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Friday, August 28, 2009

Musical Wonderlands?

Editorial by Mark Mayhey reporting from London, UK

Tarkan Eurovision Rumours

Now that the storm of false rumours over enduring popster Tarkan singing for Turkey in Oslo at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2010 has died down, it's time to pick up the pieces and review the situation.

Tarkan Deluxe came under a landslide of emails for my berating the rumours, and some said I was biased for not being a fan of what has become a politically motivated music event that does more to raise racial sensibilities than reaching different people through song. And with the latest member countries like Azerbaijan and Armenia (two "enemy" nations) bringing their enmity to the event, it doesn't look like it's going to get any better.

But it's more than just the petty regional squabbles that pulls the event down; it isn't famed for generating quality music or for generally making huge global stars out of its winners, either.

Small Exceptions

Nevertheless, as with anything, there are always exceptions. Chart-topper Celine Dion (someone I incidentally find just as irritating) kick-started her career with a Eurovision win in 1988 when she competed for Switzerland with a song by Turkish composer Atilla Şereftuğ, but stars from the Eurovision making it big are the very small exception to the rule that most do more damage than good to their careers.

Billboard TurkiyeSertab Erener who won for Turkey in 2003 - and of whose win Şereftuğ said in a news report was thanks in large part to Tarkan spoon-feeding the same sounds to Europe in the preceding years - has seen a national dip in her career. Over half a decade in the musical wilderness, Erener has only recently rejuvenated her mainstream mojo with a chart-topping single this summer.

Yet contrarily, even though Turkey's female superstar Ajda Pekkan - recently seen canoodling with Tarkan on stage in Istanbul for some press space - only managed to get a few points when she represented Turkey in the Netherlands for the Eurovision in 1980, her career simply suffered a three year blip. In a career that spans 40 years in music, arguably that's nothing.

A distraught Pekkan had run off to America to make a successful comeback in 1983, but Eurovision-winner Erener is no where as closely held in the high estimation that Pekkan is in Turkey - or even as she herself had previously been - with it taking six years for Erener to grab back mainstream airplay once more.

Winning the contest didn't win her a wider audience - if anything it narrowed it.

A National Campaign for Tarkan

Pekkan had accepted the request to go to Den Haag after being pressured by a campaign similar to that being run yearly since 2003 for Tarkan to go - and it reached unprecedented heights this year with rumours being circulated by reputable European news channels, too.

It started discussions in Turkey as to what it would mean for Tarkan if he did in fact go - some expressed the view that the show was all about getting your name heard and less about the music, while some reports used it as an opportunity to make ludicrous claims about Tarkan's origins. There were those that stuck to the music, however, with some correspondents believing it was in Tarkan's best interests not to go (stating he has nothing to prove), while others thought that he should (citing his worldwide fans and famed live performances as winning factors).

Tarkan in Bucharest, 2006

But why would Tarkan want to go? I can't imagine Robbie Williams or George Michael ever going to the Eurovision to represent the UK.

If Tarkan did go, it would not only be disastrous for him, it would signal that the contest had finally become a competition of personalities, as well as politics, and nothing about the music.

And if the embarrassment of his 2006 Come Closer record didn't have him retreating from the world to some Neverland ranch of his own, an embarrassing result at a silly contest could have him go in hiding for a long time. And as the Turkish gutter press have a malicious streak in them that you only find in their American counterparts, they'd probably push him in, and throw away the key.

Blocking Out the World

Tarkan has been saying no to the Eurovision Song Contest for six years
As a brief aside, have you ever wondered why some of the biggest iconic music stars of the past sixty or so years have some type of "land" they call their own to block out the world?

Elvis Presley had Graceland; Michael Jackson had Neverland. Each was said to be kitted out according to the star's idiosyncrasies. Presley's mansion was said to resemble a turn-of-the-century bordello, while Jackson's fabled ranch always sounded like the Land of Play out of Pinocchio. Both were ways to block out a world they could mesmerise but not control, and create one of their own.

As with its icons, music from the Western world is a little like a "land" all of its own, too - to enter its territory you have to follow its rules. It doesn't accept diversity, or diversions from its norms, very easily.

