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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Pop Perceptions

Editorial by Mark Mayhey reporting from London, UK

Pop Perceptions BannerTarkan's Airport ReportTarkan's Elazig ReportTarkan in two 2009 TV reports

Pop music, like politics, is all about perception.

It's not a matter of what is true, but a matter of what is perceived to be true by the lifeblood of popular culture - the celebrity news hounds - and while there are those singers whose charisma is so powerful that it simply dwarfs any negative press, there are those that draw it like a magnet.

Price of Fame

Although US President Barack Obama proved that you can be born black in America and achieve the highest political position, the life of Michael Jackson offers a very different narrative: he is someone whose cultural legacy shaped his success, but did not provide a path to inner peace.

Michael JacksonJackson seemed crushed under a weight of identity, and while pop culture from vampires in Twilight to a boy wizard in Harry Potter has taken feelings of alienation and packaged them for wide consumption, Jackson was one of the first masters of our modern era to do that well.

As a child, his lips were full and his nose was wide and his face was brown. This only rates mentioning because as he became an adult it was no longer true, so untrue, in fact, that sometimes those who knew him as a child wondered if they imagined him as he once was.

However, drowned in the warped perceptions of others and his own, he could not seize control of his transformation and find his centre as a person, not just a creator. His plastic surgery bordered on pathology and racial caricature. His need for the spotlight brought him, arguably, into clashes with both the law and public opinion - specifically of the charges of his treatment of his own children, and those of others.

Michael JacksonWould he have felt freer to pursue his own alternative identity if the pop cult he had signed up to had not also wanted him to be what he could not seem to be - an adult black man? Fans from his generation will have fervently wished the boy they had known to become a man.

That wish seemed reasonable until with every subsequent album his relationship to his original appearance grew fainter and fainter, where finally he was no longer even an echo of himself. But it seemed that the further he fled from some perceived black masculinity, the more international crowds lionised him.

I've put forward the argument before that the reality of pop is people go on appearances. It's a reality that wields a double-edged sword, because the danger is that the public will also judge you on appearance. Squeezed between racism and perfectionism until his very soul compressed, Jackson had set up a situation with his reckless behaviour that we couldn't help but judge.

Michael JacksonWe sat back and watched a grotesque shadow of a Michael who never had a chance to grow up, who got lost in pop's own perception of him, slowly kill himself.

The simple truth is when Jackson passed away, for the world a celebrity died, not a person. To bullet hole the point with a cliché - the real Michael died a long time even before the music did.

And if we can believe what we see in the camera lens — that the transformation of Jackson into a pale white alien was anything other than unnatural — then we can believe anything.

Know Your Audience

Or maybe it's just a case of knowing your audience - like Gordon Sumner, who fronted the band Police under the nom de guerre Sting, which has served him ever since as a one word signifier of heart-winning diplomacy in pop politics.

It's hard to say what one thing about Sting gives him this perception. Aside from the arrogance of his good looks, the clear ambition of his song writing, his love of the rainforests, and of course the transformation of "Every Breath You Take" from a creepy stalker song into a ubiquitous wedding march, the one thing that possibly raises him above the rest is that he still knows his audience and gives them what they want. At some point in a Sting show, no matter how dire the situation in the world may be - he will almost certainly remove his shirt onstage. And the crowd will love it.

On the other hand, being Bono is not quite so easy, but the front-man for rock band U2 makes it all too easy for his critics - screaming about world hunger on one end while balancing the almost stomach-churning excessiveness of the band's concerts on the other, gives him a perception of insincerity that is hard to wash. In fact, it just doesn't wash.

And Tarkan, arguably the most popular singer to come out of the Turkish music industry, although continues to fill out concert events and his 2007 album is a two time award-winning record, still holds the perception in the Turkish press as one whose star shines less brighter than before.

The artist's live performances still prove he is pure music and fluid, liquid hipbones; still shimmering, shimmying, shaking, grooving, moving, but can his problem be that he, too - though hard to believe after nearly two decades in the industry - doesn't know his audience or that in pop perception is everything?

Frankly, with the artist's neglectful - bordering on the criminal - attitude towards his official presence on the Net, it seems to be proof positive currently that he feels he has no need to keep up a 2.0 connection with his fans outside his shows. For whatever the truth behind the matter, having Google mark his dormant official site as malicious - and being perceived as doing nothing about it - isn't good PR. Arguably, Tarkan will need to wake up to this before too long - for a frustrated fan isn't a happy one. And an unhappy fan - sooner or later - stops buying records.

A good example of a bad boy reformed by a greater understanding of the pop machine is Tarkan's British counterpart, singer Robbie Williams.

