Navigating heartbreak with Aleyna Tilki and Melike Şahin

What connects the folk song, dance hit, and even indie singer-songwriter ballad is emotion, not genre. Despite the difference in sound, what new music recently released in Turkey by pop diva Aleyna Tilki and indie favorite Melike Şahin show is that music is fundamentally about managing suffering, particularly when it comes to matters of the heart.

It’s easy to draw a firm line separating folk music from pop, or indie originality from mainstream clichés. In fact, these distinctions are based partly on false terminology. A folk song by a Turkish aşık (or troubadour) is actually the first kind of popular music. In contrast, a highly produced dance hit is not part of popular culture (of the populus, or people) but mass culture. Like an assembly line product, it is mass-produced for anonymous mass consumption. 
 
But even this distinction gets us into trouble. What connects the folk song, dance hit, and even indie singer-songwriter ballad is emotion, not genre. Despite the difference in sound, what new music released last Friday by pop diva Aleyna Tilki and indie favorite Melike Şahin show is that music is fundamentally about managing suffering, particularly when it comes to matters of the heart. Music is what the critic Michael Robbins, in his book of that name, calls “equipment for living.” It accompanies us throughout our lives. Whether high-brow or low, the themes are fundamentally the same: heartbreak, desire, separation, and—every now and then—pleasure and joy.
 
Since 2016 with her first single “Cevapsız Çınlama,” now 20-year-old Aleyna Tilki has been conquering both hearts and the charts in Turkey. After a handful of massive hits plus a starring role in TV show, she has turned to English-language songs. Seeing her massive star-power (1.5 billion YouTube views, 130 million Spotify streams for only 6 singles), her labels Doğan Music and Warner Music have decided to invest in Tilki as a cross-over artist for the international and English-language-speaking market. On Feb. 26, we finally saw the first result of this massive investment campaign: the song “Retrograde.” 
 
Tilki has a massive team behind her. “Retrograde” was written by megastar Dua Lipa (born in London to Albanian parents from Kosovo) and her collaborators. Lipa’s vocal coach also helped Tilki with her vocals (and, presumably, her English pronunciation—which comes across rather flawless in the song). The song sounds like, and is in fact, a Dua Lipa B-side. The lyrics are spoken from the perspective of a woman seeing her lover slowly slip away: “Every night I prayed for clarity / All while you were lying right there next to me / You barely even noticed I was losing sleep / You barely even noticed you were losing me.” The song grows increasingly frustrated as the woman notices this indifference. In a surprisingly colloquial turn, Tilki sings: “Don’t say shit to me/ Don’t say a word to me / Don’t ask me to change / Don’t want your heart to break.” 
 
“Retrograde” then moves to its major conceit, the idea of going backward: “Ain’t don’t retrograde / Ain’t doin’ retrograde / Ain’t goin’ backwards now…” In the music video for the song, this theme of retrograde was taken overly literally, with Tilki pole dancing in a space station. The ham-fisted (and astronomically questionable) metaphor here is that though planets sometimes appear to move back towards other the primary celestial body in its system, this spurned lover will not get pulled back into a relationship that is no longer serving her: “Boy, I'm done with it, done with it, done with it / I don't even know what I'm doing here.”
 
And so the song is standard pop fare, but with a slight change in lyrics and sound it could just as well be any other genre. The feeling is the same: when love and care die, it is time to pack your bags and move on. Though Tilki has seen plenty of love from fans in Turkey, she too is packing her bags. She’s preparing to spend 8 months in Los Angeles to record her full-length English album. Whether or not the international market will be enamored with this young Turkish diva is another matter, but she and her team are certainly giving it their all. 
 
On the surface, Melike Şahin is a very different kind of musician. She is both a trained soprano and worked for years singing and performing with the Turkish psychedelic rock band BaBa ZuLa. Yet it is not for nothing that she is known affectionately among fans as “diva bebe” (the baby diva). Until her first album “Merhem” came out last week, she was known only for a number of solo singles that gave her a reputation for both heart-wrenching ballads and heart-wrenching, psychedelic dance jams. But claiming Müzeyyen Senar, Selda Bağcan, Umm Kulthum ve Fairuz as her musical inspiration, this baby diva has big dreams. And “Merhem” proves that she has the mettle it takes to make listeners both dance and cry, or else dance through their tears. 
 
The greatest thing about Şahin’s 10-song debut is the musical range. She manages to harmonize her two main styles: the painfully sincere, acoustic songs of heartbreak and the funky, trippy songs of heartbreak and, now, even joyful sex. She worked with a wide variety of producers and collaborators that includes pop wunderkind Mabel Matiz and heart-on-the-sleeve songwriters Can Güngör, Ahmet Ali Arslan, and Cihan Mürtezaoğlu. The result is an astonishingly rich palate of Turkish traditional instruments, DJ arrangements, and a retro rock ‘n’ roll Turkish sound Şahin calls “modern gazino.” 
 
The album’s first single, “Uykumun Boynunu Bükme,” sounds like something out of a 1970s Yeşilçam musical complete with a punchy organ and quickly rhymed lyrics full of unrepentant melancholy: “The full moon hits my face / Where are those two arms? / May they wrap me tight and love me.” She continues with the age-old theme of love as both sickness and cure, familiar as much from the folk repertoire and as arabesk or pop: “I wanted for it to subside / The deep ache in my heart / I know where the medicine lies.” 
 
Yet the album also shows the artist coming into maturity. As we expect from Şahin, there are devastating ballads like “Nasır,” in which the singer uses her magisterial voice to declare: “I cannot stay any longer, it is too narrow sir / The storms tower over me and pierce the sky / Take my ‘ah!’ and hold it to your bosom, let it be yours / I have hope and I won’t let that wilt, love.” Yet in the arabesk-electronica synthesized final track “BEDELİNİ ÖDEDİM,” we find a diva who will no longer let love destroy her. Bringing back the concept of “merhem” (salve, oinment, cure) that gives the album its name and ties it together thematically, she declares: “I could not find the medicine in you / It seems the salve is in my hand.” 
 
The cure for love, Şahin’s album suggests, is music itself. It is with songs—whether creating them or listening to them—that we find the power to heal ourselves and gather the strength necessary to fall and fail once again, or else to give in to the force that pulls us back to try one more time.

April 02, 2021 Aegean off-season