Iran has developed a potent new weapon against the West: Shadmehr Aghili, a striking singer, songwriter and musician who is generally considered the country's biggest pop star.
Many countries complain about the invasion of Western culture, particularly rock music, but Iran did something about it. With a young population passionately drawn to Western rock, which is banned by the government as corrupt and immoral, Iran has created its own officially sanctioned rock-and-roll industry. Aghili, 29, is its greatest triumph -- a wholesome, smart and sexy musician with enough star power to pull some of Iran's young people away from Western music.
But the experiment -- like many of Iran's efforts for the past 22 years to keep the modern world at bay and create a state blending Islam and democracy -- has been only partially successful. In Tehran's thriving black markets, youngsters still clamor for pirated versions of the latest CDs by Eminem, the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync. Female soloists are strictly forbidden in Iran, so underground recordings by Madonna, Whitney Houston and Britney Spears are particularly popular.
Even Aghili, a creature of the system, is starting to rebel against it. He has never been allowed to give a live concert because, he said he was told, it would be a "national security threat." His music was officially banned and he was prohibited from composing and recording songs for 14 months, apparently because his popularity grew too fast for the Islamic government's liking. In the end, he suggested, he might leave Iran in search of greater fame and freedom in the West.
"Music in Iran is considered a safety valve for the state that has to be given to the public with great precision and in exact amounts, and there should be great control," he said in an interview. "We don't have music in Iran. I'm doing all this to get to music."
Iran's music industry is yet another battleground in the struggle between reformers, led by President Mohammad Khatami, and conservative Islamic clerics, who control many of Iran's most powerful institutions and who have vetoed most of the government's political and social liberalizations. The strains in the industry reflect the conflicts Khatami and his democratization drive face in charting a middle path between the extremes of old and new, East and West, freedom and authoritarianism, Islam and secularism.
"Music is being looked at in a different, and I suppose you could argue innovative, way in response to the rapid changes in the world and the demands of the younger generation," said Hadi Semati, a political analyst in Tehran. "It's mostly about the cultural invasion of the West, which is considered decadent, and religious interpretations of what is permitted and forbidden."
Albums by Shania Twain, Sarah Vaughan and Beverly Sills are outlawed because female singers can only join in background vocals or a chorus, and are not allowed to sing solo or dominantly enough for their voices to be distinguished. Female soloists are occasionally allowed to perform in public in Iran, but only at concerts attended by women, not men; if there is a sound problem and a male electrician is called in to fix it, everyone in the audience must put on their head scarves.
Only recently has the government permitted pop bands with both male and female members. Musical instruments are rarely shown on television. Concerts are frequently canceled because of fear that police will not be able to stop audiences from whistling, clapping in time to the music or dancing, all of which are prohibited.
But unrelenting public demand for more contemporary music, modern communications technology and the black market for Western CDs have forced Iran's government to loosen some restrictions, analysts here said. Officials nevertheless are determined to continue -- to use their word -- "managing" popular art.
"The bigger art is when you find out what the expectations of society are and manage the government's efforts to compensate for them," said Ali Moradkhani, head of the Culture Ministry's Islamic Music Center.
His center, in effect, has been Iran's music industry headquarters for the last decade. It identifies which artists can record music in Iran. It approves or disapproves of every song aired on the radio and legally sold in stores. And it grades musicians on a scale of one to four.
"We never censor," he said. "We try to guide musicians in the right direction to help them correct themselves. Many people who complain that their works are not permitted, we make them sit with professionals who explain what their pitfalls are."
Iran's government-controlled pop was created not only in response to Western rock, but also to counter a small but vibrant Persian-language pop industry starring Iranian exiles in Los Angeles. Those artists are often featured on a Los Angeles-based, emigrant-run satellite network called National Iranian Television (NITV) that is picked up here on illegal satellite dishes. They have become enormously popular, especially with youths from middle- and lower-income families. The ban on satellite dishes is not strictly enforced, another loosening credited to Khatami's administration that also makes it possible for youths to watch the latest Western music videos on MTV.
Although the songs on NITV usually do not contain overt political messages, Iran's government finds L.A. pop, as it is known, more threatening politically than culturally, Moradkhani said.
"It's better that we have a directed look and try to present the type of music that complements our social values and norms," he said. "We had to cover the gap. We did not create this, it was a social demand that led to it. We were able to understand the signals and messages being sent to us by society."