Perceived to be Popular

As the BBC reports, Robbie Williams is hoping to win back his crown as Britain's biggest pop star with a new album in November, after his 2006 Rudebox met with a tepid reception from fans and critics.

On William's official website, his new songs showcase a dramatic electro-pop sound underscored by lavish orchestral strings - not dissimilar to Tarkan's 2007 Metamorfoz - with the whole album produced by Trevor Horn, who also previously worked with Tarkan in 2004 for the official Olympic album Unity.

Rudebox went to number one when it was released in October 2006, but is his lowest-selling solo album to date. However, record label EMI said that, in that same year, he sold 1.6 million tickets in one day for his tour and went on to play to a total of 3.7 million people. Although what many will remember in those following months is his fleeing to Los Angeles to hide away as a virtually unknown recluse, grow a beard and search for UFOs.

Three years earlier when he had been perceived to be the hottest thing since sliced bread, his three nights at Knebworth in comparison to his Rudebox shows saw him play to only over 365,000 people.

Pop Perceptions

It's all about perception, and Williams is all too painfully aware if it.

Explaining his absence, he recently said: "I thought after the last album came out, things seem to be on the turn, perception wise.

"So I decided to try and stay out of the proverbial limelight for a while. And God knows I've found the old big head routine to be running a bit thin, so I don't blame anybody else feeling the same way.

"As an old manager used to say to me, 'you ... need to go away and cause a vacuum'. I've been vacuuming... If you find a way of not getting papped, they think you've died - which is exactly what my friend was asked outside my house in LA one day," he said.

This will be the British bad boy's last original album under his EMI contract, which will also have a tribute to pop king Jackson on the tracklist. He could sign another record deal or release future material on his own without a label, as Radiohead did in 2007, or do as Tarkan as been gradually doing since 1997 and build up the foundations for his own music label.

Seeing is Believing

Tarkan at the airport
Should Tarkan get out of the airport and
on the Net?
So, while it seems Williams has taken - or should take a leaf out of Tarkan's book - lately the Turkish singer could get some pointers from the rude boy of British pop, too.

Although I'm not an advocate of celebrities going off in a sulk "to do some vacuuming", it seems to have worked for Williams on assessing how he has been perceived in the press, but some in the Tarkan camp would argue that the Turkish press has a skewed outlook on Tarkan related events, trying to create controversy where none exists, or presenting a news story to suit its own agenda.

Aside from the generation of bad press the star has received, there is a point to be made here.

Taking the most recent example, when reports came out that a proposed joint project between singer Serdar Ortaç and Tarkan's music production company HITT was no longer going ahead, the "hot gossip" press presented the story as the project falling victim to the "rivalry" between the singers - when Tarkan was never really involved in the project at all.

While in another recent case at how the gutter press in Turkey could teach American supermarket tabloid National Enquirer a thing or too, a lot of commotion was made in the Turkish press about "arrogant comments" made by singer Nil Karaibrahimgil (who worked with Tarkan on an advertising campaign in the early 2000s) on a radio show about not knowing the name of a celebrated folk artist in Turkey.

What's the big deal some would say? A very big one according to Turkish media moguls. The domestic press picked this up and ran with it, even going so far as to knock at the said folk singer's door to ask him if he had heard of Karaibrahimgil, (to which he reportedly replied he did but knew Tarkan better). Media criticism of the girl escalated daily in the papers, although some commentators with common sense did come out in her defence, citing similarities with Tarkan's "I gotta pee" remark on national live TV.

Such was the mountain made out of the proverbial molehill, that Karaibrahimgil felt the necessity to publicly release a letter explaining that what she had actually said was she had heard of the singer, but hadn't listened to his songs and would now take the opportunity to do so. Entertainment portals ran the news as "a letter of apology".

Absurd it may be, but it's another important lesson about perception, and one that Karaibrahimgil took seriously enough to feel the need to set the record straight, rather than just privately dismiss the hullabaloo as unimportant, keep quiet on the issue and risk having her portrayed as someone dismissive of her country's musical traditions.

Using Visual Aids

In current times, one of the most useful ways for an artist to protect - or at least debunk - perceptions of their persona portrayed in the celebrity press is to keep a dynamic Internet presence, to which interested parties can have quick and immediate access.

Karaibrahimgil knows the importance of this; she puts so much effort into her web presence that she won the Turkish Golden Spider Award for web excellence in 2008. Her site was a tool that helped her quickly diffuse a situation in the press when the need arose, and in a culture where perception in the press is paramount, Tarkan could do far worse than follow her example.

For starters, Tarkan could make sure his official site was up and running, rather than leaving a vacuum for fans to fall in to as they attempt to decipher his comments, usually re-edited by a media whose focus is on jazzing things up.

