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Friday, July 17, 2009

Playing a Young Man's Game? [3]

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

A young man's game: Tarkan on stage

Part Three

Should Pop Ever Get Serious?

When a pop star is dulled by maturity, there is the risk of sounding pretentious. The magic of pop and the spark of youth comes from the ability not to take itself too seriously - and yet conversely wanting validation. After all a pop song is just the clown of the class, wanting to be popular.

For instance, Tarkan's 2001 Karma, although dealt with its subject matter in a mature way, was all about validation merged with the raw sounds of its street, and by its definition Metamorfoz six years later saw a star in metamorphosis (whose playful electropop approach and lightness of touch ensured an upbeat listen with broad appeal despite its diverse and serious subject matter) - but no less driven in its journey of self-validation.

Modern youth is about an unashamed craving for attention; it's all about yearning for validation or rebelling against it, but not ignoring it as though it doesn't matter. No where is it more clear than in a phrase known and feared by all music journalists that, when uttered by an artist, triggers the unmistakeable and piercing sound of the "getting old" alarm: When an artist says they "just make music" for themselves and take any popularity as "just a bonus", it's a downright lie. A play to the pretence they have no need of anyone's validation, because they've outgrown such childish pop fancies as stardom.

Tarkan committed this musical crime after the release of his English language album - music commentators could tell he was in trouble when in a 2006 report for ALO Magazine he gave the statement that this project had been a personal one and "wasn't about album sales".

If music acts genuinely believed that they made music only for themselves, unconcerned as to the public's response, then why release records? Why play concerts? Honest acceptance of wanting to be commercially popular is part of the rules written in the pop book. A pop star isn't a restrained folk singer, a pop star is a showman, an entertainer with a hit setlist.

Isn't that the perfect definition of Tarkan? The definitive showman - entertaining his audience for years, teasing out genuine, demanded, unplanned encores from a crowd he has always left aching for more; intimate shows filled with scenes of the star towelling himself off and throwing the towel into the crowd, or taking off his shirt to give to a fan.

There is absolutely no cooler way for a singer to close their set than to leave the building topless, having really given his fans his all. It is the height of sexy nonchalance.

But at what age does a pop star stop being sexy?

Can Pop Still Be Sexy Over Thirty?

Sport celebrity David Beckham hangs on a large rope in his Armani briefs in his latest Emporio Armani underwear campaign © Alas/Piggott
Not too old to hang out? Sport celebrity David Beckham hangs
on a large rope in his Armani briefs in his latest Emporio
Armani underwear campaign
© Alas/Piggott
The question answers itself, for as long as the crowds keep coming, as long as they keep cheering, and as long as they keep paying, Tarkan is going to keep going out on the road. As long as women follow the energised performer from gig to gig, sexy is as Tarkan does.

And although in pop youthful beauty is idolised - and the age of those idolised seem to get younger and younger - there are high profile examples of men over thirty showing they're still very much in their prime, like David Beckham.

Beckham shows that he's still got what the public want to take. In his campiest photoshoot yet, the 34-year-old sport celebrity stripped to a pair of black pants, with no sign of the encroaching years just a rope coiled around his waist.

Shot by renowned fashion photographers Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott for an Emporio Armani underwear campaign, Beckham was unveiled in the form of a huge banner hanging above Selfridges in London - and no one in the large crowd gathering to witness the unveiling of David's underpants mentioned his age. Despite the fact in today's society some men suffer their mid-life crisis at thirty, if you got what it takes, any age can do sexy. To differing degrees; sexy truly is as sexy does.

Does this mean that Tarkan should once again be a "Sultan of Skin" as he was early on in his career, and strip in front of every camera going? If Tarkan tried to begin a promotional campaign in the style of his early nineties A-acayipsin launch, he wouldn't rile Turkish male sensibilities in the same way again - because he helped change them.

Despite the fact in a previous article I suggested Tarkan bare all to push the theory of the increasing Islamisation of today's Turkish society, in 1994 Turkish traditionalists had been more riled by Tarkan because - like the more macho men from Mediterranean and Latin countries, especially Sicilians - they believe men should hold an image of restraint. Most certainly today, if Tarkan stripped and had banners like Beckham's for Emporio Armani hung all over Istanbul's top districts to promote a raunchy new album about breaking all taboos, it would say a lot about how far Tarkan and Turkey have come.

Tarkan captured coming out of Longtable Burjuva Bar in 2009
Not too old to hang out? A drunk Tarkan caught coming out of Istanbul's Longtable Burjuva Bar in 2009
In England, people do not bat an eyelid at a 30-plus man stripping to almost bare his all; in Tarkan's part of the world it might be met with stern disapproval that a man his age should know better - and worse for Tarkan - reignite all the past "is he/is he not gay" discussions, as it was no coincidence they started around the time of his sexy A-acayipsin launch (and after he had dismissed his openly gay first manager). But the crux of the matter is whether Tarkan thinks a man his age should know better.

