Googoosh on Tour: Decoding a Popular Iranian MythSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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This past July the Iranian pop diva Googoosh left Iran for the first time in 21 years. She came to North America to sing again after two decades of being silenced by the Islamic regime in Iran that prohibits all non-religious singing by women. Her arrival with the tacit approval of at least the more moderate faction of the government and her consequent concert tour and new CD caused an uproar within the Iranian exile community quite disproportionate to even her considerable popularity in pre-revolution Iran. Never having been a great fan of this Iranian star, but having a great interest in Iranian popular culture of the Pahlavi era, I attended her concert in New York's Nassau Coliseum.
The concert was more like a collective Roezeh Khani , a tearful cleansing bash, sort of like an EST personal growth meeting with 12,000 people crying all at once. But there we all cried for one thing-Iran.
The music was not great. It never had been. Though Googoosh did not sing many of the old favorites, she looked good and sang well enough. But what was special for us was our hunger for any little gesture that would take us on a wave to the past.
It did not matter that she didn't dance or that she forgot some of her lines. Our collective need was what took this concert beyond a Pop revival. No, this light pastiche of a concert, which loyal Googoosh's tradition borrowed from all and became none, was about something larger. That concert was about sexuality and freedom and a place all of us remember to various degrees as Iran. It was about being able to let your bleached hair blow in the balmy summer nights of Tehran.
That night ideological and economic differences were set aside. Left and right, veiled and unveiled, young and old, rich and poor were united by our mutual longing and lamentation for that one place we all still consider home. Present in that concert hall was an equal sadness-a democracy of tears. That evening we cried because we would all rather have been listening to her in Tehran than in New York. We screamed our throats dry in the collective hope of that happening someday, as if screams and tears, sufficiently shed, could miraculously take us there.
This concert, and indeed Googoosh herself, were about women and music and their right to express their sexuality loudly through a microphone in a Versace dress and still feel Iranian.
Witnessing the tears shed by the dentist from Connecticut, the taxi driver from Queens, the teenager who left Iran when she was two and the grandmother who still speaks no English, I asked myself what is it about Googoosh that can unite us and define us at the same time? In other words how has she become a myth?
Female pop singers in Iran are a relatively new phenomena. Public singing by women emerged from the tradition of Roezeh khani which, with the constitutional revolution of 1906 and the lifting of the veil by Reza Shah, evolved into more open and public performances of classical singing by women. The genre of classical music that was traditionally performed by men emerged as a medium for women to perform without the veil in public. The pioneering women singers gained fame through the depth and breath of their voice and the correct rendering of their songs, as well as the fact that they were women with enough guts to perform in public. Female classical singers were mostly respected because they could achieve musical perfection within a male genre. Until fairly recently the best compliment given to a female diva was that she could sing 'like a man.'
Another musical genre was Iranian popular music, which came out of the brothel and gained mass appeal, first through radio and later, film. These songs were usually lewd to varying degrees and appealed to a stratum of male society who had the 'lutis' or Robin Hood thugs at the top of their hierarchy. The luti provided protection and charity for women, children and the weak. They acquired an image of generosity and no-nonsense down-to-earthness that turned the term 'luti' into a broadly used adjective that combined arak and prayer, violence and charity, homosexual behavior and devotion to family with an ease whose comprehension needs a more nuanced language to understand than our ever-dichotomizing, simplifying, scientific modern day English.
This type of popular Iranian female singer was also praised in male terms and was often described as a luti. Her generosity and valor (expressed through actual acts of charity and the fearless sexual flaunting of her body) made her one of the good thugs. In this way she could be in the company of men and sing and dance in revealing clothes but never demean herself. By the very crossing of gender lines in her behavior the luti/woman singer was above the written and unwritten law of female behavior.
Googoosh, whose real name is Faegheh Atashin, was very different from both the classical and the Iranian popular singers that preceded her. She was at once very Western and more modern than any female singer before her was. Born in 1950, she started her career as a child star performing with her acrobat father, who raised her after her parents divorced. She won the hearts of her audiences by her ability to sing and dance and entertain. She was a kind of Iranian Shirley Temple who grew up to become Madonna. Googoosh had and still has an ability to adapt and change with time and age. From early on she had a great talent for imitation. Early footage of her as a child shows her dancing in the style of the 'luti' with the signature tilted hat and a fake moustache to boot! She also preformed quite convincing imitations of Cossack, Indian, Spanish and Iranian tribal dancers.
