Nahid Siamdoust, Soundtrack of the Revolution: The Politics of Music in Iran (Stanford University Press, 2017)
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Nahid Siamdoust (NS): I grew up in Iran in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution and the subsequent Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, years that were marked by economic hardship, the loss of loved ones, and a strict revolutionary state. Still, my childhood memories of those years are colored throughout by a diverse range of both Iranian and Western music. Music simply plays a big role in Iranian lives. Following the revolution, and especially in the harsh 1980s, there were a lot of restrictions around music and hence anxieties around its use. When I went back to Iran as a teenager in the late 1990s, I was amazed at the transformation of music in the public realm. I realized that music is a rich and textured reflection of developments in society, and moreover, that in Iran’s case, in which an authoritarian and revolutionary state aimed to create an Islamic polity, the cultural sphere, especially music, played an even greater role in mediating politics and culture. I wanted to tell Iran’s post-revolutionary history through the lens of music: what do we learn about the Islamic Republic as a revolutionary state when we look at the struggles among various power centers over music policymaking? What do we learn about Islamic jurisprudence on music in the governmental system of a velayat-e faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist)? What do we learn about Iranian society when we examine the discourses that circulate in music? What are some of the everyday acts of “life as politics” deployed by cultural producers and consumers (as secondary producers) to mitigate officially imposed narratives, and what cultural, historical and religious contingencies do they draw on for effect? Zooming out, what can we learn more broadly about the role of evolving media technologies in authoritarian political systems, what do we learn about generational continuities and ruptures, and what are the transnational and global cultural forces at play in a country and region that have gone through fundamental political and social transformations over the last decades?
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
NS: At the core, Soundtrack of the Revolution interrogates the workings of ideological power and its critiques, and examines how that power translates into policymaking in a revolutionary state and the ways in which cultural producers and their consumers receive, reject, mold, reshape, and mitigate those policies in practice. I do this by examining four genres of music that span a cumulative three decades, with a close reading within those genres of the works of four musicians but also a discussion of other artists and the wider field, from producers and state officials to record label owners and concert attendees. The four genres and central musicians are Persian classical music with Mohammad Reza Shajarian, state-approved pop music with Alireza Assar, alternative music with Mohsen Namjoo, and Rap-e Farsi with Hichkas. This methodology allowed me to have a fine-tuned ethnographic rendering of the artists at the center of each genre, while being able to advance chronologically through post-revolutionary Iran and connect different but continuous strands of inquiry to paint a larger picture of the sociological and political processes at work. As already mentioned, the principal inquiry is about the discursive spaces that musicians at the center of the book’s discussion create. Another is about the jurisprudential bases, political debates, and pragmatic considerations that feed into social and cultural policymaking emanating from state bodies. Other prominent queries that weave through the entire text and engage the relevant literatures are about the evolution and impact of media technologies, the notion of a public and an alternative public sphere, generational continuities and ruptures, performativity of identities, notions of artistic “authenticity,” impact of transnational and global currents on internal productions and discussions, the marginalization of the female voice, and the politics of grief.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
NS: Prior to writing Soundtrack of the Revolution, I was mainly a journalist, but during some of my stints in Iran I also worked as a UN spokesperson, a feature film protagonist, a news anchor, and a documentary film camerawoman, and so my work was quite broad and allowed me to report on wide ranging regions and diverse segments of society and the political sphere in Iran. This is my first book, and most of my academic work leading up to it has been about the interrogation of power through various modes of cultural production, especially music. I have always paid close attention to youth culture and generational ruptures, as well as transnational and global influences, and I think all of these strands of thinking come together in Soundtrack of the Revolution. I have to say that my personal experiences working in Iranian news media and its independent film industry, as well as my reporting on the political process, my attendances at news conferences, and my many interviews with state officials as well as a wide range of people from university experts to civil society activists and artists etc., have given me a deep, textured insight that I treasure and that informs my writing on Iran.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
NS: In both theory and methodology, Soundtrack of the Revolution is interdisciplinary, and so I hope that scholars within cultural studies, media studies, anthropology, sociology, politics, history, music, and area studies will pick it up and read about contemporary Iranian politics and society through discourses in and around music. Having said that, my book also appeals to a more general readership, and I care equally about non-academics reading it and finding it illuminating. Soundtrack of the Revolution is basically an alternative history of post-revolutionary Iran, told through music. So I hope that anyone who wants to learn more about the trajectory of Iran’s Islamic Republic from the earliest days of the revolution to the present day, how different administrations and their political leanings have shaped the cultural sphere, how state officials have debated music’s permissibility, how social policy is made, what issues matter to cultural producers young and old, what kinds of nuances underline conversations in the public and alternative public sphere—the “alternative” public sphere being the one powered by new media, including cell phone and satellite television technology as well as the Internet—and other questions that are driving contemporary Iran, would find it a good read.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
NS: I am currently editing a volume entitled “Popular Music and Society of Iran,” which is coming together as a result of a conference by the same title that I organized at Yale in early 2018. We have great contributions on many different aspects of popular music, from classical music in the Qajar period to contemporary Hip Hop and expatriate music. Another project that I am working on is about the VHS tape public of the 1980s; throughout 1980s the videotape facilitated the creation of a mediascape where people were able to consume—at some risk—all kinds of cultural and political content. In the videotape project, I am particularly interested in the interregional dimensions of both the video distribution networks and content. I hope that my research will contribute to our understanding of the ways in which people through everyday consumption of uncensored content on this now defunct media format critically engaged with their political realities and constructed alternative publics and utopias of belonging. I have also started work on my second book project, where I am tracing a history of Iranian counterpublics.
