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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

On Being Tarkan: Who Loves Ya Baby?

Analysis by Mark Mayhey reporting from London, UK

On Being Tarkan

So the cliché goes, to be popular you have to be loved, and it's no secret that Tarkan has one of the most dedicated fan bases a Turkish artist has ever inspired. As Tarkan termed it himself, it's a special relationship - one which seems to nurture people to love him unconditionally in whatever he does - and when asking someone from that global community what being Tarkan entails, two words that invariably crop up are love and music.

Arguably unsurprising from a man who wants his music to build bridges, but it's also true that not everyone rushes to walk over - unless of course it's all over the artist himself. For as much as the singer wants to promote his music as something that connects people, during his career his own personality has served to polarise his home nation, too, notably by refusing to conform to the strait-laced, tough image of Turkish machismo early on in his career.

Others would argue he's been a powder keg of Turkish sensuality from the first. Soft talking, sexually promiscuous, sexually ambivalent, a belly dancing, flashy jewellery wearing, preening pin up boy, with an apparent total disregard for Turkish conservative sensibilities, which has seen him at logger heads with public opinion, traditionalist politicians and media moguls.

It seems that either way, Tarkan ignites.

On Being Sexy

Tarkan's Cosmopolitan photo shoot leaked to the tabloid press
Stripping in '94: Tarkan's Cosmo photo shoot leaked
to the tabloid press
In the early stages of his career, the artist seemed to take great joy in pulling the carpet out from underneath gutter press piety, when Tarkan disseminated a sexually charged image of himself to promote his A-acayipsin album in 1994, tagged by a raunchy photo session with Cosmopolitan magazine's Turkish edition. In such a conservative society it was to backfire, and realising his mistake, he stopped making silly comments to the press such as he had pee on live TV and pushing a public image that was far removed from his private life.

However, the Turkish media had found their very own home-grown idol and due to the profit being made, they began making up their own stories - following the template of their US counterparts in the gossip press used for iconic stars like Michael Jackson. With the sting lengthening the tail of the media reports, it led to Tarkan fleeing for America in the mid-nineties, unable to cope with the intense scrutiny he had inadvertently invited into his life.

Since then his critics - and there are plenty of them in his domestic music industry - along with Turkish popular opinion, have been struggling to categorise the star into their consciousness, especially after international stardom beckoned to embrace his ascending voice in 1999. With a large dose of disbelief they were watching a star being born, and didn't know how to react to it.

On Being a Star

It had been an unlikely start to a financially rewarding friendship between Tarkan and the Turkish music industry, with cumbersome début tracks that clung to his wooing, vital vocals on his uneven first record Yine Sensiz (1992). If it weren't for the fact the songs were made transcendent solely by his voice, Tarkan's launch with such prosaic song arrangements should have made him an object of ridicule - as some critics in the early nineties had assumed he would become, predicting he was an upstart that would quickly drop from the celebrity radar.

However, in just nine years with several platinum-selling albums in Turkey under his belt, Tarkan had transformed himself - as had his music arranger Ozan Çolakoğlu - into anything but a joke. With a little help from Turkish pop diva Sezen Aksu, who penned the chart-topping track "Şımarık" (Ölürüm Sana, 1997), by 2001 he was flying high after having topped almost every music chart in the world apart from North America and the UK - although the English incarnation of Aksu's track with female singers would hit these shores and see it top the British charts.

The love for Tarkan had turned universal. His success made him into an unexpected pop phenomenon in France, Belgium and Germany, while he became the largest-selling non-Russian pop artist in Russia. And from a pastiche first print to a timeless publication like Karma - whose amazingly engineered songs explored betrayal, grace, and forgiveness with near unspeakable honesty - the artist had suddenly become a clever acrobat walking a tightrope of tracks. To those world music lovers that wished to steer clear of Tarkan's delectable sugary pop confections like "Şımarık", he gave them a juxtaposition of melody-laden songs smart enough for grown-ups with Karma, where this time he promised you'd lose your virginity but not your virtue.