That doesn't mean it's completely tuned out to music from other parts of the world; I myself am an avid listener to Turkish pop music online (a secret addiction picked up from my time in Istanbul), a huge fan of Rizeli Sadık's kemençe technique (he's like the Jimi Hendrix of the instrument) and a follower of Cuban jazz ever since I can remember.

I'm also aware - if a little painfully - of the impact of europop in Britain, especially in 1989, in the annals of our own pop music history. Now and again, incursions are made.

However, if the music on your iPod causes others to make spot judgements about your character, then taking a look at mine will show I'm no fan of what I call Eurotrash, or the Eurovision Song Contest, either. And that is wacky land all of its own, too.

Fifty Years of Pop Slop

But I'm not here to put down the much-maligned, much-loved annual singing extravaganza, because undeniably with more than 50 years under its belt, the Eurovision Song Contest has certainly come a long way - though whether it's the right way is open to argument.

I'm just here to take out my earplugs and answer some of the points raised in the flurry of emails that flew into Tarkan Deluxe's inbox. So, what is my beef with the contest? Do I have on British musical blinkers when it comes to any song not in the radar of Western music as some suggested in less polite terms?

I'd argue the exact opposite; in my defence the articles I write for Tarkan Deluxe show I have as much an eclectic taste as the next world music aficionado. And that is my main bone of contention with the contest - its failure to be a platform where musicians of different regions can promote their own forms of music.

Instead it's become a land all its own, with its own rules as to what a winning song might be, and the formula has increasingly been one of wannabe-globally-famous pop artists dishing out pop slop sung in terrible English and accompanied by a glitzy show, enhancing a tackiness that doesn't suit my own particular tastes in music; for me it's agony on the ears and I avoid it as much as I can.

And I'm not surprised if that's something Tarkan wants to do, as well.

A Promotion of Identity and Culture

Headlines over rumours about Tarkan entering the Eurovision Song Contest
Rumours of Tarkan coming to Oslo made headlines in Europe
In my opinion the Eurovision Song Contest should be for the promotion of authentic sounds from each country in their own language, with musicians playing on a level playing field (not in a race for each country to outdo the other with the most popular pop artist of the day they can muster).

I, as a native English speaker, think its ridiculous that most winning entries have been ones masked in a shallow improvisation of Western pop songs. What have the winning entries in recent years said about the countries they represented apart from the fact that they listen to Western music? Where is the celebration of their own instruments and own music by well-trained musicians dedicated to music, and not to melodrama?

Going back to 1997 - more innocent times for the contest before it became the gaudy tack-shack it is today - Turkey gave the song contest probably one of the best songs ever to have come out of the event, and a perfect example of what the Eurovision Song Contest at its best can generate.

Turkish public broadcaster, the TRT, had pulled an unknown female music teacher from out of its own ranks to head off to the competition, with a group of musicians and authentic regional instruments. They played live, they sang live, and the singer's voice is an amazing treat to the ears.

Although she sang in Turkish, the song managed to translate well enough to win hearts and minds that put aside political machinations for one night to garner Turkey it's highest position in the event at that time - third place.

Watch her performance at the end of this post; listen to her voice (she actually sings in key - something even Erener couldn't quite manage in 2003 though she has an exceptional voice). Notice the relaxed performance, and how the hitherto unknown music teacher commands attention due to her talents, and not stage trickery. Out from the Eurovision archives this song might be, but it's a welcome addition to my iPod any time of the day. And when you think that this was in the same year that Tarkan's "Şımarık" (Ölürüm Sana, 1997) was riding high in the Turkish airwaves, it's as far away from that as is possible - which is as it should be.

Turkey was presenting a slice of its traditional landscape, not sending out an act representative of the latest pop performance in its national charts. For that is about musical consumerism, and surely the Eurovision Song Contest should ideally be about musical culture?

And so, I'll let Turkey's 1997 entrant have the last word in response to all those emails received and on all that is wrong with the Eurovision today.

After all, she says it far better than I ever can.

Şebnem Paker and Grup Etnik sing "Dinle" (Listen) (1997 © ESC)

The views in this article are those of the author alone.
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