If Tarkan does think that, then the time to retire or move on and pass the torch of pop to the young has come. Yet, the signals are that Tarkan is a man still acting like a boy (still partying the night away with the lady of his choice after his shows; still being spotted coming out from clubs drunk) who has the courage to bare some skin. Arguably, the image transformation between Metamorfoz and its reissue in 2008 is proof of that.

Passing the Torch On?

It might be true to state that nobody associated with popular music ever wants to believe that it is first, last and foremost a business, much less that it is a business in which the same rules apply as in any other sphere of economic activity.

In real life, middle-aged people cling to their high-paying jobs for as long as possible, resenting the younger employees nipping at their heels, all the while reassuring themselves that the youngsters can't get the job done the way they can. Madonna is a mother, a mentor, but also a pop star who doesn't want to give up a good job, with a nice salary and benefits and lots of prestige, just because younger people think that they're out of step with the times or because they've stopped being cool (though her worldwide fans would hasten to disagree that the Queen of Pop could ever be "uncool").

Alongside that, due to the way the industry has changed - thanks to digital technologies - it might not be possible for pop music to produce such stars in the mega status of Jackson or Madonna again, because it will be difficult for any artist to ever repeat such selling power, not even the megastars themselves (who coming to their 50s and 60s have more important things to do than worry about being cool). So, fans might argue, just who is there for them to pass the torch on to?

Or Keep the Flame Burning?

Tarkan and his new signed act Emir
Tarkan with his signed act Emir
If Madonna isn't hanging up her glad rags, then Tarkan is still too young to be looking a new torch-bearer, either, though he isn't stuck for choice.

For, while Tarkan will never have an equal in Turkish pop, he will always have a steady string of disciples, ready and willing to apply his innovations to their own particular craft, because Tarkan's influence on the pop stars that followed him was like the influence of oxygen and gravity. So vast, far-reaching and was his impact - particularly in the wake of the colossal and heretofore unmatched commercial success of "Şımarık" (Ölürüm Sana, 1997) - that there weren't a whole lot of artists who weren't trying to mimic some of the Tarkan formula.

And although recently the Turkish press have eyed Tarkan owned music label HITT's new acquisition Emir with suspicion - with any superficial similarities spoofed in his first video single to diffuse media criticism - Tarkan is hardly going to safeguard his legacy by signing up acts who'll never be able to replace him.

More than anything, it is his worrying choice of collaborations with friends and incursions into regressive genres like arabesk (possibly influenced by German hip hop's fusion of the Turkish genre), which can only help erode his legacy that is more in issue. Rather than passing the torch, Tarkan should make sure it doesn't blow out in his own hands.

But in the collaboration darkness shines a light of hope - Metamorfoz is a record holding a promise, if Tarkan can focus, of greater things to come.

Playing the Game

For the Turkish pop icon that kick-started a pop boom in Germany and Turkey in the 1990s, which spread across three continents, needs to start acting as though he knows he has a legacy to leave - one that if he preserves correctly will keep him forever young.

To do that, he has to listen to the young. He needs to get out into the street, and see what sounds and traditional dance crazes are being picked up. He needs to reinvent his showmanship, bring back the grand show and the dancers from the Karma era.

As in the Middle East, almost every region in Turkey has its own dance form - even for the most restrained, macho of Turkish men - which Turks dance with a passion equal to that seen in Latin countries. Tarkan had merged these boundaries by bringing male belly dance to a larger platform in 2001, why not pioneer a regional dance again?

The Trabzon Kolbastı Dance

In a global musical landscape where everything feels slightly second hand, where everything is a reference, an homage or a blatant rehash of what has gone before - where even the great iconic acts now sound like tribute bands to their earlier selves - it's the clatter of the home streets that could invigorate Tarkan's music.

He needs to mine Turkey's own earthy terrain, draw out the rock resonances, go deeper into tradition and turn it on its head. If Metamorfoz wasn't so much a retreat from this musical progress, as a reassertion of core values, then what could now follow but a rethinking of the entire pop game?

And with new songs oozing sensual pop prowess too powerful to remain in a single genre - as the best pop songs are - by adding to the spice of showmanship and sexy music with lyrics filled with love, Tarkan would take the game, set and match; not only to replicate the commercial success of the nineties, but reaffirm his legacy for another decade - and another generation of listeners.

Or at the very least it would make for an intriguing listen, while at its most Tarkan would show the industry that pop isn't a young man's game; it's his game. A game in which he sets the rules and is still young and strong enough to rule.

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

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