"Hey Ayatollah, Leave Those Kids Alone!" sing two Iranian-born brothers. Their band is named Blurred Vision. They have been living in exile, we are told. The word exile is used quite randomly these days. Were they shunted out because they were protesting or did they leave because they could not take the stringent laws anymore and wanted the freedom to see through the blur? Do they wish to return and are being denied that right? Such queries do not matter. Emigrants are exiles if they have a drum to beat.
Their video, shot by Iranian film director Babak Payami, has used the Pink Floyd number “Another Brick in the Wall”, altering the lyrics a bit and using images of street protest during the elections of 2009. It is questioning the religious guardianship of Ayatollah Khamenei, which is really off-the-mark. The fact that elections are held and there is a leader elected – whatever be the means used – denotes a political process and not a religious one. But this sounds better. Had they said, “Hey Ahmadenijad”, it might not have been quite as dramatic, especially since the Iranian leader has gone ahead and challenged the US President to a debate on television to see who has better solutions. So, you pin down an Islamic figure-head.
This is the surface. There is more beneath the epidermis. Why use a western song of protest? Apparently, it has become the underground anthem of the youth in Iran. We have to take the word of the exiled brothers to understand that it is true. Let us not forget that Iranian cinema is considered among the finest today and it can hardly be termed establishment-oriented. Creativity often flourishes when pushed against the wall to make bricks fall.
Every movement has its anthem or song or symbol that is indigenous. It could be political, social, cultural or regarding gender issues. It could take the form of street theatre or performances in stadia that pose a challenge to the mainstream status quo openly. Many use songs simply because it appears to have universal appeal, be they folk or pop. It is a part of the oral tradition where values were instilled through the narration of epics.
One might argue that since these are often used even today, they go against contemporary ideas of dissent. Would citing mythological characters that are revered be seen as exemplars of tangential ideas? In some ways, indeed they do, if we take the cases of those who remonstrated against the linear forms of goodness and morality. The devotional songs of the female saint Meerabai quite clearly indicate that by the societal norms prevalent then, she was going against the tide, breaking caste, gender and moral barriers. It is another matter that the cult of devotion itself is anti-dissent.
Therefore, if we see it through such embedding, then the heroism of those who strike out transforms what they are voicing about general angst into the creation of idols and is antithetical to the purity of protest. This is the fate of traditional as well as pop culture. The traditional forms have in fact used religion, as some Indian leaders did during the British Raj. The result is that these examples are cited in contemporary times to push minorities within the nation against the wall. Nostalgia for a movement needs fresh enemies.
With pop culture, mainly music, the tendency has been to create stars and chartbusters. It does reach a huge audience and whips up emotional frenzy. As the lines get repeated, the person on stage looks more and more like a priest with a swaying choir. The dissonance inherent in the lyrics becomes another attempt at the ooh-aah factor of playing to the gallery of rogues. The bad guys are not the bad guys because they have sung a few sentences against apartheid, global warming, homophobia, wars. It becomes a peacenik picnic.
Except perhaps for some Black spiritual songs, which remained within the realm of spiritualism, such anthems as they are highlight an issue only to the extent that the stage allows for. Rap worked at the street level and promoted a stereotype of Harlem. In this instance, Eminem became the dissenter – the clean White boy-man singing the song of garbage-rummaging. It is particularly unfortunate that the anti-war movement needs songs; invariably they work as catharsis for the collective guilt felt by societies that have pugnacious governments. However, when the time arrives and they have to make a choice, they do end up choosing between blue and red states. The Vietnam flag-holders walk all over the red carpet to fund the rising sunshine of blinkered vision.
The aftermath is that followers merely sit in echo chambers enunciating words that seem so hollow after the initial impact. In fact, they often become consumer goods, labeled and retailed and lose their sting. It also remains pretty much a western cornucopia that is sponged on by the rest of the world. ‘We are the world’ does sound so very cryptic.
It is with this background that one must see Pink Floyd’s magnanimity in permitting their song to be adapted by the Iranian band. It is because Roger Waters of Pink Floyd already has a stance on Iran that has been described as outspoken. Opinions are personal and borrowed numbers are another form of “thought control”. The ayatollahs are not “just another brick in the wall”. They are, due to the peculiar nature of that society, the edifice. If you wish to strike at that then you must use the language and the ethos of the soil on which they have taken root.
Hitting out at bricks will only create holes in the building, holes you can see through but not completely penetrate. Is that what protest movements wish to be? A bit of a tease? A show of camaraderie with what the rest of the world has admired? Or to be mimic men catering to the “comfortably numb”?
(c) Farzana Versey
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This was published in Countercurrents, August 6, 2010