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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Writing the Next Chapter

Analysis by Mark Mayhey reporting from London, UK

Tarkan getting down with Mother Nature
Looking to the future
The definitive Turkish pop star that is Tarkan has been seen climbing the hills and yodelling for nature this November, and in a recent TV interview the singer claimed that he was pushing full steam ahead with a new album following his Metamorfoz release in the final days of last year.

In what will be according to Tarkan terms only a brief musical hiatus between albums if a new record does materialise in 2009, the question is whether the artist will have learnt some new lessons after the sprawling self-indulgence of his English album and the troubled gestation period that plagued Metamorfoz.

Although Tarkan's critics in Turkey are always ready to draw blood, at least as expectations have been brought so low, I feel I can safely predict initial reactions to any following album will be positive.

Searching for Definitives

Tarkan's critics often try to draw blood
Tarkan's critics often try to draw blood
It's true to say that Tarkan has his fare share of criticism in Turkey, with the celebrity press ready to leap on any small piece of news, and blow it out of all proportion. Everything from the artist's close cropped hairstyle to lambasting him over similarities between his Metamorfoz music videos and those of foreign artists has been scrutinised in an attempt to show that Tarkan has lost his touch, even though such things are the norm in any music industry.

Artists always check each other's work. For example Justin Timberlake joined Rihanna in Los Angeles to shoot the music video for her single "Rehab", and her video looks suspiciously like Tarkan's "Arada Bir". And let's not be elitist enough to assume that Rihanna or Timberlake haven't heard of Tarkan. Although the main US listening public may not know of the artist, American stars - especially those in L.A. - know Tarkan well. In Turkey, however, when the subject is Tarkan passions inevitably rise.

After fifteen years in the music industry, Tarkan is still being discussed in every Turkish media outlet as fervently in 2008 as in 1998, and in the face of his critics, the artist has seemingly re-written his definition of success after Metamorfoz received lacklustre reviews from the critics on release. Initial high sales, four songs charting in the top four positions, and a following tour of successful concerts, gave it a very public vindication.

However, for any album to be hailed as a triumphant return to form, it needs to be clear just what its own particular form is - and should be careful not to tie itself to experiment with mainstream musical trends - such as hip-hop and industrial rock - simply because they are in the ascendancy. Otherwise Tarkan runs the danger of branding his own back catalogue of pop music as irrelevant in future productions, and when he returns to it - as every artist invariably goes back to their roots at sometime - he risks the impression of a musical artist that simply lost his way, instead of one going through a successful metamorphosis.

Only time will tell whether the critics are right about Metamorfoz, or whether it is an album that will stand the test of time, for being a best-selling album and a classic is not the same thing. Even though it is not as shallow as to simply be a damage limitation album to Come Closer, what is certain even now, however, is that it is not his definitive album.

Justin Timberlake and Rihanna (Image © Rex)
Like Tarkan's "Arada Bir" - Timberlake and Rihanna on location for a music video (Image © Rex)
A-Acayipsin will to many of us always be Tarkan's truly classic album. It's not a polished production, and sometimes it's just silly, but it's immediate and vital. Although the following record Ölürüm Sana went on to become the second best-selling album in Turkish chart history, A-acayipsin was the blueprint that made Tarkan a star and brought him major commercial success. The two albums together are the definitive Tarkan, so it is no surprise that an international release of a compilation of these two albums in 1999 sold enough copies to earn Tarkan a World Music Award in Monaco.

For me, the recent post-Ölürüm Sana albums never captured the magic of the first two. Songs from past albums had moments of pop reverberations and incredible song writing, but were never complete statements. Karma - however popular - was a flirt with Orientalism that would never translate as well as his pure pop tracks and consequently relegated it firmly to the niche of world music. Metamorfoz reassures that Tarkan is still in touch and that the only way is not down from here, but he has yet to release the elusive album that will prove to his critics once and for all that "Şımarık" is only his signature tune and not his career zenith.

What Will Tarkan Do Now?