J: Where would you place your work and your book, in terms of academic discipline?
NS: My doctorate from Oxford is in Modern Middle Eastern studies, so area studies, but at a place like Oxford, your disciplinary training depends on your supervision and work. In my case, I worked with Walter Armbrust, an anthropologist and media scholar of Egypt, and was trained as an anthropologist. Like Walter, my work too deals with media a great deal. I take media as a serious register of study and tend to it closely in the political and social developments that I examine. My methodology is anthropological and ethnographic, lots of interviews and attention to processes on a person-level, participant observation, and of course lots of research in primary and secondary sources, especially in Persian. However, theoretically, I draw heavily on sociology and also political science, and I am now more and more interested in integrating a critical lens on gender as well. Ultimately, my work brings all these strands together to weave a hopefully thick cultural history of the subjects that I study.
Excerpt from the Book:
From Chapter Six: "The Birth of Independent Music"
The Beethoven Auditorium in the nongovernmental House of Artists in central Tehran was filled way beyond its three-hundred-person capacity on a Sunday afternoon in early March 2008, with at least forty people crowding its entrance and spilling over into the adjacent hallway. Inside, the heat was on—both literally and figuratively. A visibly excited audience of mostly twenty-something men and women was there for a discussion with and about Mohsen Namjoo, the new sensation whose work combined classical and folk Persian music and poetry with Western influences like rock and blues, in an arguably unprecedented way. Namjoo’s unconventional fusion of music had stirred a lot of debate and controversy from the beginning, and everyone seemed to have an opinion about it. Some hailed it as a breakthrough in Iranian music, others discounted it as nonsense, and still others regarded it with amused bafflement. Indeed, the scene at the cultural center was more like that of a courthouse, with Namjoo on trial.
The only person sitting still seemed to be the artist himself, positioned center stage, with a slightly hunched back, a thick fountain of shoulder-length gray hair, and a distinctive aquiline nose, looking many years older than his actual thirty-two. The moderator of the event started the session diplomatically, pointing out that “whether we like his music or not, we can’t deny that it has produced a strong reaction.” At first there was a discussion of the number of copies that Namjoo’s first legally published album—“Toranj” (Citron)—had sold since its release six months earlier; the moderator said he believed that the official number of eighteen thousand seemed to be correct, basing his estimation on the sale of “Toranj” at Beethoven, one of the most popular music stores in Tehran. He added that he believed the rumors to be incorrect that said eighty thousand copies had been sold in the first few weeks alone. Namjoo, who all the while looked detached, even annoyed at having to take part in his own trial, responded that he had no idea about the number of records sold, since he had not received any remuneration from those sales, but pointed out that many more people had downloaded his work from the Internet even before it came out as an album.
Once the gratuitous and unresolved exercise of confirming the work’s popularity in terms of official sales numbers had been carried out, the first critic began to explain the criteria by which he would judge the singer’s work, among them “expertise in music.” But a few minutes into his explanations, there were already protests from the restless audience, with one voice heard over the others shouting, “His work is different. You can’t judge it with your usual criteria.” Then an official sitting in the first row got up and implored, “Could you please all just be quiet so that the critique can continue?” The critic then continued in a monotone voice to list his categories of judgment, “Three, power and artistic potential of the music, and four, the degree of sincerity in the music and its philanthropy [mardom-dusti].” But before long, he was interrupted again: “Let Namjoo speak for himself,” people in the audience cried again, and at this point, the other critic, who had not even spoken yet, got up and complained about the audience’s “intolerable impatience.” While quitting the stage, he added, “Mr. Namjoo’s work is much ado about nothing, and musically there is nothing new in it. But from the view of studying its audience and the reception it has received, it is worth reflection and research.” With that barely disguised insult, he left the stage. An audience member then got up and said that the Persian poets Hafez and Rumi, both of whose lyrics Namjoo uses, had no place in blues and rock, but he too was shot down by a girl who shouted, “If we wanted to listen to Hafez set to classical music we’d be listening to Shajarian, thank you very much!” Not long afterwards, the critic who had spoken first left the stage as well, reiterating the other’s comment that this session itself was more deserving of sociological study than Namjoo’s music.
