the music itself.

Tarkan has been sticking to the music for nearly two decades. In criticising him, this might be something his critics could consider, too.

Part one | Part two | End of part three

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