(Credit: Far Out / MUBI)
Pop music and Iran are not things you would immediately associate together, especially not if your cultural frame of reference is based on the Western world. In fact, the country of Iran has an incredibly rich musical history dating back thousands of years. Iran’s production was extremely influential in surrounding areas throughout Western Asia and the Middle East. In more recent times, Iran witnessed a thriving pop music scene, with the pioneering sounds of Googoosh blazing the trail.
Born Faegheh Atashin in 1950 in Tehran, Googoosh started singing at a very young age. After starring in various Persian films during the 1960s, her twenties saw her devote herself almost entirely to pop music. Blending traditional West Asian sounds with a sort of 1960s pop sensibility, Googoosh quickly became a cultural icon in Iran; women across the country rushed to copy her hairstyle and fashion sense, characterized by miniskirts and bright colors.
Constantly pushing the boundaries of pop music and wowing audiences with her incredible tones, Googoosh reached the height of her popularity during the 1970s. In addition to her legions of fans within Iran, she became famous worldwide, with songs such as ‘Talagh’ that gained her acclaim in much of Western Asia and parts of Europe. Her canson style of performance, evoking images of Edith Piaf, often centered around themes of love and loss, has proven to have universal appeal even among non-Persian speakers.
Tragically, the success experienced by Googoosh during the 1970s was not to last. In 1979, the Iranian revolution saw the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty, to be replaced by an Islamic theocracy, a ruling government that prevails to this day as the Islamic Republic of Iran. Under this authoritarian regime, female performers were outlawed. While music is not inherently haram, music that can cause temptation is seen as evil – causing all female voices to be banned. A common phrase used to justify banning the performance was the Arabic “sawt al-mar’a `awra” or, “a woman’s voice is a shameful thing.”
Instead of leaving her native lands in favor of a country with a more accepting cultural scene, Googoosh remained in the Islamic Republic of Iran, “out of love for [her] homeland”. In many ways, Googoosh acted as the perfect encapsulation of everything the 1979 revolution sought to banish: she was a fearless woman who performed Western-inspired pop songs while decked out in miniskirts and vibrant colors. However, she remained in Iran after the events of 1979. Pulling back from performing – albeit, not by choice – Googoosh remained under Iran’s authoritarian rule until the new millennium, when she left the country for Canada, allowed to tour from the reformist presidency of Muhammed Khatami.
Recording material and performing live for the first time in over 20 years, Googoosh’s return was glorious. Selling out venues around the world as evidence of her universal appeal, her 2000 tour concluded with a date in Dubai on the eve of Nowruz (Iranian New Year); most of the audience had traveled across the Persian Gulf from Iran to see their country’s cultural hero perform in the flesh.
For many, Googoosh is the singer of countless earworm pop tunes from the 1970s, but the Iranian singing sensation represents so much more. Googoosh represents the vibrancy and empowerment of the pre-revolutionary period in Iran, a time of real excitement among the country’s youth, characterized by subsequent artistic movements that were later crushed by the revolutionary state. Remaining active to this day, with a date at Wembley Arena expected next month, Googoosh remains a beloved figure around the world and an important point in the rich era of Iranian music.