More ideally, he could generate a place where those interested could get the other side of any news story that makes its way through the gossip grapevine. To some of us music commentators it seems more than a little miserly of Tarkan not to want to pay out for a top quality website, but then why should he? Ali Yildirim's hard work has been plugging his oversight for years - and for free.

It's the worst kept secret on the Net that Tarkan fans would be tangled up in a net of confusion if it weren't for Yildirim's Tarkan Deluxe and his model of high quality reporting. Spreading the word, members of the Tarkan community emulate this in their own forums and sites and uncredited or not, it's unarguable that had Yildirim's projects never existed, fans' perceptions of Tarkan would be a lot more confused today.

Ali Yildirim clears up confusion for fans about Tarkan's popular 2001 "Hüp" with subtitles and its background story in English (2005 © Tarkan Deluxe)

Putting aside the classic Yildirim translations of Tarkan's reports and lyrics that have been taken and used and distributed all across the Internet from fans AIMs to YouTube - for half a decade the Tarkan Deluxe projects have been educating international fans on the nature of the Turkish press and the perception of the artist through the eyes of his home nation.

We can deal with Tarkan's official site going inactive - after all what's the loss really? - but if Tarkan Deluxe removed all its pages from activity today, the gap of accessible information on Tarkan open to the public for free would be unimaginable. Whether it's officially recognised or not, it's true.

And in regards to Tarkan's portrayal in the media, when we check through Tarkan Deluxe's extensive archive of Tarkan news videos, what do we see? And is what we see, always what we get?

Debunking Magazine Trickery

Trawling through the footage, we do see the press at work injecting air bubbles of scandal to beef up stories that lack muscle, but we also see Tarkan helping to push "negative" perceptions about himself, too.

Amongst episodes of even reputable news sites like NTV editing its own film footage about a minister's comments - to make it look like an uncompromising Tarkan had refused an invitation to meet him (when you don't really know who the minister means) - and the usual conflicting reports about how many people were at any specific Tarkan show, are two Tarkan reports of particular interest.

In comparing the report he gave to magazine reporters before a June concert this year and one he gave at the airport on returning from a break in Egypt the following month, we see Tarkan comparing himself to Michael Jackson, taking about wanting to experience marginal relationships, and acting real friendly with a young male reporter.

For some of us who reads little into such things, it doesn't place Tarkan in a negative light. Some will not have even realised the connotations as their minds just don't work that way. Yet, it's fodder for those in the press wanting to portray the singer as a megalomaniac and a repressed homosexual.

It was in 2006 that Tarkan had been lambasted for certain comments to a Bulgarian magazine about homosexuality being the result of a confused adolescent mind, with even photographers who have pursued the artist with their cameras for years - like Sedat Mehder - leaving comments to express their "disappointment" in Tarkan in web articles published by Turkish gay rights movement KAOS (here's the screencap in case Mehder removes his own 2007 comment in the light of any perception shifts in the media).

UPDATE: Tarkan attends wedding of photographer friend (2014) >>

Arguably, such recent TV footage is akin to giving a box of matches and kerosene to an industry willing to start a news fire with just hot air and imagination, and Tarkan shouldn't be surprised at the way he is treated in the media. To use Tarkan's often used imagery - if he throws out such juicy bones, the wolves will always be at the door.

However, what can make for a bad impression from a professional point of view is footage in the two TV reports of the artist talking about his music projects.

Those interested can go watch the reports (you can click on the top picture banner of this article) and then take their pick - from the constant comments about summer releases that never materialise to the way he speaks about his readiness to collaborate with singers that fawn over him to massage some hyper-sensitive ego: is this the perception that Tarkan the singer wants to give us of Tarkan the man?

Take as an example when Tarkan talks about the song "Ben Sen Olamam", which he gave to new music act Emir to release. In the June TV report Tarkan mentions how Emir literally begged him for a song, and out of the great goodness of his heart he penned the track for him. Yet, couple that with Emir's version of events (including a recent report), and we read a different story - with Tarkan presenting the song for him to sing because he was bowled over by him (not so surprising, I would be, too, if he called me his idol I suppose).

Add to that another version of events in the press where, ex-backing singer for Tarkan, Cenk Yüksel claims that Tarkan presented him with the same song but he refused it, then we start to perceive a bigger picture that even an active official site can't relay.

Ultimately to end a long post, it's highly suggestive; with the empty, dead space that is allowing his critics and his sound bytes in the gutter press to fill in his blanks, there is no doubt without Tarkan Deluxe we'd all be shooting a little less straight.

And that's not a matter of perception - pop or otherwise. That's a fact.

The views in this article are those of the author alone.
Read more Mark Mayhey articles on Tarkan >>

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