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Saturday, June 20, 2009

On Being Tarkan: A Pop Music Cliché?

Analysis by Mark Mayhey reporting from London, UK

On Being Tarkan

Turkish pop music is a messy, glorious delivery. At its best it's a powerhouse of overwhelming festivity with the hormonal rush of a rock-and-roll show, and the diminutive - but definitive - pop icon Tarkan has always been true to this form.

Whenever there is news of a new album from the star, fans catch the smells left by his domestic media's 'fresh print stink' from as far away as Russia and Latin America, while musicians in places like Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria start to anticipate their own, less inventive, cover versions. It makes even the ink from such speculative entertainment reports heady with potential, because we can always rely on Tarkan to put on a good show for others to follow.

For those who have yet to see Tarkan sing live, when you do you'll be convinced you're watching a major star. Put it this way, he'd walk any talent series on TV today. His style is sensual and intense; his music is well-produced, combining typical home-grown sounds with modern beats and rhythms. And when you come back down to earth after he stops singing, you'll find he is on ground level, too.

His mainstay of music, Turkish pop, doesn't have any pretensions either; it's easy on the ears and proud of it. Although predicting its chart success isn't an exact science, Tarkan's formula - which might go something like 'pretty person + great voice + well written, well produced pop songs = laughing all the way to the bank' - has been copied by numerous Turkish singers since the early nineties. For if anyone had any doubt, let it be clear: Tarkan is all about the mainstream; it's just his talent means his works hold their value.

In Turkey, the pint-sized popster is as close to a dead cert as you can get.

On Being Popular and Unpopular

Even if to some of us Tarkan's name does not ring a bell in the West, we'll have probably heard his voice when western musical consciousness had seemingly lost its collective mind over his kiss towards the end of the nineties. Although not a sudden world sensation like Susan Boyle (she really isn't that good), it was this kiss of a third album that built on the success of his previous two, to catapult him into the global mainstream.

For world music enthusiasts, however, his fourth album Karma (2001) - an anthemic psyched out acoustic folk record fuelled by the fires of rock and raï, with a heart the size of the Ottoman Empire - will be the record most preferred on a road trip. It hailed the return of the Turkish heartthrob with an album full of grooves so rustic and old-school, you couldn't help but suspect it was a deliberate attempt to shake off the teeny-boppers from his European pop conquest and be seen as a 'serious' artist. It sold seriously less than its predecessor, but he was in his element merging the East and West into a sensual, rose coloured spectacle of sixties nostalgia that remains timeless.

Success often robs artists of inspiration, but it's fair to say that Tarkan has had plenty of life experience to get inspired by. After his one international success, its launch into Europe and the Americas involved conflicted disputes over ownership and copyrights, which eventually destroyed his cooperation with Sezen Aksu, Turkey's respected female singer and producer.

Tarkan showing off his fur in Come Closer
Tarkan's fur-lined fashion accessory enraged PETA campaigners
It also brought a ten-year slog for an English album, which the star seemed to dump in as many seconds after its release when he realised that drafting in a hip hop sound and a guest rapper - even if a well respected and talented artist in his own right - to make Tarkan seem streetwise by association in Europe was embarrassingly ill-advised. Granted not as bad as Texas featuring Method Man on 1997's "Say What You Want" - a collaboration as mismatched as a vicar in a bikini or an animal-loving pop icon in a fur coat on his record's front cover, say. But for the first time, falling into a global music market trap his inexperience couldn't have foreseen, he became a musical cliché. And of course, back in Tarkan's home nation his harshest critics were ready for him as wolves at the door.

On Being Metamorphosed

So, enter then electrically engineered Metamorfoz (2007) going straight to the other end of the scale, with a visibly angrier Tarkan taking a lyrical swipe at his critics, celebrity, and politics. It felt like Tarkan was burning his bridges, rather than building them this time. If Karma had been the sixties and the decade of love, than by comparison this album was all eighties - the 'me' decade, and it brought the eighties sound of electronica further to the front, too.

The music critics slated the album that took them to task, but it was obvious that the artist had managed to avoid falling victim to other terrible clichés, which other international artists have been prone to. Although some of his 2007 songs veer a little slightly to the point of being a promotional sob story on how tough being famous is(!), it's no where near the self-obsessed whining that we're likely to hear from the latest musical comeback, drug-bore Eminem for instance.

After suffering his first flop of an album with his English excursion, Tarkan didn't act like an attention-famished, ego-maniac who goes into hiding or rehab or finds God and UFOs (Bob Dylan's Jesus mode, The Beatles' hippie excursions and Madonna's dedication to the magic string brigade at the Kabbalah Centre have all been extremely unsexy). Or worse, literally try his hand at acting in a TV drama (why does every other singer think their skills at pretending to drive a car in a pop video will transfer to an award-winning performance on the telly?) or take the easy way out by releasing an album of live cover versions or remixed medleys.

