Farzaneh Hemmasi, Tehrangeles Dreaming: Intimacy and Imagination in Southern California’s Iranian Pop Music (Duke University Press, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Farzaneh Hemmasi (FH): I was attracted to the topic of Iranian pop music in Los Angeles for several reasons. The first was Tehrangeles (Tehran + Los Angeles) pop’s ubiquitous presence in Iranian diasporic social life and its absence in scholarly literature. Most academic work on Iranian music has dealt with art music and, to a lesser extent, regional folk music. These are unambiguously culturally “valuable” genres that fit comfortably with pre- and post-revolutionary Iranian nationalisms and ethnomusicology’s historical preference for “tradition.” In the mid-2000s, scholars finally began investigating Iranian popular music, but they mostly focused on musicians within Iran and governmental regulations. Banned in Iran and disrespected by intellectuals in and outside the country, Tehrangeles pop was not a likely cultural entity for serious scholarly exploration. I took it on as a challenge and because I believe it is far more interesting and important than it has been given credit for.
I was also interested in the fact that Tehrangeles pop was an unintended consequence of the revolution itself. For several decades prior to the revolution, Iran had boasted a highly developed popular music industry, with pop stars appearing in television, radio, print media, film, and so on. When Khomeini decreed the (never actualized) “elimination” of music within Iran, many pop musicians fled and restarted their careers in Los Angeles. Though their music was banned in Iran, it was distributed widely in the country via audio and video cassette, and eventually via satellite television and the internet as well. Indeed, the ban had the effect of giving Tehrangeles musicians much more access to Iranian “hearts and minds” than they would have otherwise had. Visiting Iran in the 1990s and early 2000s showed me that Tehrangeles had a large domestic listenership. How did Tehrangeles artists achieve popularity in Iran from afar? How could music produced by exiles in Tehrangeles be relevant to people living in Tehran? What could this long-distance relationship tell us about music, media, politics, and diaspora?
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
FH: Tehrangeles Dreaming explores the past forty years of expatriate popular music and musicians’ entanglement with national, revolutionary, and exile politics of culture. So much of pop culture emerging from Tehrangeles has been disparaged as trivial and as the opposite of political; its domestic and diasporic critics often dismiss Tehrangeles pop as depoliticizing, distracting, and politically retrograde. At the same time, the fact that so many Tehrangeles cultural producers understand themselves to be in exile, and that the Iranian state banned Tehrangeles media and music while branding Tehrangeles celebrities as enemies of the revolution, makes plain that politics is indeed involved. The book explores how music and media producers respond to their politicization, including avoidance, enthusiasm, and everything in between. The chapters move from case studies of the putatively apolitical performers and materials to those who have enthusiastically embraced politics in exile.
I begin with “The Capital of 6/8,” a chapter about how a traditional Iranian rhythm colloquially known as “shesh-o-hasht” has become a quintessentially Tehrangeles groove precisely as it was prohibited in postrevolutionary domestic music for its festive, immoral, and erotic associations. The chapter takes inspiration from artist Shahbal Shabpareh’s claims that the rhythm is irresistible to Iranians because it is “in their blood.” The second chapter considers the narratives of several of Tehrangeles pop’s founders: producer Manouchehr Bibiyan (Apollon Records, Jam-e Jam TV), producers Vartan Avanessian and Jahangir Tabaraei (Avang, Taraneh Enterprises), and artist Shahram Shabpareh. I show how these figures have grappled with their rejection in the revolution and their subsequent reputation for producing socially irrelevant pop in Tehrangeles by producing narratives in which they depict themselves as modernizers, emissaries of joy, and saviors of Iranian music itself.
Chapter three links desire for return to the homeland to the erotics of expatriate media, showing how Tehrangeles popular culture revives sexually ambiguous and provocative aspects of Iranian history and transmits them back into the country. The chapter analyzes together the Tehrangeles dancer and choreographer Mohammad Khordadian’s imprisonment in Iran, a fictional film MAXX (2005) about a Tehrangeles cabaret singer’s hijinks in Iran, and the experiences of female vocalist Shahrzad Sepanlou negotiating her sexualized image as perceived by Iran-based audiences.
The last two chapters zero in on two expatriate musical celebrities and their claims to represent and reach the nation from exile. Chapter four shows how prerevolutionary female pop diva Googoosh has used her personal history of victimization as a provocative metaphor for national suffering. I discuss diaspora Iranians’ metaphorization of Googoosh during her twenty-year period of postrevolutionary “silence,” and Googoosh’s own adoption of these metaphors in her subsequent postrevolutionary comeback. In the diaspora, Googoosh uses her outsized voice and persona to perform as the Iranian nation “herself.”
Chapter five tracks charismatic pop icon Dariush’s transformation from the drug-addicted “sultan of sadness” to a post-recovery “messenger of hope,” as it explores his unique form of celebrity humanitarian activism. I show how Dariush’s activism responds to the addiction epidemic within Iran, working at the intersection of sentimentality, nationalism, and the principles of the US recovery movement to mobilize a notion of “shared suffering.” Dariush’s patriotic songs and videos, the media productions of his nonprofit Ayeneh Foundation, and his live concerts are analyzed in relation to the intimate publics they attempt to produce.
