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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Playing a Young Man's Game? [1]

Editorial by Mark Mayhey & Joe Queenan reporting from London, UK

A young man's game: Tarkan on stage

Part One

The American music industry has seen some of its biggest names in music hit middle age. It has also witnessed these ageing US pop artists reluctant to accede to the responsible choice of passing the torch, with some music commentators wondering what is the point to a middle-aged pop star. However, in the considerable smaller universe of the Turkish music industry, does the continuing stellar energy of younger counterpart Tarkan make for an even more seductive argument that pop culture need not be a young singer's game?

Pop: A Fickle Mistress that Loves 'em and Leaves 'em Young

Pop, unlike jazz, blues, cabaret and classical music, has never figured out what to do with ageing deities. Smoothies such as Tony Bennett retain a strong appeal well into their 80s; they are not thought of as old, but as venerable. Only in the pop genre - along with angst rock unless public adoration gives you a cultural coolness pass - does the ageing process make watching mature men and women strut their stuff feel uncomfortable. In such an arena where the spotlight dims fast, middle-aged performers feel pressure from music critics and pundits to exit the public scene before they start making fools of themselves.

It is difficult to watch those whom once symbolised the insolence and iconoclasm and adrenaline of youth creak like walking museum pieces, because such people didn't become famous when they are young; to a large degree these people become famous because they were young. Pop music, which is as much about demographics and style as it is about culture, is for the most part produced by the young and targeted at the young. Young people do not want to listen to their parents' music, even if their parents' music is good.

Yet, it is more than that. Ageing performers whose records are ignored and whose concerts no longer sell out often grumble that the music they are recording today is just as good as it ever was. This is not true: rock stars never do work in their 30s that approaches the quality and originality of the work of their teens and 20s. Fame brings too many distractions, even the mildest affluence is the implacable enemy of creativity, and, most important, musical styles change and musicians can rarely change with them.

Exceptions to the Rule

Madonna and TarkanHowever, none of the rules governing ageing pop and rock stars apply to names such as Michael Jackson, Madonna or their much younger counterpart, Turkish pop's own icon Tarkan. Whether in rock or mainstream pop, they've each sold millions of records in long careers and all hold the sceptre in their professions for totally different reasons.

Although age wise more than a generation apart from Tarkan - last year Jackson and Madonna hit 50 - each took entirely different paths to the top and have dealt with the maturation process in entirely different ways. Jackson died recently and rejuvenated his flagging career. Madonna keeps on changing her cabaret act so that no one even remembers what she looked like thirty years ago.

At the moment Tarkan doesn't have to worry about how he'll survive the stigma of age in fifteen years time; but the direction he has taken bodes well for the star. He hasn't undergone a physical and psychological transformation (thinking his face some "work of art") to turn a very handsome, very likeable young man into a reclusive, grotesque, anti-social freak nor has he started adopting children ten to the dozen to make up for a slowing body clock going "tick tock, tick tock".

Despite Tarkan still having time to catch up - with fans faithful to their pop idols even if they lose the plot - the Turkish artist seems to have guaranteed the longevity of the Tarkan community by taking the best from his international pop idols, while having seemingly avoided replicating the worst in them.

Remaining a Vital Force

Audiences may grudgingly accept that they themselves are ageing, but they do expect their idols to remain young for ever. Although of course, the truth is, neither Madonna nor Jackson is a vital force in today's music, they don't exert any real creative importance over the music scene any more.

True, nobody can bring a record company to its knees or rewrite the rules of concert promotion the way Madonna has, and anyone that will generate so much money after his death like Jackson can fairly be called a has-been. The music may have died ages before the man, but it's never too late to resuscitate it; many talented young producers are chomping at the bit to resurrect the King of Pop's vocals by digging into a rumoured treasure trove of unreleased work.

Nevertheless, even though aged artists churn out the very highest-class nostalgia (take a look at Jackson's 2008 Thriller 25), new recordings invariably sound like the old stuff, and Madonna fans, for example, don't come to Madonna shows to hear new songs; they come to see Madonna. So, what about their celebrated Turkish contemporary? Are there signals in Tarkan's career today that the artist is on a downward turn, or does he still have what it takes to shake up his home nation's pop industry?

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

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