Clear to even his critics that Tarkan's musical development throughout his growing star persona was anything but a mis-education, it was hard to do deny that any one man was making better Turkish music in the nineties. For the Turkish music industry, as Jackson was for America in the eighties, Tarkan was a one-man rescue team for his home nation's music business in that decade. It was obvious the celebrated artist had clearly left his mark on Turkish pop music history.

The Turkish pop industry had been in a downward spiral that bounced back miraculously in the early nineties due to new technological advancements in music technology and particularly because of the proliferation of private radio and TV stations in Turkey. Almost overnight, newcomers like Mustafa Sandal, Kenan Doğulu, Yonca Evcimik, Serdar Ortaç where reaching nationwide audiences on local music TV stations Number 1 and Kral. However, it was one name that stood tall above all after the dust settled on the nineties pop explosion, ironically after getting himself heard on the nation's public, not private, broadcaster, TRT. Turkey's love affair with Tarkan had begun, but no one could have conceived back then what it would mean for the country's pop industry.

On Being a Megastar

The best thing for any pop industry is for a record company is to have a hit. The second best thing is for a second record company to have a hit. With Tarkan's rising successes, Turkish pop gained a reputable status as a a world genre, with other pop artists benefiting from the furore created by revitalising the industry in the nineties after the arabesque wars a decade before. It set the template for how to promote and mass-market mega-selling artists for the next decades.

Soft drink and snack giants Pepsi and Doritos entered the Turkish market on the tail of Tarkan's rising star, with the commercial promotion of a Turkish artist the likes of which had never been seen in the country. So deeply was the artist to burn in the Turkish psyche at one time, fans who had grown up with him would later comment in emails to Tarkan Deluxe that when young they had mistakenly believed Pepsi to be a Turkish brand, or that people loved Turkey because of Tarkan.

And for a time, it was possible to believe it. Tarkan brought the word and meaning of "mega" to the Turkish pop lexicon years before it came to the English speaking pop industry - where we are now hesitantly using the word "mega" to describe Jackson after his sudden death in June 2009. One of the final pop stars like they used to make them - intense, a little neurotic, individual, and highly talented, but not so completely "whacko jacko" that we can't comprehend him, Tarkan was Turkey's and its music industry's megastar.

Then to Tarkan happened what has happened to the best pop icons, his industry and promoters overused him to the point of losing his original meaning or effect; he was in danger of becoming a pop cliché. Thus, as a result of lazy journalism and a panicked industry wanting to keep its revenue, they began their miscalculated attempts to turn every freshly faced pretty boy of Turkish pop into "the next Tarkan". It betrayed a lack of media creativity.

But although it failed to kill the goose that laid the original golden egg, that bird has been on a turkey shoot ever since. To the media, each new release will always be a "make or break" moment for Tarkan's career - even my articles are guilty of it because its the nature of the beast. Like it or not, Tarkan is best remembered for being the first to bring Turkish pop to a wider audience on an inconceivably massive scale and with his failures to build on that, in time he fell out of favour with parts of his fan community and lost the musical pulse of his industry.

The love affair seemed to end very publicly with the failure of Tarkan's English language album to ignite the senses in 2006, but ultimately, the diamond certified sales of his succeeding Turkish language album suggests it probably doesn't matter. The reaction to 2007's Metamorfoz was that although the industry might have lost reverence for the now-once-megastar, Tarkan hadn't lost the power to generate music sales - even in an age where digital piracy was crippling the industry.

The critical anticipation of a flop for Tarkan with Metamorfoz was a huge underestimation of the Turkish pop music listening public suddenly back in love and willing to support him. His critics were once again mystified by the Tarkan phenomenon, having put faith in all the indications that just two years before the release of Metamorfoz the artist had lost all sense of direction and his music.

On Being an Enigma

Sometimes music isn't the stuff that answers questions for the listener, but raises them, and his 2007 tracks were full of them, even if some still believed it was his past songs that had raised all the best questions — on mortality ("Uzun Ince Bir Yoldayim", Dudu, 2003), love ("Ask", Karma, 2001), sex ("Seviş Benimle", A-acayipsin, 1994), grace ("Sorma Kalbim" Dudu, 2003), and mercy ("Unut Beni", Olurum Sana, 1997). Sometimes music is the stuff of fun, and of course Tarkan has had an abundance of dance tracks consumed by the pick and mix of Turkish DJs that have made crowded rooms bounce and jump across every holiday resort in Turkey.

