The Iranian Madonna breaks her silence
By Robin Denselow
The Guardian (London)
January 8, 2001
Now here's a plot for an unlikely movie. Religious fundamentalists take
over the US, and pop music is banned. Madonna retreats to her apartment
in New York and stops singing, but right across the country her devotees
defy the authorities by secretly playing bootleg tapes of Like a Virgin
and American Pie. Two decades later, she is finally allowed out of the
country to perform abroad, and is treated like a returned goddess by tens
of thousands of exiles.
Shift the start of that tale back to Iran in the 1970s and the ending
to Wembley Arena at the weekend, and that's the story of Faegheh Atashin,
better known as Googoosh, the pop icon of the pre-Ayatollah Khomeini era
and still Iran's best-selling artist, although she wasn't allowed to perform
or record for 21 years.
She's not just Madonna for us,' explained a teenager in the wildly emotional
Wembley crowd. She's Michael Jackson and George Michael, too. I hadn't
been born when she was forced to stop singing, but you can't live in an
Iranian family without hearing her all the time.'
On stage, in a blitz of flashing lights, came a lady of 50 with shoulder-length
blonde hair, wearing a glittery gold blouse and gold skirt. She stared
out into the audience and looked as if she was about to burst into tears,
then held out her hands to show they were shaking, before falling to her
knees. Many in the crowd, who had paid up to pounds 250 a ticket, simply
Every Iranian in town seemed to be here, from the elderly to young children,
businessmen in suits, and women wrapped in expensive fur coats, more suited
to a Tehran party back in the Shah's era than to Wembley in 2001. These
wildly emotional scenes continued for five minutes before Googoosh managed
to say a word.
There followed a marathon re-run of her hits from the 1970s, the era
before the mullahs banned the western-influenced pop culture of discos
and mini-skirts. She started with an upbeat, declamatory song dealing with
love and exile, then moved on to a slow, equally emotional ballad, then
a burst of Iranian 1970s hand-clapping disco.
For a woman banned from singing for two decades, then allowed to give
shows in North America last year, she was in remarkably good voice, and
showed even more remarkable stamina. Much of her material was straightforward
1970s pop, given an eastern-tinged Iranian edge, but the jollity was mixed
with ballads that edged towards chanson and even Piaf territory.
She veered between the brash, the vulnerable and the sensitive, and
she was little helped by the garish setting and the insensitive band bashing
away on synthesisers and percussion. Googoosh has had a tough life. In
the Shah's era, there were stories of attempted manipulation and harassment
from those in power. Since the revolution, she has been forced to choose
between exile and keeping quiet, abandoning her career.
For me, as an outsider, the best sections were those when she sang only
with piano, or when she announced a new setting for an old favourite',
and showed the delicacy in her voice when backed only by a flamenco-influenced
acoustic guitar. But the Iranians around me, cheering her on as fireworks
exploded onstage, would doubtless disagree.