This early career in doing imitations helped her greatly when she became a full-fledged adult star and perfected the art of taking what is Western or foreign and making it her own. Despite all the copying that went on, Googoosh miraculously remained Googoosh both in sound and in look. With the growing importance of television and the advent of glossy magazines, her uncanny grasp of the importance of her image along with her ability to co-opt Western music made Googoosh appealing to the masses. Whereas before both the classical female singer and the vulgar cabaret singer appealed mainly to men, Googoosh appealed also to the growing and increasingly educated female audiences. She appealed most to the second-generation be-hejab (without veil) women who had at least a high school education and were entering the work force and public life in increasing numbers. Her music was shamelessly pastiche and heavily synthesized and orchestrated. She sang happy songs in the Italian pop style of the sixties (Khalvat) and love songs in the style of French singer Mireille Mattiew and rock songs in English (like Carol King's "Its too late"). She had what was considered a modern sound and an extraordinary ability to accompany it with meaningful gestures. Although she repeatedly and enthusiastically sang in other languages, her big hits were all in a modern, simple but poetic Farsi that bestowed a certain classiness to the female desire that she expressed. The orchestrated, sythensized Western-style music and the modern poetry (shaer-e-nowe) along with her gestures, which were at once bold and restrained, provided a new language within which female sexuality and desire could be expressed without fear of sinking into vulgarity.
Googoosh sang of women's desires and their longing in a new musical genre that was different enough from tradition to be non-offensive. Of course, all of this was very much in line with the policies of the Pahlavi regime vis-a-vis women. If the Islamic Republic used the veiling of women as a symbol of its rejection of the West, the Pahlavi regime used the unveiling and liberating of women as a symbol of its progress towards modernity and its desire to be equal in stature to the Western nations. There was a growing resentment, which eventually turned into revolutionary fervor, felt by women who saw the doors of professional and social advancement closed to them because they still wore the veil.
Googoosh served the ancien regime well. She was always more about fashion than revolution. She stood for the very limited but nevertheless real freedom to wear what one wants, to do one's hair any way one wants, to be unashamed of one's sexuality. After all, it was only some 20 years before Googoosh was born that the veil had been lifted (in most cases forcibly) by Reza Shah. It is not just coincidence that Googoosh's name became a household term describing her immensely popular and ever imitated Twiggy /boyish haircut. To cut your hair Googooshy in Iran meant to cut it short like a boy. That haircut signified rather obviously the doing away with the very raison d'etre of hejab (the arousing quality of female hair). It also embodied a tomboy quality that connoted a certain freedom of movement (similar to the tampon ads of the 70s in the U.S. that showed women riding bare backed horses).
Googoosh's body also represented a new ideal for women. Svelte, with fewer curves than most Iranian women, her figure was considered more chic because it fit better in French designer clothes. But it also allowed for a mix of Persian and Western style dancing on stage that, while daring and free moving, avoided being erotic. Her nose, too, was small-like that of a farangi (foreigner), the highest aesthetic compliment one can still give an Iranian woman. So even her physique was considered modern and Western, terms that were inter-changeable during those heady years that witnessed a rise in oil revenue equal to what some regarded as the growing permissiveness in society.
A good way to see how the image of women changed in Iran during Googoosh's career is to study her films. In her very first movie, Feresheteh-ye-Farrari (Runaway Angel), Googoosh plays the neglected daughter of a rich and spoiled mother who is an obsessive gambler, and a loving father who is an engineer. The message is that women should stay with their husbands and their children because without them they are lost to decadence.
Twenty-plus years later in Dar Emtedad-e Shab (At Night's End), Googoosh plays a mature, fashionably dressed singer who falls in love with a young high school age boy. When she realizes that her lover is terminally ill, she gives up everything in an ill-fated attempt to take him to the West for medical help. Here she exhibits the old luti sense of generosity but with a new sexual valor and independence
If Googoosh was a great pop idol before the Revolution of '79, she has now become an icon, a legend, a myth. Her North American tour, which is being billed as "one historic performance" where she "sings after 21 years," has attracted 10 to 12 thousand people per performance. The tickets range from 35 to 250 dollars. Most concerts sell out the highest priced tickets first.
