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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Playing a Young Man's Game? [2]

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

A young man's game: Tarkan on stage

Part Two

Has Tarkan Still Got What It Takes?

To be a vital force in the music industry, and leave a large mark on the music scene, the music made needs to be wake-up call for a generic re-evaluation. Whether it should startle, or sparkle with classy contemporary appeal that becomes timeless is for the critics to decide, but it needs to leave a measurable impact.

To take the most extreme example - the success of Jackson's Thriller (1982) was not some happy accident; it was the result of countless hours of in-studio calculation and calibration, all in the name of maximum appeal. Jackson and his producer, film composer Quincy Jones were out to make pop music better at a time it was falling out of favour and punk had exposed the tacky vanities of pop's own nemesis - rock.

In the nineties resurgence of Turkish pop, Tarkan's best moments were always throbbing somewhere in the background — an undeniable, unavoidable force. There was no necessity for everyone to buy his records and listen to them, or to analyse how other singers might have been influenced by him. An artist whose music is on television, and constantly coming out of radios and speakers in taxis, on the buses and in people's cars, permeates pop culture in such a way that no artist growing up in that era can say they weren't in some way influenced by it.

Today, much of the industry's Turkish pop of the new millennium incorporates a cookie-cutter formula of dance pop and oriental/alaturka sounds (see some guy called Alex), which constantly seem to turn to Tarkan's back catalogue of songs for guidance - because Tarkan's pure pop songs have the mindless catchiness with the most mind to it. Yet, where with a Tarkan track the sound would be pristine, and listening to it would be a rich, sonic experience, imitators lack that uncompromising work ethic of working at the highest level of their craftsmanship.

Still, there is a new type of cultural synthesis that has given way to global explorations in the pop music of Turkey. With jazz, tango and light, vocal music making a comeback from the fifties catalogue of Turkish music, to under-represented genres such as nu-rock and the underground club scene, new fusions are becoming part of the popular music parlance to bring a much-needed change in creating a new pop sound in Turkey (have a look at Yasemin Mori).

It is proof that the Turkish pop music scene has much to offer and is as vibrant as ever, with many good albums to raise its profile. As an artist, Tarkan needs musical reinvention to maintain any measure of relevance in such a constantly changing scene, and with no higher profile release than a Tarkan album he has ample opportunity to pioneer this new sound and bring it into the mainstream - and show he still has what it takes to make something new.

A Necessary Reinvention

During his musical development, Tarkan's albums have revealed an astute musical antenna, but the artist has yet to turn this towards his own industry's current exciting developments.

With his 2007 Metamorfoz record he managed a masterly achievement by far and away the best Turkish release of 2007 or 2008; but did it make a musical impact on the music market as much as it did a commercial and technological one? Moreover, as an exuberant, winning take on eighties electropop, it's more than a match for the restrained, mature image Tarkan chose to dress it up in, but what does it say of its musical roots - what does it say to the Turkish music industry?

A listener from the United Kingdom will most probably hear the subtle influences by eighties synth-pop outfits like Eurythmics, Depeche Mode, The Human League, and Yazoo (with even a nod to the seventies work of German band Kraftwerk), and be surprised to discover such an intelligent album so sensitive to Western music in what musical elitists with blinkers on would ostensibly see as a Eurotrash market. Had it been a British record its success would have been discussed as to whether it was an effective barometer of the eighties revival. However, that decade meant something completely different in musical terms for the Turkish pop industry.

Regardless of the trends of eighties music from outside Turkish borders still making it across, Western-influenced pop music had started to lose its appeal in the early eighties, and a genre caustically addressed as arabesk took over the reigns as the most popular form of music in Turkey. It would take another decade for Turkish pop music to bounce back, with an unrestrained young pup sticking two fingers up at convention.

It was a courageous move; is Metamorfoz any less so? Both Tarkan and his co-producer Ozan Çolakoğlu decided to make an album stripped clean of ethnicity with Metamorfoz - to present a publication to the Turkish music market made completely outside of its influence, and so be unlike anything heard before. And after Metamorfoz, the signs are visible of other artists picking up the music signals Tarkan gave out in 2007 - showing at least a musical impact amongst his peers.

At the same time lyrically - to the critics that often dismiss Tarkan as a triumph of style over substance - concerning himself with social injustice and the state of the world might have been the thematic order of the day in Metamorfoz for good reason. It's understandable when an artist wants to make an album putting to melody with some bold statements what's been happening to him, in reflection of the past three years or so before his last release.

The record is also a cheeky oxymoron, asking to be taken seriously dressed up in a shallow electropop outfit - shallow because an honest pop record is just that at the end of the day. It doesn't pretend to be cool or edgy; it aims to reach the maximum amount of young people and make music they can have fun to and have a good time. In that context for instance, Lady Gaga's "confession" that she makes "soulless electronic pop" is not so far off the mark, because commercial art is a concerted crack at the mainstream of youth to take art anyway they want to take it.

But if you're young, you play your game close to the streets, because that's where the young play.

Speaking to the Mainstream: Playing to the Streets

The shallowness of youth means being in tune with the mainstream of its day, and tuning out much of everything else that gets in its way.

To this aim, if Tarkan's Metamorfoz is guilty of anything musically it is of Çolakoğlu's slight nostalgic indulgence to the nineties of Turkish pop, ironically because of a concerted effort to strip the 2007 songs of ethnocentrism. Due to intentionally ignoring the latest fused sounds coming out of the music hotpot of Istanbul - although this lack of street wisdom was confronted in the 2008 reissue - the record ran the risk of not speaking the language of the young, but sounding off as an imposter pretending to be hip.

If Tarkan had intended to present a "labour of love" to the Turkish music market as though it had been created completely outside of it, then having someone different on production duties would have removed the expectancy a true blue Turkish pop guy like Çolakoğlu brings to knob-twiddling duties - to showcase the current vibrancy of fusion running through the streets of Istanbul.

Çolakoğlu's production, although inspired in places, on some days leaves the listener feeling Tarkan has made an album that seems to ignore the vast new repertoire in his own back yard, forcing Çolakoğlu to occasionally fall back on his earlier innovations - which no longer sound innovative. They've been carbon copied countless times in an effort to make the Turkish sound more accessible to international ears. That Metamorfoz sounds as polished as it does is a sign of how Çolakoğlu has continually honed his skills - he has come a long way from Tarkan's début record Yine Sensiz (1992) after all - but having Tarkan's electronic pop outing engineered by someone who knew more of the genre could have lent it even more authenticity.

Tarkan's Metamorfoz image
Tarkan too dressed up for shallow pop?
Youth is mercilessly honest. In mixing the elements of funk, disco and even rock, in Metamorfoz, the beats and arrangement could have been more precise in its provision of a tighter framework for Tarkan's new aggressive vocal style by a producer working outside of the confines of the Turkish music industry - like Dan Nakamura or legendary knob-twiddler Butch Vig. Tarkan would have been speaking a fresh, new language that the young - as only they can - would have been quick to pick up.

In short, if you are going to be bold enough to bring something completely new to the streets - by not using any of its current sounds - reinvented from a past sound that symbolises unconventionality, then go all the way.

And don't come dressed to the party in a suit and tie, because pop shouldn't ever get serious.

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

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