Friday, April 23, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Rockwell's "Somebody's Watching Me"

In 1926, George and Ira Gershwin wrote the standard "Someone to Watch Over Me." It is a gentle song about a woman who longs to find a man who will "watch over" her. There's nothing sinister or creepy about it. The lyric is about one necessary pillar of true love: care. She simply wants a man who will be there for her through good times and bad. But something strange happened along the way. Our culture lost its purposeful, carefully constructed innocence, and the notion of "watching" subtly transformed from an important part of courtly romance and everlasting love to voyeurism, scopophilia, and omnipresent surveillance. The end result is a cultural paranoia which some yahoos with college degrees have dubbed "the post-post-post-postmodern condition," which is essentially the historical moment after post-post-postmodernism.

No other artist from our era has perfectly captured the transformation of the gaze from a private act with loving intent to a public act of psychosexual control more than Rockwell in his monumental 1984 blockbuster "Somebody's Watching Me." Where in the old-fogey days of the Gershwin brothers, this would have been something sentimental and pure, Rockwell's lyric, set against a digitized distortion of Johann Sebastian Bach's organ piece "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," communicates fear and paranoia. The narrator fancies himself to be "an average man," but wonders why he always feels like he is "in the Twilight Zone." He is similarly afraid that his phone calls are being monitored and that the "people on TV see me." These warped perceptions become mortal thoughts when he discloses that he now fears taking a shower because it "reminds [him] of Psycho too much." Amazingly, in just a few lines, Rockwell undoes years of film theory by suggesting that the movies are, too, watching him. He's the subject of the cinematic gaze, not vice versa. Finally, now fearful that his neighbors and Mr. Postman are watching him, he comes to the conclusion that it's "the IRS" that's watching him. Rockwell's narrator cannot even escape the ever-present eye of the State. He cannot get off the grid. Compounding the sense of a disembodied, far-from-altruistic gaze watching over him is the voice of The King of Pop hovering over Rockwell during the chorus. Michael Jackson, friends with Rockwell (nee Kenneth William Gordy, son of Motown founder Berry Gordy), was in on the deal, his golden voice, an ever-present part of the marketplace in the early 1980s, serving to make "Somebody's Watching Me," and its important message, a #2 Billboard hit in 1984.

"Somebody's Watching Me" not only perfectly captures this societal transformation, which happened quickly over the course of sixty long years, but it prophecies the explosion in morally un-Constitutional surveillance that would soon follow its unintentional advertisement of an unnatural inversion of Ralph Waldo Emerson's notion of the "transparent eyeball." Look at what has happened since then: the Internet, caller ID, un-manned drone aircraft, web browser cookies, spyware, web cams, street cams, Obamacare. Rockwell's unlikely hit is easily one of the most important snapshots of the human condition in flux in the history of ever.

Below is the equally genius music video for the song:

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if anyone has made love to that poor man.