A web-search of her name produces some 600-plus sites devoted to her. "Googoosh.com," which was created by some of her techy fans in the U.S. two years ago and has a large archive of fan letters begging her to come to the West and perform, had over six million hits in August alone. In Iran her clandestinely disseminated films and tape are enjoying a revival.
For ex-patriot Iranians, who squirmed at image after image of angry, bearded Iranians screaming for death to America on prime-time TV, the Googoosh tour was a multiple blessing. It provided us with a new image of ourselves. Now the world could see in pictures in the media, in reputable publications such as the New York Times, Le Monde and The Washington Post, that another type of Iranian exists, one that is well dressed and beautiful and successful. We can now say, "see we have a star that 'can make it' in the American sense." We can reserve a Compaq Center, an MCI Center or a Nassau Coliseum and fill it with beautiful dresses and well-coifed hairdos. There is a great need to identify ourselves as 'other' to those Hezbollah mobs on the streets of Tehran.
More importantly, the myth of Googoosh has provided us with a positive view of our Westernized identity. We have lost the guilt we felt about it after the revolution. Having successfully co-opted what was considered 'Western,' we are no longer ashamed of it. In fact, what seemed like a naïve and blatant embrace of Western fashions in the 70s has become a way to resist an oppressive regime. Men wear ties and women wear lipstick as an act of defiance in Iran. In these 20 years a quiet 'lipstick feminism' which Googoosh epitomizes has stubbornly resisted the regime. The fact that going to the concert is considered seditious by the hard-liners was not lost on most Iranians in the audience. The loudest applause comes when she utters her desire to give a concert, some day, in Iran.
The Googoosh myth is now more relevant than ever before. The right to wear what one wants is quickly endowed with significance the minute someone is arrested for doing so. Twenty-one years after the return of Khomeini, women can still be imprisoned and whipped if they disregard the strict Islamic dress code. Women still cannot sing non-religious songs. Any act of listening to a female singer is perhaps, more than ever in our history, a seditious punishable act. Boys and girls can be arrested for even walking with a person of the opposite sex who is not a close relative. The biggest show of opposition to the Islamic regime has come from students in Iran-when they revolted in a show of support for the reform-promising Khatami. When he refused to help the students who were beaten, killed or imprisoned, he lost much of his support. It is almost as if the power-wielding clerics are as oblivious to sitting on a time bomb as the Shah had been before them. A government can no more de-Westernize by force than it can Westernize by force.
These past two decades of silencing Googoosh have turned her into an indigenous force. History has rendered her a powerful myth. If before she signified a new Western identity, she now signifies an identity that exists in our own past. It is as if we Iranians have devoured the West and digested it. All that remains is a little aftertaste-the rest is we. If Googoosh in the 70s provided a way to oppose a husband or father, now she has become a way to oppose the regime.
Setareh Sabety, a free-lance writer living in Maryland, is interested in popular culture of the Pahlavi Era. A native of Tehran, she has a master's degree from Boston University and is writing her Ph.D.dissertation on 16th century France.
For a good essay on the history of female singing in Iran see Chahabi, H.E. "Voices Unveiled: Women Singers in Iran" in Iran and Beyond: Essays in Middle Eastern History in Honor of Nikki R. Keddi, Mazda publishers, (2000):p 151-166.
Chahabi discusses the generosity of Mahvash (Ibid, p.161). He does not touch on what I consider equally important in the luti paradigm: valor. Mahvash was considered to be daring. That along with her generosity is what qualified her in popular view as a luti
The fact that Iran never had any copyright laws helped and still does, in the unabashed borrowing and in the illegal copying and disseminating of music and video that helped Googoosh, then as now, to reach a large number of people.
See Zan-e-Rouz, Tehran (1976): "do nameh as dokhtaran chadori," in which two letters signed anonymously complain about the magazine's constant effort to degrade the veiled woman. I am grateful to Jahanshah Javid for pointing out this letter and much more about Googoosh which appeared on his website, "The Iranian.com."