Tarkan's sensually suggestive East-meets-West pop and boy-toy looks have made him Turkey's top-selling singer. Now, his catchy single "Simarik"--with the sound of two quick, wet kisses as its hook--has found the 27-year-old an unexpected new audience.
Since June, Latin pop fans across the United States have been singing along as best they can to Tarkan's Turkish-language dance hit, known affectionately as "the kiss song," and the first world-music song to break big in the U.S. Latin market in a language other than Spanish, sort of Latin pop's own little exotic "Macarena."
Theories abound about the appeal of this most microtonally Turkish hit among Spanish-language pop fans, but one rings truest: A kiss sounds like a kiss in all the world's 6,700 spoken languages.
Whatever the cause, the result is historic. Tarkan is the first artist to land near the top of Billboard's world music chart because of sales generated in the U.S. Latin pop market, according to Billboard's director of charts, Geoff Mayfield.
This shows the increasing commercial muscle of the Spanish-language music market in the United States and may ultimately inspire mainstream pop decision-makers to rethink their conservative attitudes about foreign-language pop potential in the U.S.
"Simarik" ("Spoiled") is now one of the top-played songs on Latin pop radio stations in numerous cities, including Los Angeles, New York, San Juan and San Diego. In many of these markets, Spanish programming rates higher than English. And never before has a non-Spanish-language song so dominated Spanish radio in the U.S.
Tarkan and his label express surprise at his popularity among Latin pop fans here, and they, like many others, offer some possible explanations.
Some observers point to similarities between Turkish scales and Spanish Gypsy scales. Some say Spanish-speaking pop fans are used to listening to songs in languages they don't understand--particularly English pop and rock--and are therefore more open to new sounds. But most say a kiss is a kiss and a hit is a hit.
According to Broadcast Data Systems, a company that monitors how often songs are played on radio stations, "Simarik" is being spun an average of 55 times a week on San Juan, Puerto Rico's WKAQ-FM, making it the station's eighth-most-played song. It's being played 26 times a week on KLYY-FM in Los Angeles, making it the 16th-most-played song there.
The song is similarly popular in most major Latin pop markets, with the conspicuous exception of Miami, a traditionally conservative Latin radio market.
So far in the U.S., Tarkan's self-titled album has shipped 50,000 copies and is selling briskly enough to put it at No. 4 on Billboard's world music chart, just below Cuban singer Omara Portuondo, at about 4,000 copies per week. The magazine's Mayfield says that for a record to reach Billboard's Hot 100 chart, it must sell about 6,000 copies a week, a goal Tarkan's label hopes to reach.
The album, from which Tarkan's hit single comes, is distributed in the U.S. by Universal Music Latino.
According to the label's general manager, David Alvarado, Tarkan's success in the U.S. Latin pop market was an offshoot of the album's unexpected success in Mexico. Tarkan's album was released there last year and has shipped more than 300,000 copies so far, Alvarado says.
"It was a phenomenon in Mexico," says Alvarado. "And now it's looking like Tarkan is our biggest story of the year in the U.S., which is just incredible considering the song is in Turkish."
Speaking to MTV Mexico in March, Tarkan said he was surprised by the success of his work in Mexico.
"I never really thought that one day a Turkish song would be kind of known, I mean successful in [Latin American] countries, Mexico specially," he said. "So I'm kind of surprised but in a happy way, and I'm trying to enjoy it."
Universal Mexico released the Tarkan album in Mexico after Universal France released it in France and Germany with impressive results. The album shipped 1 million copies in France and almost that many in Germany. Tarkan also reached No. 1 in Denmark and is the first Turkish artist to sell so well in other parts of Europe.
Tarkan is signed to an independent Turkish label, Istanbul Plak, owned by his producer, Mehmet Sogutoglu. He has recorded three albums for the label, with the most recent one shipping 3 million copies in Turkey, according to the label.
Though he chooses to sing in Turkish, Tarkan was actually born in Germany and now lives in New York. His Turkish parents moved to Germany for factory jobs to support their six children.
When Tarkan was 14, his family returned to Turkey, where he studied music. By 16, Tarkan was performing in clubs. By 18, he had a recording contract.
By 20, Tarkan was so famous in Turkey that he was hounded by paparazzi. That, coupled with his family's increasing discomfort with Turkey's growing social conservatism, led Tarkan to move to New York when he was 22, in 1994.
His relationship with Turkey has been fruitful and turbulent. The Turkish government threatened to revoke Tarkan's citizenship in 1998 because he had not shown up for mandatory 18-month military service. For a year, Tarkan could not return to Turkey because he would have been arrested. In 1999, the law changed, and he was able to pay a $16,000 fee and serve one month in the military in order to retain his citizenship.
Among Tarkan's greatest supporters in the U.S. is Turkish American record mogul Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records.
Ertegun was so impressed with Tarkan that he signed him to Atlantic Records two years ago, for his English releases. "But he's been so busy with his success in Turkish he hasn't had time to record in English yet," Ertegun said from New York Friday. "He has so many live engagements, we don't want to interfere just yet."
"He's just a great artist and performer," Ertegun said. "His success comes because his talent transcends all ethnic barriers. . . . I think he'll be a huge star [in the U.S.] and we look forward to recording him in English."
Tarkan appears to share Ertegun's ideas about the English pop market. The current album, though popularized on Spanish-language radio, features printed English translations of the songs in the CD booklet. It does not have Spanish translations.
Tarkan plans to release an all-English album in the next couple of years. Alvarado says he also plans to record a duet single in Spanish with a "famous Latin singer; we can't say who just yet." He is now in France, recording his next Turkish release.
Tarkan's success in the U.S. Latin pop market has not slipped past Universal's non-Latin labels, which are vying to package the singer for sale in the non-Latin U.S. dance music market, where non-English-language songs, such as Elvis Crespo's "Suavemente," have done very well.
Universal's non-Latin U.S. imprints initially passed on the Tarkan project, but shifted gears once the album began selling among Latin pop fans here, according to Alvarado. That Universal's non-Latin subsidiaries are now interested in Tarkan is proof of the increasing influence of the domestic Latin pop market over the mainstream market.