God-Worthy Pop

Iranian rock 'n' roll


In Iran, not even public lashings have subdued a multi-million-dollar black market for pop music, banned there since theocrats took power 22 years ago. In such a controlled culture, even the most sugary Western pop tunes are deemed a potent political threat—and, of course, a moral one. So in recent years, clerics at the Ministry of Culture have dabbled with a supply-side approach: They've joined the music biz themselves, producing and promoting a handpicked group of local pop artists.

Their most successful act so far is the foxy Shadmehr Aghili. "You know that life is hard without you/but how easily your eyes take death from my heart," he croons in one of many ballads, all government-vetted. He isn't allowed to perform live—it would be a "national security threat," he told The Washington Post—but his albums are produced with government dollars and are available throughout the country and abroad.

President Mohammad Khatami's reformist government is mostly responsible for the minor loosening of rigid cultural boundaries in recent years; for example, it endorsed the sale of translated Pink Floyd lyrics in a state-run bookstore. But conservatives have also grudgingly sponsored pop. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei signed off on the construction of Iran's first modern rock studio in 1997, at the Islamic Arts Center in Tehran.

Has Aghili or any other government act distracted fans from illegal music? Not at all, according to Mehrdad Pakravan, owner of Los Angeles-based Caltex Records. "The majority of the Iranian people, including the youth, listen to the music we produce here," he says. He launched his label shortly before the Shah fell, when virtually the entire pop music scene fled to California, where it has thrived ever since. Iranian-language music recorded in L.A.—a.k.a. "Tehrangeles"—dominates the bootleg markets abroad, along with mainstream Western fare.

Pakravan says that Aghili and others haven't put even a dent in his sales. "No matter what they do, the government has not been able to put down [independent] pop music."They can make many Aghili's, they can clone them, but they won't succeed in putting it down."