Home > News > A Turkish pop video went viral. Is it just a catchy song — or an anthem for the opposition?
174 views 9 min 0 Comment

A Turkish pop video went viral. Is it just a catchy song — or an anthem for the opposition?

The ambiguity of music and lyrics can cleverly communicate dissent, our research finds

- February 23, 2022

Amid an economic crisis, police crackdowns on protests, a spate of youth suicides and high-stakes elections scheduled for 2023, Turkey’s opposition got a boost. Unexpectedly, it came from a pop song.

Megastar Tarkan — dubbed “Elvis circa 1957” by a Washington Post reviewer and known worldwide for a bubble-gummy song with “kiss-kiss” sounds — returned from a long hiatus to release an instantly viral music video, “Geççek.”

With a title that translates as “It’ll Pass,” and lyrics that offer solidarity and promise change, the YouTube video has garnered more than 21 million views.

Opposition figures, including party leaders, quickly embraced the song, infusing the lyrics with their own political messaging. A member of parliament deemed the video “a wonderful message for youth who have lost hope.” Hundreds of tweets dubbed Tarkan’s song this year’s opposition anthem.

Some understandably believe the enthusiasm is unwarranted. Two critique-infused rap videos stirred opposition hopes in 2019, but their grievances remain unaddressed. In 2018, a viral music video galvanized voters nationwide to say “enough” to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, only to see the opposition’s candidate suffer a demoralizing loss. This time around, skeptics derided “pointless celebrity optimism” about prospects for a “post-Erdoğan era.”

While online sharing of cultural content doesn’t directly produce large-scale political change, this engagement subtly helps foster the kinds of connectivity that can contribute to it.

Turkey’s president insists on low interest rates. That could cost him politically, this research shows.

Symbols make resistance possible

It’s easy to dismiss viral videos solely as cultural fads. However, the 1988 Estonian Song Festival and the “singing poets” under Greece’s military dictatorship demonstrate music’s role in fomenting political change. Scholarship on “small” contention provides insight into how transformational protest becomes possible even in repressive regimes. Lisel Hintz’s research shows that sharing subversive pop culture content signals political preferences, revives hope, and builds social networks that can serve as mobilization channels. This laying of groundwork can boost opposition turnout in future contests.

Notably, there is nothing explicitly political about Tarkan’s latest release. The video doesn’t feature any political grievances or politicians. Instead, “Geççek” uses pandemic-themed imagery of commuters huffing in masks and bored students staring at laptops.

Music’s lyrical symbolism is inherently suited to provide cover for political criticism. As our work on symbolic subversion shows, metaphors and wordplay can cleverly communicate dissent couched in ambiguity. It’s unclear, for example, whether the “dad” figure Tarkan orders to “get off our backs” refers to Turkey’s notoriously paternalistic president. Is the suffering Tarkan promises will end a reference to the public health crisis or Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian rule? Similarly, the line “My old joy is gone, life has no flavor for me anymore” could describe lockdown-related woes. Or it could refer to the 70 percent of youth who see no future for themselves in Turkey.

Images can also signal subversion through ambiguity. The video’s inclusion of a character resembling Olympic volleyball star and online abuse target Ebrar Karakurt could signal solidarity with Turkey’s LGBTQI+ community — or is it just a casting decision to feature a pink-haired actress?

Here’s how pop culture woke Turkey’s disillusioned opposition

Music’s useful ambiguity comes with risk

Whatever the intent, “Geççek” is not Tarkan’s first brush with politics. Last year, he tweeted his support for villagers Erdoğan dubbed “communists” for protesting a pro-government construction project. The popstar also denounced Turkey’s alarming rate of femicides. Recently, Tarkan released a statement on the suicide of a 20-year-old medical student whose family forced him to live in a religious brotherhood-run dorm.

Importantly, all of Tarkan’s statements are painstakingly crafted. He expresses support for environmentalism, gender equality and other issues but avoids mentioning specific political figures.

Expressing opposition in productively ambiguous ways has become common in Turkey. Rock musician Gaye Su Akyol’s video for International Women’s Day in 2019 explored themes of social polarization and gender equality but set the action in a space-traveling bus. Popstar Gülşen’s Instagram response to conservatives’ outrage at her risque costumes criticized political Islam and patriarchal norms, without ever using the terms. Rapper Şanışer’s 2019 collaboration “Susamam” (“I Can’t Stay Silent) referenced no specific political figures.

Yet ambiguity doesn’t guarantee invulnerability. Journalist Sedef Kabaş faces up to 12 years in prison for reciting a proverb about an ox that enters a palace. Kabaş is one of more than 35,000 individuals prosecuted on charges of “insulting the president” since Erdoğan assumed that role in 2014.

Tarkan, too, is becoming a target. A journalist from a pro-government newspaper accused Tarkan of “declaring war on AKP rule.” Similarly, though Tarkan does not reference any political figure, one MP suggested that the artist is part of an opposition plot.

Don’t miss any of TMC’s smart analysis! Sign up for our newsletter.

How Turkey polices popular culture

The Turkish government has taken steps to forestall the viral power of culturally themed dissent. Erdoğan termed social media a “menace,” and Web content is often blocked. A 2020 social media law required companies like Twitter and streaming platforms like Spotify, YouTube and Netflix to apply for local licenses. This ensures their content within Turkey comes under the purview of the country’s media regulatory authority.

A Jan. 28 presidential circular instructed Turkish institutions to be on guard against “harmful content” and support “family values.” This official regulation of content, augmented through informal censorship by media companies with business ties to the government, provides wide scope for policing artists and content deemed inappropriate.

Recently, legendary singer Sezen Aksu came under fire for a song allegedly insulting religious values. A government official warned TV and radio channels they would be fined for playing this and other “offensive” songs.

What does this all foreshadow?

In time, this particular cycle of opposition invigoration and government outrage will most likely fade. However, continued sparring over music and other forms of art demonstrates the enduring political significance of cultural content. The Turkish government jails artists at one of the world’s highest rates because it recognizes the power of cultural hegemony — and, specifically, its inability to achieve it.

Further, what appear to be fruitless clashes can be productive for the opposition. They bolster solidarity, sustain hope and momentum, and expand social networks. These factors have the potential to be game-changing when a political opening — national elections, for example — occurs.

Professors: Check out TMC’s expanding list of classroom topic guides.

Lisel Hintz (@LiselHintz) is an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Kenan Behzat Sharpe (@kenan_sharpe) has a PhD in literature from the University of California at Santa Cruz. He currently lives in Istanbul.