As the book’s subtitle suggests, imagination and intimacy are Tehrangeles Dreaming’s main theoretical frames. I investigate Tehrangeles pop’s participation in “modern social imaginaries” of (trans)nation, publics, and more, via transnational circulation and broadcast media. The book explores how Tehrangeles artists imagine their role in Iranian history, their enduring connection to and influence on Iranians at home, and their fantasies of return. Intimacy appears in multiple guises. One is media-afforded familiarity, the closeness between Iranian fans and Tehrangeles stars that media makes possible in spite of physical distance. Tehrangeles pop can also contribute to a transnational Iranian “cultural intimacy”: the cultural practices that may appear “unmodern” or shameful but nonetheless inspire sociality within a group (see anthropologist Michael Herzfeld’s classic text defining “cultural intimacy”). Finally, intimacy also refers to the sexual or erotic aspects of Tehrangeles pop. Tehrangeles pop musicians rejected women’s compulsory modesty just as they rejected the revolutionary assertion that popular music was inherently corrupting; Tehrangeles videos offer audiences intimate, mass-mediated access to unrelated women’s unveiled bodies and singing voices. In these ways and more, Tehrangeles pop complicates the Iranian state’s regulation of the intimate, the moral, the public sphere, and the nation’s boundaries all at once.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
FH: Tehrangeles Dreaming and my other published work are topically and methodologically linked. One of my favorite pieces is about the media controversy surrounding the victory of Ermia, a veiled female vocalist, on the expatriate Iranian talent competition Googoosh Music Academy (GMA). To show the many tentacles of this case, I moved between social media vitriol, paranoid press reports about velvet revolution via satellite, religious jurisprudence about women’s singing, and the program itself—extremely divergent sources that intersected in a German Iranian woman’s pop music performance. I took a more analytic approach in a 2013 article called “Intimating Dissent” about the prerevolutionary pop music setting of celebrated Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlu’s allegorical “Pariya.” Tehrangeles Dreaming develops some of these ideas and approaches while incorporating more ethnographic fieldwork and first-person narrative.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
FH: Tehrangeles Dreaming was written with three core academic audiences in mind: readers in ethnomusicology (my home discipline), Middle Eastern and Iranian studies; and readers from all fields interested in ethnographic and analytic approaches to transnational, mass-mediated culture. This latter category includes readers in anthropology, American studies, sociology, and more. I think the book also provides opportunities for comparative studies of migration and postrevolutionary cultural transformation; during my research, I found much in common between Iranians in Los Angeles and Cuban, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese exiled groups. I also wrote the book to be accessible to university students and lay readers, and I am happy to say it has been assigned in many courses.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
FH: I am working on something completely different: a collaborative, community-engaged ethnographic research project called “Keeping Kensington ‘Kensington:’ Value, Affordability, and Culture in Toronto’s Kensington Market.” Kensington Market is a historically affordable downtown neighborhood that was a first stop for many waves of immigrants to Canada. It has since become an artistic, activist neighborhood that is both strongly affected by the destructive financialization of real estate, and that has successfully organized to maintain its distinctive identity and diverse residents’ ways of life. I am working with the University of Toronto Ethnography Lab and graduate student researchers on a variety of projects around affordability, art, and activism in Kensington, some of which can be seen here.
J: How can readers access the sights and sounds of Tehrangeles music and music videos?
FH: Tehrangeles popular culture must be seen and heard to be fully appreciated. I have created a Tehrangeles Dreaming YouTube playlist of more than seventy selections presented roughly in the order they are discussed in the text. It includes performances and music videos by major stars Shahram Shabpareh, Dariush and Googoosh before and after the revolution; dance aerobics videos by Khordadian; parodies of Tehrangeles pop by younger generation rappers; fan-made videos of the Los Angeles Iranian night club Cabaret Tehran, and more.
Paris-based artist-scholar Hannah Darabi’s forthcoming Soleil of Persian Square (Gwenzigel), a photograph book of Iranian Southern California, is also a wonderful way to access Tehrangeles from afar. Darabi’s work includes a selection of Tehrangeles cassette cover art—amazing images that capture the unmistakable 1980s and ‘90s Los Angeles Iranian aesthetic. I contributed an extended interview about Tehrangeles pop to the book as well. I have loved working with Hannah, and I hope people will read our books together.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 21-25)
The Degenerate Los Ãnjelesi Singer
Like traveling Tehrangeles music and performers, stereotypes of Tehrangeles Iranians and Tehrangeles singers also circulate between diaspora and Iran. The LA Iranian stereotype is not so different from common perceptions of “Hollywood people” and their shallow money-mindedness. “Persians” in Los Angeles are wealthy or want to be perceived as such; wear flashy, expensive clothes and jewelry; embrace surgical enhancements; drive fancy cars, and live in ostentatious mansions in exclusive neighborhoods. They are anti-intellectual, petty, and superficial. Tehrangeles Iranians have the additional dubious distinction of being obsessed with their pre-Islamic or Aryan roots and at the same time “out of touch” with contemporary postrevolutionary Iran. A plethora of songs, skits, television programs and films made by Iranians elsewhere in diaspora and in Iran play on the Tehrangeles Iranian stereotype. Take the example “Iruni-ye LA” (“LA Iranian”), a song by Iranian-British expatriate hip-hop group Zed Bazi:
Dear wealthy Aunt Fati
Bought a house on Hollywood Boulevard
I say, “Aunt Fati are you ready to party?