Is it this then that has made Tarkan the world's best Turkish pop star? His insistence that, however deep he or his female songwriters dig to get the best ideas and questions just right, the music has to rock, make you dance or sing or, in the case of most girl fans at Tarkan shows, just throw your arms around a total stranger, grab a banner, and ask/tell the person, "Isn't this great!"

The truth is Tarkan will always figure somewhere in between - sometimes raising more questions than answers, sometimes just wanting to be a boy having fun. Maybe it's this conundrum that in part continues to generate the unconditional love from his fans always wanting more, but that subtle difference of his previous megastardom is lacking from before. In the late nineties Tarkan had come knocking on the door of those outside the Turkish world; to find Tarkan now music fans have to come to Turkey. Even with an international release for Metamorfoz, more often then not these days his global fans are those that appreciate to acquire their musical tastes, or whom love the margins more than the middle of the road - but in 1999 Tarkan had been the only road to take.

The enigma of how he globally transcends the language barrier still persists, however, and so, too, does the mystery why he sounds so ordinary when that barrier is removed and he sings in English. Add to that the long and tortuous process fans go through with the help of constant media speculation during Tarkan's long creative process of making albums, the news about what tracks will be in any album will always keep us guessing about what he'll do next. For whether it's his music, his concert innovations where girl fans hoot and holler like excited macaques waving hands like they just don't care and disgruntled boyfriends grudgingly clap and cheer, or even tap their feet, surprised to hear the pretty boy play a decent song, or the paparazzi on his tail, Tarkan continues to make some noise.

And even if to those outside of Turkey it will appear as though his career topped in the late nineties, as his albums have gradually sold less and less, he still remains an international star, with a large audience both in Europe and Latin America. And they say that even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day: if we wait long enough Tarkan might be in tune with the mood of the global music market again one day with his music. Tarkan did manage to leave his mark on world music, after all, it's not too outside of the bounds of reality to assume that someone will pick up Tarkan's sound in a musical season or two to pay homage to a small, young newcomer that had unceremoniously roared into view nearly two decades ago.

On Being Loved

Tarkan at JFK Airport, NY, 2005 by Bulent Korkmaz
Caught in the USA: Tarkan at JFK Airport, NY, 2005 (© Bulent Korkmaz)
Moreover, those wishing to pay homage to Tarkan, need to know what kind of place they're going to find themselves in. When they find their way to Tarkan's smoky bar-room sensuality and near perfect tonality, there's no need to ask who loves Tarkan. Women do. Overcome by a mystic lyricism and vocals that suggest the singer's deep reverence for women and their intimacy, it's no wonder that the ladies find him spiritual and self-pleasuring. Tarkan has never been asexual like Jackson - with Tarkan it's always been about sensuality, about magnetism. Being Tarkan is about being a hopeless romantic. His music at its basic is for women, for men that want to pull women, for men that want to be women - whatever - but the love has been more faithful, more enduring than the one with the Turkish pop industry.

With a pure, dense, absolutely unfettered ancient yearning, full of physical longings, brimming with anger and a passive-aggressive fearfulness that simmers just below the surface, fans will attest that Tarkan's songs are just as likely to make you crumble into unexpected weeping as they are to make you want to slam your fist into the air. If that's not love, then what is?

It's possible that's why there's still a lot of love out there for Tarkan nearly a decade on after his career peaked. Earthy, engaging, relevant – and at his best – subversive, the Turkish popster still captivates a generation that watched him grow to exceed all expectations, while still capturing the imagination of a younger generation wanting to become a more integral part of their wider world. And for those of us across his home nation's borders trying to understand Turkish culture, he has shown us that we are all connected by our universally deepest joys.

For here we are, in following a career that spans as many years as the millions his records have sold, still talking and wondering about Tarkan, and still listening to his music.

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

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