Ali Alizadeh’s Listening to Michael Jackson in Tehran in Tehran is a poem which details a young Alizadeh who has a tape of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’. Being in Tehran, the capital of Iran, Alizadeh describes the tape as ‘dangerous Western Art’, taking joy from the contraband item. He is sat on the school bus, excitedly ready to shake up the world of the ‘boring’ classmates by revealing his prohibited item. Yet, when he asks if they have ‘ever heard of “Billie Jean”’, a reference within once of Michael Jackson’s songs, they all reply with similar references and suggestions that they all have some form of Michael Jackson contraband: ‘a poster’, ’T-shirt’… The young Alizadeh is disappointed at this, hoping his rebelliousness would have ‘elevated’ him to popularity.
Listening to Michael Jackson in Tehran is a 32 line spoken word poem that is split into 16 pairs of lines. The poem has no discernible rhyme scheme, instead of focusing on the disruption and disconnection between the pairs of lines, rather than binding them together.
Many of the lines of the poem are enjambed, flowing onto one another before quickly being interrupted by the gap between the pairs of lines. This simultaneous connection, and also disconnection, is representative of the link between Tehran and the US within the poem. Although in Iran, Alizadeh has a link to ‘the US’ through his ‘smuggled’ tape. This link is one Alizadeh treasures, one of secrecy and which he thinks will ascend him to popularity, but one that ultimately results in nothing. Although not actually in the USA, the subtle sense of connection to the country, disrupted but still present, is what Alizadeh is elevating through the selection of this disrupted structure.
The disconnected structure could also be understood as a representation of the fractured relationship between Alizadeh and his classmates, thinking he will finally have something which places him on a similar level to them, before it being stripped away from him. The structure of the poem a mechanism to represent the almost establishing, but ultimate fragmentation of connection. You can read the full Listening to Michael Jackson in Tehran here.
Listening to Michael Jackson in Tehran Analysis
Smuggled across the fierce chasm
and Science textbooks in my school
Beginning Listening to Michael Jackson in Tehran with the adjective ’smuggled’ to describe the ‘tape’ instantly creates a sense of secrecy, with Alizadeh focusing on the rebellious nature of having this contraband item. This is something that excites him, and he elevates the item above the actual narrative of the passage through placing the word syntactically first.
The adjective ‘fierce’ used to describe the ‘chasm’ between the US and Iran relates to the narrative of political tension between to two countries. It seems as if Alizadeh is well aware of the feud between the countries, and this furthers his sense of excitement at having the contraband tape. The ‘fierce chasm’ could also be used to explain the disrupted structure, with each pair having to pass over a similar gap to flow onto the next.
The interplay of ‘us and the US’ unifies the two countries. Alizadeh draws the two opposing places together, manipulating language to echo ‘us’ in the acronym ‘US’. This could be used to present the two as not so different, reflecting on the political tension.
The ‘chasm’ between the countries is further reflected through the ‘tape’ which is ‘stuffed’ between ‘Farsi and Science textbooks’. This state of in-betweenness is a huge focus of the poem, with even the tape being in a state of purgatory. At this point in the poem, not only is the tape hidden, but it is also a secret, balanced between two states of being known and being hidden away. This state of transition and in-betweenness is similarly explored by another Iranian poet, Choman Hardi.
bag, the illegal and sacrilegious
kids on the bus to my primary school
The double adjectives ‘illegal and sacrilegious’ to describe the ‘tape’ further elevate the sense of rebelliousness that Alizadeh began within the first line. It is almost as if child Alizadeh takes pride in doing something that he knows would be frowned on. Moreover, the disrupting of two institutions, the political in ‘illegal’ and the religious in ‘sacrilegious’ culminates to present the complete tabu nature of what he is doing. The tone is wary, with Alizadeh worried about being found out, hence the hiding away of the tape.
The judgemental ‘sheepish, ignorant’ characterization of the ‘kids on the ‘bus’ gives the reader an insight into the relationship Alizadeh holds with other children his age. Further revealed later in Listening to Michael Jackson in Tehran, Alizadeh wants to be popular, insinuating he isn’t in this current moment. The poet scorns the other children, not fitting in completely and therefore demeaning them to make himself feel better. There is an air of superiority around his rebellious act, with Alizadeh hoping to prove to everyone on the bus that he is just as interesting, and if not more so, than the other children.
in war-stricken Tehran. My plan:
to expose the forbidden thing, exhibit
unsettle the boring, Islamic world
of my classmates – and elevate my
These lines detail the ‘plan’ of the poem, Alizadeh is going to reveal the ‘tape’ to his classmates to gain popularity. ‘Expose’ suggests a moment of revelation, with Alizadeh envisioning this historic moment in which he shocks all of his classmates. Again, the collocation of the tape with something ‘forbidden’ emphasizes the sense that Alizadeh enjoys the rebelliousness of the act, perhaps more than the thing itself.
The self-characterization of ‘desperate’ furthers this sense that Alizadeh longs to be accepted by the other kids on the bus. There is a total search for acceptance, hoping that his rebelliousness will make him stand out to the others.
The description of ‘dangerous Western art’ compounds the sense of the political turmoil. Even the hint of ‘Western art’ is something radical and forbidden, the excitement generated by ‘dangerous’ being attractive to the poet.
The fact that ‘war-stricken Tehran’ is something ‘boring’ to the poet further insinuates that this is a place that has had political unrest for quite some time. The foreign ‘tape’ is more exciting to Alizadeh than the ‘war’ of his home country, showing the world in which he has grown up in.
cowardly, chubby, unpopular
star of our wicked enemy. “I love
The subtle tone of ‘whispered’ when discussing his contraband tape furthers the sense of secrecy around the object. Alizadeh is trying to be as quiet and as mysterious as he possibly can when talking about the prohibited item. This not only elevates the idea of ‘rebelliousness’, but also allows for a contrast to be exhibited with the later tones of the other children.
The assumed ignorance implied in ‘if he knew anything at all’, with ‘anything’ suggesting a tiny slither of information furthers the indication from earlier in Listening to Michael Jackson in Tehran of the superiority Alizadeh feels to his classmates. He doesn’t believe any of the other children on his bus could be so ‘rebellious’ as to have a contraband item. Indeed, considering that it is from the ‘number on famous star of our wicked enemy’.
Thriller! Aren’t the zombies so scary
in the music video! They’re so ugly!” His
boisterous words echoed. The bus
stardom, I sank in my seat; later threw out my
Thriller tape, the fetish of Great Satan’s
useless, ubiquitous popular culture.
The response to Alizadeh’s hushed question takes him by surprise, instantly stripping him of any sense of superiority as he realizes that he doesn’t have anything new to shock the others, them too having participated in the contraband world of Western music. The other boys reply in ‘boisterous words’, the loud discussion of the banned figure dispelling the sense of mystery that Alizadeh has been creating in his head.
Where he ‘whispers’ they shout, their speech is marked with exclamation marks. They feel no need to talk in hushed tones about the music, it being something more common and less prohibited in their eyes. The ‘chasm’ of difference between Alizadeh and the other children is again a moment of disconnection within Listening to Michael Jackson in Tehran, further isolating the poet from the other children.
The final line focuses on the disappointment Alizadeh feels at having thought the was doing something rebellious. The tape, once ‘smuggled’, ‘rebellious’, stemming from his own ‘courage’ is now nothing more than ‘ubiquitous’. The tone shift within these last lines is palpable, the fantasy of being popular crashing down around Alizadeh. He has not done something revolutionary, but again is one step behind the other children of his class, sulking as the others laugh and exchange comments about his secret fascination.