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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Transcending Forms [2]

Part two | Read part one | Read the Statistics

An artist's best work comes when they're trying to be original, and not repeating themselves. The biggest complaint about pop artists is sometimes in the very nature of their genre: the failure to offer something new over something in the moment.

While a few respected Turkish musicians look for different ways to fuse modern trends with traditional motifs in their search for new sounds, for most it's easy to stagnate in formulas that have proved commercially successful for them. However, a manufactured or standard pop song is a money trap for serious artists in the long run. It might make money, but it wastes more valuable collateral: musical integrity.

Musical Integrity

Refusing to fall into that trap, Tarkan keeps changing and evolving. He refused to repeat his "Şımarık" success with similar tunes, and went with something different with Karma, and then once again refused to go the same route with Metamorfoz. Even though some have been quick to penalise Tarkan for doing what should be in the very nature of a true music artist, to explore and do something new, Tarkan has always preferred to loosen up the straitjacket of tried and tested sounds by questioning musical boundaries.

Before many Turkish artists had begun to experiment with electronica, the artist showed the way with Karma in 2001, while in his 2007 metamorphosis the artist dropped distinct Turkish motifs to harmonise himself even further with Western sound trends. Arguably Tarkan changed the direction of domestic artists with Karma, and the sound emerging from the pop industry after Tarkan's Metamorfoz shows the same effect in play once again. It seems that, in their time, both decisions were correct for the artist.

Nevertheless, critics will say Karma cost him wider international recognition, as some say now that Metamorfoz is going to dent his Turkish reputation. Musical development enhances integrity, it doesn't take from it. So, is it a correct musical observation to say that because something sounds in or outside of its genre it's "bad" or at a risk to the artist? Or can those that wish to keep singers locked up in cages parroting the same expressions - instead of preferring to listen to them pushing the bars open - have a logical explanation?

Bringing Fusion to the Critics

RedTurkish critics are not the only ones that carry such a bias. Taking a look at the UK, the mixed bag of reviews for the 2008 Guillemots album Red is decidedly similar in style to those received by Tarkan's Metamorfoz.

A notable example is NME magazine's review, where the main thrust of reviewer Jamie Crossan's criticism is that "All those who loved Guillemots' orchestrally sweeping début... will most likely loathe this album". He gives the reason that the band "have unexpectedly gone all R&B on our asses, and not in a good way." The review concludes, "If only Guillemots main man Fyfe Dangerfield hadn't woken up one bright morning believing he could be indie's Timbaland, this could have been a half-decent return".

Everything that is wrong with the NME - and in turn with those of Tarkan's critics claiming he has departed from Turkish music - is summed up in those sentences.

What Crossan is actually saying is that Dangerfield's ambition should remain within the confines of classically-inflected indie introspection and he should leave "booty shakers" (as he refers to them) to artists like Timbaland. This is arguably absurd and illustrates the extent to which the NME have painted themselves into a corner in recent years; they would do well to remember that only public demand and editorial coups in their half a century history - forcing them to reconsider genres they had initially dismissed such as rock and roll - saved them from obscurity.

If critics are really at a point where artists are criticised for wanting to bring change to their relevant genre, then critics are as close to self-imposed irrelevance as they've ever been. Even if we take into consideration that being in a position to have an opinion free of external influences - though favourable - is unrealistic, allowing a critique to deteriorate into a disagreement about opposing perceptions of "good" and "bad" serves no valid purpose. When a critical discussion deviates from artistic merits, it risks simply becoming a stalemate of personal tastes rather than an insightful analysis on musical cohesion.

The best music critics know that expectations of Turkish music (and where it should go) will always differ depending on musical tastes, and so will not merely offer their own take of things, but try to place any album that has a measurable social impact into a wider context.

Those that put aside bias and do their homework by taking the time to listen to an impact album will ultimately have an influential opinion, because well-thought out criticism doesn't constantly change on the issues, contradict itself or criticise a work for reasons completely contrary to others given. In point: if we believe the critics Tarkan has either done nothing new with Metamorfoz or he has drastically changed his sound so as to be condemned for moving out of his genre; surely it must be one or the other. It seems nonsensical for him to be criticised for going two opposing ways in the same album, with some critics slating him for being original, while the other half slate him for being unoriginal.

