Every Way That She Can.
On the subject of music, I think it’s wonderful that Turkish superstar Sertab Erener took grand prize in Eurovision this year. Sertab has been a closet favorite of mine for years now. She has a daring, throaty voice that morphs easily from brilliant operatic glissades to rich laments, sometimes in the space of a single song. On her self-titled 2000 album, also called Bu Yaz, she belts out the ballad “Ask” (pronounced Ashek) with overtones so blue they make your bone marrow ache. Then, scarcely a song later, on “Zor Kadin,” she’s yodelling in that way only Arabic women can do, matching pitch for pitch the traditional instruments backing her. Her arrangements are surprising and diverse. Sometimes very Oriental with high flutes, low strings, augmented fourths, and percussive effects that music West of the Caucus mountains can only covet. Sometimes world-pop inflected, with a techno beat or a vintage-radio-sounding sample. Sometimes spare to showcase her extraordinary vocals, which soar and dip and loop and lilt, filled with longing and carnality and something indefinable that sparkles.
But Sertab won Eurovision with a song in English, “Here I Am.” The song contains many of the above elements, but stripped down to fit into a 3-minute-47-second Top-40 song with a typically tinny dance beat. It’s too much to say the song is disappointing; it’s a cool song. A fine song. But it’s not her best. But it’s what she’ll be known for. It’s what will open the doors of the exclusive international music world to her, so she’ll be able to step forth and make mainstream records, much like Abba, Céline Dion, Yulduz Uzmanova, and Shakira (at least two of whom are her Eurovision ancestors) when they “went English.”
So, the world will discover another “new” talent from an unexpected source. Sertab will have a platinum CD on the wall in some bar on Ibiza or Mallorca, and new fans from London, Boston or (what the hell) Portland will rock out along with the chorus as they drive through the rush hours of the west : “Here I aaaaaaaam, waiting for your love, here I aaaaaaam.” Confusingly, “here” isn’t going to mean the same thing for Sertab anymore, once she steps into English-language skin. And part of what has made her so exceptional in the past is her insistent Turkish-language poetry : she has refused to follow in the footsteps of, say Tarkan (by the way, could he BE any hotter?? … just look at those eyes! Merhaba indeed, monsieur.) and overlay English-language choruses into her hit singles in Turkey to get more airplay abroad.
In the liner notes for Bu Yaz, superimposed over an intentionally overprocessed photo – so her heavy hair looks blonde, her sable eyes look pale, and her skin looks more peach- than olive-toned – just under the song “Uzaklara,” which she wails as if the introit will save her life, like a singing Scheherezade, appears the sentence (in English) “just as far as the distance my voice may travel.” These words resonate with poetic poignancy, but I wish I’d had to learn Turkish in order to understand them. The image and text, four years old, speak of a process of westernization already well underway. And though I am grateful for that process – without which I doubtless would never have heard Sertab in the first place – I wonder if, writing that sentence down and choosing its odd formal diction, or in titling her new (English-language) album, she ever felt the irony?