Aside from the moderator, the stage was now left entirely to Namjoo, and although several people rose from the audience to criticize his music for all its faults or apparent banality, many more rose up to shut down those critics. One official from the city council, Abbas Sajjadi, who had initiated the “Song Critique” series (Barnāmeh-ye naqd-e she‘r) of which this session was a part, spoke in a calming voice, referring to the Constitutional Revolution and the flowering of a new genre of protest songs and saying about Namjoo: “It is society that in effect urges artists to break with structures and traditions and produce new forms. For three decades, the only thing we have had to say about music is that it should be fākher [fine/ high-quality]. If music doesn’t progress with society, there will be a vacuum and that vacuum will be filled.” Sajjadi expressed this sentiment with the finesse of ambiguous speech that an open-minded official in the Islamic Republic must learn to master if he is to succeed within the system, which meant that it was not clear whether he supported this particular “filling” of this vacuum or not.
Finally, two songs from the Toranj album were played for communal listening. This prompted a youngish composer of classical Persian music with long black hair and a beard to get up in the third row and complain: “In this album, the fusion of song and music isn’t done correctly, and the setār is out of tune and fālsh eighty percent of the time.” He was interrupted by outcries of dismay from the audience but struggled to continue, “If someone wants to say ‘I love you,’ he doesn’t shout and whinny ‘I love you,’ he says it in a quiet manner, but unfortunately in all of his work Namjoo has tried to scream out meanings that should have been expressed quietly.” Namjoo responded indifferently that he had intentionally set his setār to be out of tune and that in about thirty other unpublished songs that he had produced, the setār was equally out of tune. Then the soft-spoken Pari Maleki—a vocalist in her fifties who has persevered and continued in her profession under the forbidding circumstances prevailing for women singers in the Islamic Republic—got up and said in a passionate voice, “Every kind of music must be allowed to exist so that every music finds its listeners. Every kind of music must be allowed,” she said again for emphasis, which elicited roaring applause from the rest of the audience.
Maleki seemed to be pointing to the core of the problem in this critique session. The restrictions that Ershād imposed on music did not allow for “every kind of music to be heard.” In fact, Namjoo’s album had failed to receive the necessary permits from the ministry by conventional means and was finally published by the Islamic Development Organization’s Arts Domain, the Howzeh. This brought the Howzeh enough criticism from conservative centers that in retribution, the Howzeh’s official publishing power was dissolved for at least two years. Since the early years of the new millennium, dozens of concerts had been staged in Tehran every year, but aside from a few rock or alternative music concerts granted exceptional permission and held in unusual venues such as hospitals or university halls, almost all had been concerts of either Persian or Western classical music, Persian regional or folk music, or the approved form of pop music already discussed.
Namjoo’s music surfaced more widely in Tehran toward the end of 2006 and was noticed as different and talked about in those terms. His music pushed the envelope both in its transgressions against classical Persian music and in its subversive lyrics, and so the official release of his first album took many by surprise, not least because one of his most popular early songs was set to a video clip featuring a television actress who at the time was embroiled in a sex tape scandal.
Namjoo’s “trial” at the House of Artists, as well as the audience’s impatience with it, was emblematic of the two conflicting political currents that ultimately culminated in the election unrest a year later, in the summer of 2009. On the one hand were the reformist policies of Mohammad Khatami’s government, which along with greater and more widespread access to the Internet had created an opening to the world and a swell of intellectual and artistic creativity. On the other hand were the overpowering forces of conservative political and cultural factions—supported by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—who viewed this opening as a threat to their beliefs and positions and had played both fair and foul to counter reformist developments. By early 2008, Namjoo’s sudden and immense popularity had prompted the Tehran City Council to include him in its thirteen-part “Song Critique” series, where his music was to be formally analyzed. But frustrated first at the slow pace and then the reversal of reforms, the youth at the House of Artists no longer had any patience for critique. They cared little for what the critics had to say. They had come to hear the artist speak.