In addition to such absurdities rising with ill-prepared critiques, in time an initial "hater" of the album might find they regret having judged too soon, or be proved wrong in hindsight. For example, Naim Dilmener's scathing criticism of Tarkan's Metamorfoz comes off as unprofessional simply because it is a "sound off" at the artist, and when read back in hindsight it is a critique limited by the critic's lack of foresight. Most of what Dilmener forecast about "Metamorfoz" has already failed to emerge. Aside from his "music review" not following any widely recognised international standard, Dilmener seems to object more to the artist's success with his home audience than his music. The tone and wording of his opinion will have readers, who once trusted him, start to question his word, and in all respect it seems history will be kinder to Tarkan's album than to Dilmener's views.

Clearly the world would be a very dull place if all critics praised everything, but we should be on the look out for ignorance and prejudice masquerading as music journalism.

Debate the Music Instead of the Man

It would be foolish to hope that Tarkan's Metamorfoz wouldn't be judged depending on personal bias, but on its own merits. Yet, whatever arrows his critics have thrown, it is a testament to the pop album that it can suffer the slings from such a debate.

Most pop albums are created in shallow waters, in that the moment we dip our feet into it we hit rock bottom, but Tarkan's songs have the talent (irritating to his peers) of immediately drowning out most concurrent tracks in the Turkish pop charts. This quality is one reason why domestic critics - and international ones - compare him to other global artists, rather than ones from his home nation. Plus, while influences from major US artists are evident in Metamorfoz to some degree, they are arguably not what make the album tick. Even the Turkish Daily News' mainly indifferent album review made a point about Tarkan's "touch of quality".

It is this touch which removes any doubt on its first hearing that the 2007 album might simply be a tribute to Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake, or in fact be anything but an album by Tarkan. Unless something goes drastically wrong, you can't metamorphose away uniqueness.

Could the vocals on "Bam Teli" or the inspiring eulogy to lost youth "Pare Pare" come from an American artist? Or can Turkish pop aficionados find, in any other current pop song, lyrics that seem to transmute the more we listen to them? Even though music critics Dilmener and Mehmet Tez have slammed his lyrical style, too, (Milliyet published comments by Tez stating Tarkan should be horrified not honoured to receive plaudits from a language association), it's obvious they did not study hard enough to get the messages Tarkan was trying to convey.

In truth, there was much to discover upon an extensive study of the lyrics. So much so, to translate them into English necessitated an accompanying lyrical analysis of observations made, in addition to presenting each song with extensive translation notes to come close to the original. And yet, for all the positive feedback, even from professional literary translators, there is still the feeling that an old quote rings true: "Translation is at best an echo."

Tarkan's songs in original form are the real thing. They take on the power of the Turkish language, which in its very nature soaks up meaningful human experience. Words change and modernise to incorporate different usages through time; a Tarkan song soaks up our experiences and logs them, so when we come to listen to them years later they can unlock in us things we thought long forgotten or take on new meanings through hindsight. More sharper than nostalgia, the quality of the best tracks keep a refreshing edge that isn't lost with time. On our return to them, we realise they've aged well, because of the sheer hard work, thought and commitment the artist and his team have put into each composition. This is one reason why Tarkan's songs always appear to sound fresh and why - as pioneer songs - they are not always understood by all in their own time.

A Private Dancer

Sometimes it takes time for a Tarkan song to grow on us. The artist himself is aware of this fact; in a TV report he had commented it would take his home public time to get used to his 2007 release. Our ears are all trained in some way to some musical prejudice, and even positive discrimination - when we want to continually keep our ears open to hear different sounds in place of our own traditional motifs - is still discrimination. Yet, there are those artists that force us to re-evaluate our own tastes, by successfully fusing what we know with what we don't and showing us that differences can co-exist in harmony. However, boundaries are like mountains. They're not overcome in a day.

Tarkan doesn't do polemy well; he doesn't really do talking well. He also knows whatever statements he does make will inevitably be pulled out of all context by the Turkish celebrity media machine. He rarely appears on the screen, because he doesn't feel comfortable doing anything else than to sing. This conundrum of a man that has managed to bare his all while remaining intensely private, is trying to keep the critical focus on his songs.

In a rare and personal 2001 interview for Vizyon magazine the artist had revealed that from a family of modest means, it was his sisters that first turned him on to music as a coping mechanism. Women have played a large part in his music ever since and to him music is about standing up in the face of adversity. It's about dancing to diversity. Music that essential never comes easily, and sometimes if Tarkan takes his work a little too seriously, it's not so difficult to understand why.

With no visible delusions of grandeur in his last 15 years of outselling every Turkish artist born after him (in total album sales), the real metamorphosis has been the slow one since 1992 to 2007. A musical metamorphosis, unlike the insect kind, doesn't happen in a cocoon, and where some critics expected a radical difference, over time we may come to realise that the album's title was possibly hailing the real, gradual self-metamorphosis of an artist always pushing the form.

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