So I have a confession: I love world music. I know what you're thinking, but not that kind of world music. Not the I-wear-a-dashiki-and-light-incense-in-my-apartment-designed-to-look-like-a-Mongolian-yurt kind. I'm talking pop music that is (relatively) current, preferably with a beat. I love it in part because you can really gauge a country's pop culture by it's contemporary music. Often it's a mix of traditional music fused with random weird elements of Western/American pop that, when done right, I find highly enjoyable. Plus, when you listen to music in another language you don't have to worry about emabarrasingly dumb lyrics.
Over the past year I've been on a major Turkish pop kick. Something about the mix of electropop, traditional instrumentation/melodies, and cheesy mid-nineties house music comes together for a really pleasurable musical experience. It's also incredibly varied from artist to artist, which makes each new discovery really exciting. So, I thought I'd give a rundown of what I'm listening to, because everyone is missing out! Before I start though, a warning: my music tastes skew heavily female, so while I'm sure there's plenty of good male Turkish artists out there, I'm mainly focusing on the ladies, with a couple exceptions. Also, I make no assertions on the right-now popularity of any of these artists in Turkey, since I found most of them mainly via YouTube, so they could very well be one-hit wonders or has-beens. Anyway!
Comparable Western artist: Kylie Minogue
Hande Yener is the reason I got into Turkish pop, so it seems fitting to start with her. I came across her name while reading the "gay icons" page on Wikipedia (shut up). The article mentioned her support of the Turkish gay community, and her inherent popularity there due to her dance-oriented beats. She's often called the Madonna or Kylie of Turkey due in part to this, but also due to her penchant for reinvention. She started her career doing more traditional Turkish pop music (Middle-Eastern vocals to a house-heavy beat). Despite the popularity of her music, she changed her style entirely for a more European electropop sound. While her older stuff is decent, I think the new sound suits her better. While her most recent album is a bit of a return to her old sound, her prior albums "Nasil Delirdim?" "Hipnoz" and "Hayrola?" are, in my opinion, her best. Below is the video for my favorite of her songs, "Kibir," off of 2007's "Nasil Delirdim?" (Side note: how great are the topless models beating her with clubs in the video up top? Domestic abuse has never looked so chic!)
Sound: Western-style pop with a heavy dose of traditional Turkish instrumentation.
Western Counterpart: Britney? Or maybe pre-"Rated R" Rihanna?
I came accross Atiye during one of my late-night YouTube binges, where I search for one video, and then go down the rabbit hole clicking on one video after the next until it's 2 AM and I've written down a page of weird Turkish names. Atiye's sound is kind of unique among Turkish pop music in that she uses a more Western vocal style over seamlessly fused pop, hip-hop, and Turkish beats. She also differs from a lot of female singers in that she sings in the upper registers rather than more lower-register sound characteristic of a lot of her contemporaries. "Muamma," above, is one of my favorite songs of hers. Below is the video of the also-good English-language "Don't Think (Sanma)."
Sound: Jersey Shore house music by way of Istanbul, with a trip through the cheese factory.
Western Contemporary: I don't even know. Chick is weird.
Demet Akalin is what would happen if a benevolent witch turned a Barbie doll into a living person and then sent her to Turkey's version of the Jersey Shore to learn about sex and house music. Everything about this woman is over the top: the pounding club beats of all her songs, her super-deep voice that belies her frame, her "oversexed little girl in an adult body" image, her ridiculous hair. Because of all this, she's also an artist that really needs to be seen in video to fully appreciate. I would be really embarrassed listening to American music like this, but for some reason, when Demet does it, it works. Up top is "Tecrübe," her most recent single, which is hilarious (wait till the part where she is topless and clutching an armful of Ken dolls). But, since she's gone brunette I've included her video for "Bebek" off of her previous album below to show her in her full blonde, bikinied glory. (The fake braids, the Kanye glasses!)
Western Counterpart: A fantasy boy version of Kylie? We’ll call him Boylie.
Kemal Doğulu started out as Hande Yener's "creative director" and hair stylist (both of which he still is). He is also the brother of her fiancé, and he's directed a couple of her music videos, including the most recent one for “Sopa/ Yasak Aşk” that I posted earlier. Ms. Yener must be satisfied with his work, because she helped him get a record deal and guests on his debut single, “Bir Yerde” (above). While the whole popstar's hairdresser getting an album thing might not sound like a great idea (can you imagine if Jessica Simpson did the same for Ken Paves? The horror!), in this case it actually turned out really well. While I don't gather he's very popular in Turkey because he's only had a handful of singles in the last few years, I endorse him. He has an electro sound similar to Hande's, and his voice is decent, although heavily autotuned. Plus, I think he's dreamy, and is probably gay. Evidence for the both assertions below, in his video for "Uzayda Aşk Var."
Sound: Straight-up pop
Western Counterpart: Pre-meltdown Britney.
Hadise is Turkey’s closest thing to a Britney, Christina, or Katy Perry: Vapid, oversexed, bubbly, and of dubious vocal talent. Like Atiye Deniz, she mixes more Western-style musical stylings with traditional Turkish beats, like in her 2009 single “Evlenmeliyiz,” which I’ve posted above (I like the one-take concept). Hadise was also Turkey’s selction for the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest, with her song “Düm Tek Tek.” She wound up making it to 9th place, which is nothing to sneeze at for Eurovision. The vid of her performance is below. It’s very cheesy, and very Eurovision, but I challenge you to not think it’s catchy. Give in to the cheese!
Sound: Classic Turkpop
Western Counterpart: ???
Gülşen is my most recent discovery, and I’ll admit my main exposure to her is her most recent album, “Önsöz.” So far though I like what I’ve heard. She has that perfect mix of Arabesque beats with more contemporary pop that, when it comes together, is absolutely great. I love the “şak şak” part in the chorus of “Bi An Gel” (above). I have no idea what it means, but the pouty sexbabyvoice gets me each time. Another reason I love her is that her video for “Sarışınım,” off 2004’s “Of…Of…” was judged "obscene" by the Turkish government, and the stations that showed it received hefty fines. It’s kind of like Turkey’s Janet Superbowl nip slip moment. I posted it below because although I’m not crazy about the song, the video is hilarious. Naked+heels+low budget visuals= Gold.
So there you have it! Some of the things that have been going into my ears as of late. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes Turkish pop can get a little schmaltzy with the ballads, rely a bit too much on Spanish guitar, and sometimes be vocally unpalateable. But when it’s good, it’s good. There’s a lot of others like Tarkan or Sezen Aksu that for lack of time I haven’t included. But, they’re both superstars in the genre and are easy enough to learn more about on your own. And you should! I also recommend seeing the excellent 2005 documentary Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul about the contemporary Turkish music scene for an introduction. It's narrated by Alexander Hacke from Einsturzende Neubaten, which adds to the weirdness factor. Anyway, happy listening!