Before the release of Metamorfoz, there were press reports that Tarkan had flirted with some of the above - with ideas banded about for a TV show, acting offers and the rumour of a Turkish classical recital album - but he managed to resist the traps, deciding to brave all and release an original studio album instead (although I'm warming to the idea of a classical revival after hearing his stunning contribution to renowned Jazz musician Fahir Atakoğlu's 2008 album Iz).

Furthermore, taking a look at current musical trends (some of the recent releases in the British music industry has seen its very own synth-starlets pushing electronic music back into the charts), Metamorfoz seems ahead of its time, revealing Tarkan has an astute musical antenna that knows which music trends to spearhead. With his 2007 album, the Turkish pop star had a canny knack for knowing two years earlier that the comeback of eighties electronic music would be more than a flash in the pop pan. I'll be the first to admit it, he knew better than I - because I'd thought the ghost of eighties music had been exorcised for good.

On Being a Cliché

Tarkan hasn't just metamorphosed himself countless times, he metamorphoses others, too. Not forgetting the spate of camp celebrities who started to appear in suits thanks to Metamorfoz, Turkish artists are always quick to pick up the music signals Tarkan gives out; examples are rife in 2009 Turkish album releases. From the childish rock group maNga - who sulkily refused to open at Tarkan's 2008 Wembley concert - relying heavily on electronic influences in their 2009 concept album (how original! another punk-rock concept album - listeners of American rock trio Greenday will be pleased), to his friend Kenan Doğulu's summer offering attempting to show his fans who's the boss in the industry.

In 2007, Tarkan growled behind an electronically hummed voice about the people that fed him lines, the things that got in his way, and his trying times. The singer that wouldn't even wear a suit at a friend's wedding, donned a silver two piece for his record sleeve. Doğulu takes a shot at this with his 2009 offering as well, dolled up in a suit and tie whilst preferring to showcase his own writing abilities as Tarkan did in Metamorfoz. Two years on from Tarkan, his friend has followed in the image of a hard dude, but with Doğulu you feel his bark is worse than his bite, and it's a hollow sound.

Tarkan's Metamorfoz image
When all else fails, go for the mature look?
Even when relatively younger singers, who are aware of what's going on in the world and try to bring some light to it, explore such themes with a 'mature sound', there is the danger of falling into a cliché which simply means they've gone boring - it's a typical method for pospsters who watch forlornly as their fanbase leaves puberty and pop behind. The Backstreet Boys came back mature in 2005, and a dreary experience it was too (with an accompanying video showing them mooching about in their beards – mature people have beards so we're led to believe). Pop isn't supposed to be mature. Pop is supposed to be forever teenage, outrageous and misbehaved. Yet, where Doğulu failed, Tarkan succeeded to convert the mainstream to his ironic, wise-assed, self-effacing flow against his celebrity status in Metamorfoz.

Is it our fondness for the Turkish star, because we've been converted to his restless, dog-eared faith - whether in earnest or anger - that love is the answer, which makes us blind to the cliché? Or did the self-sabotage of his English language album give Metamorfoz weight and Tarkan something to shout about? Or is it due to the fact that his music holds its value, because it's so well-produced by the self-confessed perfectionist?

On Being Worth the Wait

It's my own theory that this last suggestion is one of the reasons world music fans – in terms of the music he generates - find him addictive. Following the star during his roller-coaster career with a journalistic scrutiny akin to near parental intensity for over a decade, and I'm still left with the feeling that he is bursting with potential.

Now, with most of Tarkan's naysayers back on his bandwagon - after Metamorfoz became the highest selling album of 2008 whilst offsetting troublesome music piracy with successful digital downloads - in Turkey and beyond we impatiently wait for the artist to write his next chapter.

We listen to his previous albums, and our respect for his talent grows as we find that Tarkan was always one step ahead of his game (in more ways than one). Thus, the curiosity to see what Tarkan will serve up next continues because we know he can turn his hand to different types of music, and no album has ever had him operating at the absolute limit of his musical ability.

It would be interesting to hear Tarkan take a chance and say something new, or sing the Turkish oldies of classical music, or even showcase a retrospective vision laced with rock and jazz - as long as it's Tarkan we hear and not some carbon copy, however cleverly it may be promoted or given an official seal of approval.

For despite alternating between his side projects and silences, if you're Tarkan there's no need to do anything else but sing. The Turkish phenomenon has always been true to the form of a good show; it's why people stay addicted or keep coming back, forgiving even the worst musical clichés.

Main | Part one | End of part two | Part three | More Mayhey articles

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