Many musicians find the government's policies reprehensible, but refuse to say so publicly because of the control the government has of their future.
"People are fed up; it's just a dictatorship," said one of the country's most famous female singers. "The pop music industry was created in Iran to amuse the youth and push them back from social and political issues."
On Friday, police in Tehran announced an aggressive new campaign against not only Western music but also other "signs and symbols of depravity" in what analysts said is a major escalation in the political conflict between reformers and conservatives. On Monday, however, a police spokesman appeared to soften that stance, saying the campaign was concerned only with illegal business practices and "has nothing to do with social corruption."
Most Western pop is prohibited here because it is "useless and pointless" and seems designed to "corrupt members of society, destroy mankind and give wrong ideas and teachings to misguide people from humane principles," said Ahmad Alamhoda, a mid-level cleric and influential, ultra-conservative expert on Islam. As for women, "singing turns them into tools for male satisfaction," he said. "Therefore, it is regarded as a forbidden deed for them to sing, not as forbidden music."
Other experts disputed Alamhoda's interpretation, saying that Islam forbids music that makes a person destructive or negative. And that, they said, is an individual reaction that often depends on where and when the music is listened to. Defining such music "is not something in Islamic law; it should be decided by the norms and traditions of society," said Kambiz Norouzi, a constitutional law expert closely aligned with the reform movement.
In theory, each song should be considered on its merits, experts here said. But in practice, the clergy's strong anti-Western feelings have created a general prohibition against Western pop music that has driven it underground. Recently, dozens of men caught trafficking in black-market CDs were publicly flogged with up to 80 lashes.
"Many elites have the idea that whatever is Western is corrupt and bad," said a political scientist who asked not to be identified. "On the other side is the belief that whatever is Western is good," particularly among youths. About two-thirds of Iran's 65 million people are under age 30.
That is certainly the case in a popular Tehran mall where numerous stores download Western music from the Internet and then custom-make CDs for as little as $1.50. Last week, members of a police division responsible for enforcing Islamic values arrested and beat one of the mall's biggest CD pirates in front of his store, witnesses said.
"The state does not consider these CDs the right type of music for our youngsters to listen to and they don't want it to be spread in our society," said a shop worker with a music library of more than 2,500 Western albums, from works by Bob Dylan, Black Sabbath and the Doors to Metallica, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Puff Daddy.
According to a customer, "This store is just a small example of what is going on. They cannot stop it. Iran is one of the world's youngest nations, and they do not have a reason to keep music out. Every human being, whether in Iran or Africa or the U.S., should be presented with the good and the bad, the immoral and the virtuous, to judge and choose for himself."
Iranian youths said the most successful homegrown artists were picked by the government to mimic the best Los Angeles ones. In fact, with the Iranian government playing record producer, many people here said Tehran pop is now technically superior to L.A. pop, even if the U.S.-based artists have more freedom in what they sing and how they perform it.
"In the past five years, they introduced singers to the public whose voices were similar to the illegal singers in L.A.," but their musical development was stunted by state control, said Peyman Fallahi-nasr, a 20-year-old electronic student. "They are behind red lines, and if they step beyond that, they could be stamped anti-revolutionary and sent to jail."
Yet challenging the state seems to be one key to success among youths who in recent elections have signaled their desire for change by overwhelmingly supporting reformist politicians promising greater personal freedoms and civil liberties.
"Negative propaganda in Iran is quite favorable for gaining fame," said pop star Aghili. On the other hand, because of the state's control of television, "Being on TV in Iran is like antibiotics: The more you appear, the less popular you are."
In fact, some people in the industry said Aghili's fight with the system was carefully contrived to boost his fame.
But Aghili said his fights and 14-month banning were genuine, prompted mostly by his surging popularity.
Aghili, who plays the violin and guitar and has made three albums, has a fourth being reviewed by the Culture Ministry. He is to star in two feature films due for release this year, including one based on his career and conflicts with government regulators. In his free time, he said, he likes to listen to Dire Straits and Pink Floyd.
"I never take any measures towards self-censorship, that's why people like my music so much," he said. Government control "makes me more and more motivated, it stimulates me to work. Under certain pressures, you can see a small poem and turn it into a great song."
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