British band Oojami's press release
There is plenty of Turkish talent like British-based band Oojami

It's possible that Tarkan has sensed it might be about time to re-live his zenith era, and it is not co-incidence that he keeps stating in TV interviews his desire to duet with Turkish diva Sezen Aksu, a key instigator to his success in the early 90s. He has also claimed that his new image will be "sexy", and he will stay away from the short hair, suit and tie for awhile. It could be the perfect time to find the right balance between the Tarkan of yesterday and the Tarkan of today.

In trying to gauge what Tarkan could do now, a major grudge some had with Metamorfoz was its synth-heavy, western outlook and Tarkan's restrained vocals. Subdued singing is nothing new; for example the music world has never heard Beyoncé sing with more restraint than in her 2008 album I Am...Sasha Fierce and musically Tarkan makes no secret of the fact that international trends played a strong role in his Metamorfoz.

It will be interesting to see if the following record to Metamorfoz will continue to spearhead modern musical fads in popular music by diversifying into hip-hop, new-wave and rock, or whether it will signal a return to a more oriental, ambiguously sexy pop (Karma-style ethno-centric or otherwise), and what his critics will make of either decision.

We can read into it what we will, but rather than looking to the US for more inspiration however, arguably the artist needs go no further than the underground music scene in Istanbul, which MTV's Turkish channel has helped to successfully highlight.

Kemal Doğulu on pushing alternative sounds into mainstream music (© MTV)
There are no end of possibilities for collaborations with talented home-grown artists, if Tarkan aims to bring something new to his fans, while keeping the old, too. Rock acts like Mizan, or experimental electronica alternatives like Kemal Doğulu or oriental new-wave band like British-based Oojami (who appears in the 2008 soundtrack to Hollywood movie Body of Lies) are the real indicators of future Turkish sounds, if Tarkan indeed wants to continue his metamorphosis.

Moreover, now that America is set to become the world's darling once more as highlighted by the dominance of US stars at the MTV Europe Music Awards this year, will this persuade Tarkan - after having declared that he had tired of the US - to try for her musical shores again?

Ultimately though, whatever Tarkan produces, he needs to show he has found his mojo, so we can say he's back, without a shadow of a doubt.

Getting Back on Form

Mizan sings "I'm Afraid of Americans"

History has shown we should never kiss Tarkan off, because the artist likes to surprise. It's impossible to predict with any accuracy what sort of album will follow Metamorfoz, but for a definitive album the artist needs to recreate the grander ambitions and excess of before; we expect pure pop ambition sitting easily with his sexual side, oozing with confidence, all wrapped up as great songs with pop-soulful vocals.

Make no mistake, Tarkan's voice is an outstanding player in the Turkish music industry. It's this pure elemental talent that makes him a star, and not any single record. He also doesn't seem fazed by celebrity gossip and cares little for magazine bombast to allow it to puncture his confidence. From his interviews it seems that Tarkan has grounded himself, and that fame hasn't become the soul-killer we have witnessed in some of his American counterparts (compare with the well-documented fall of Britney Spears).

For example, Tarkan's refusal to represent Turkey in the MTV EMAs indicates that Tarkan has let go of hang ups that many celebrities suffer. Not only did Tarkan's magnanimous gesture pave the way for Turkish rocker Emre Aydin to win by popular vote in his category, he also proved he was right to be somewhat dismissive about the ceremony if it can throw up such absurdities as a ridiculous win for 80s British act Rick Astley due to the Internet phenomenon known as rickrolling.

But the other side of the coin is that Tarkan often seems unable to take advice and might not notice when he has failed to deliver or fallen out of fashion. This might not mean much to us in the West, as we don't feel our artists owe us anything, but in Turkey it is a different story. Fickle fans can be passionate over what they feel they want to see their favourite artist produce, and they will boycott Tarkan if they feel they have been short-changed.

For fans waiting to be shook like it was 1999, they want to be assured all the metamorphosis will finally be worth it. In writing the next chapter of his musical career, they expect Tarkan to turn the cogs of the Turkish musical world full circle in 2009 and release his long-awaited opus to bring perfect pop back into people's living rooms and the streets of Istanbul.

As always, even after fifteen years in the music industry, Tarkan still has everything to play for.

The views in this article are those of the author alone.
Read more Mark Mayhey articles on Tarkan >>

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