I’ll come to your house tonight and we’ll go to Café Latin.”
She says, “Don’t call at 5 o’clock because I’m at the gym
Every night I eat salad [because] I’m on a diet,
My eye color is the same as my [blue] jeans
Now, let me check out your six-pack (abdominal muscles).”
After establishing their superficiality, Zed Bazi describes Tehrangeles Iranians’ confused identity:
Here [in Los Angeles] we’re happy for no reason (alaki khoshim)
We wear sandals,
We want to be Western (farangi)
We want to be “Vanak kids” [a Tehran neighborhood]
We say, “West Coast, motherfucker”
Every time we stand up (“Iruni-ye LA,” Zed Bazi)
Since the advent of the American A&E television network’s reality television show “Shahs of Sunset” focusing on a glamorous group of young, wealthy, second-generation Jewish and Muslim Iranians cavorting around Southern California, mainstream American television audiences have had increased access to Tehrangeles stereotypes.
One of the most recognizable and ridiculed figures Iranians associate with Tehrangeles is the “los ānjelesi singer” (khānandeh-ye los ānjelesi) and the music she or he performs, which is also called “los ānjelesi.” Los ānjelesi literally means “of Los Angeles” but also indexes a host of other attributes, especially frivolity, shallowness, cheapness, superficiality, and low quality, crass commercialism. Above all, los ānjelesi pop is dance music meant for parties. While far from everything produced by Tehrangeles artists is dance music, music with danceable rhythms was historically the most profitable and therefore the most prolific style, making the association between Tehrangeles and dance music hard to shake. Having witnessed expatriate television interviews become tense or hostile when it was suggested that a musician was “los ānjelesi,” I never dared to use the term for fear of offending my interlocutors. Calling a musician los ānjelesi has the added insult of inscribing an individual as “of Los Angeles” (its literal meaning) and therefore not primarily “of Iran” (irāni). As an example, Southern California-based vocalist and songwriter Mehrdad Asemani protested on an expatriate talk show that the los ānjelesi moniker was “made up by the Islamic Republic” to insult musicians like himself. “I’m not from Los Angeles,” he angrily exclaimed. “My father’s not from Los Angeles – I’m a kid…from Hafez Street! I fought in the war with Iraq. I wasn’t born in Los Angeles!” The los ānjelesi taint has also extended to me as someone misguided or ignorant enough to consider Tehrangeles pop worthy of study. Confused looks, polite avoidance, and peals of laughter are among the reactions I have received when telling Iranians my research topic. While attending a party in 2006 in Toronto at the home of an expatriate journalist, I was introduced to another well-known journalist who had recently fled Iran following the closure of the reformist press. After a few pleasantries, I told him that I would soon be heading to Los Angeles to study its Iranian music scene. He paused for a moment and then leveled me with a dismissive scowl. “So, you want to study shit-shenāsi?” he growled. His improvised combination of the English word “shit” with the Persian suffix for “-ology” (shenāsi) denigrated my research and me as well. I was, apparently, a “shit-ologist” (“shitshenās”).
Despite their postrevolutionary geographical inscription onto Southern California, the negative discourses surrounding professional performers and the upbeat party music they play have their roots in a national history of religious, elitist, and leftist prejudices against immoral and “degenerate” (mobtazal) entertainments and the professionals who produce them (for more on the terminology of degeneration (ebtezāl) in Iranian culture, see Ida Meftahi’s work) Tehrangeles Dreaming positions these disparaging sentiments as extensions of Iranian national changes, concepts, and politics of culture into diaspora and back again. Today, cultural elites and the postrevolutionary state tar Tehrangeles pop musicians with the same brush as their low-status professional entertainer ancestors known as “motreb,” relocating the negative legacy of the motreb, immorality, and degeneration outside of Iran and into exile. Los ānjelesi music is “bad music” (c.f. Washburn and Derno 2004) and los ānjelesi singers are “bad people” who callously target audiences’ basest desires for entertainment, titillation, and distraction. In official Islamic Republic discourse, Tehrangeles cultural producers are both immoral and “farāri” or escapees—people who didn’t serve their time in the revolutionary courts. They are pathetic, faithless self-exiles who abandoned their homeland at its moment of need, and are now deservedly cursed with permanent separation and irrelevance. At worst, they are agents in a “soft war” who “spread corruption” via expatriate and Western-government funded media, treasonously attempting to undermine the state from afar. This book documents some of the main ways Tehrangeles cultural producers negotiate these charges through cultural production: creating alternative histories in which they are not villains but heroes; making politically committed music and attempting to politically mobilize transnational audiences; and arguing for dance, dance music, and levity as necessary elements of being and feeling Iranian.