Somebody's Watching Me
October 22nd, 2013
Todd plays "Somebody's Watching Me" on the piano.
ROCKWELL - SOMEBODY'S WATCHING ME
A one-hit wonder retrospective
Todd: [spooky] It's Halloween again, boils and ghouls, and that means it's time for the annual One Hit Wonderland Spooktacular Edition, a proud tradition that dates all the way back to [picture of Todd in costume from "Monster Mash"—"blonde Zorro"] last year. And I'm probably not gonna do another one. But, you know, woo-hoo, Halloween!
Guess I should, uh, costume again. Let's see what we've got in the prop box here. [Puts on a conical Asian hat, and pulls out a sword and handsaw] Okay, I'm a Chinese...pirate...carpenter. [Puts everything back] Whatever, I don't even need a costume. You know what? What's scarier than a strange, faceless man looming and watching you from the shadows?
And speaking of.
- Video for "Somebody's Watching Me"
Todd (VO): Yes, today, we are talking about Rockwell—a man who took his one hit about his creeping paranoia almost all the way up the charts in 1984.
- Michael Jackson: I always feel like somebody's watching me
- Rockwell: And I have no privacy
Todd (VO): Part of a brief but glorious moment when mainstream pop wasn't afraid to get...
Todd: ...a little ghoulish.
Todd (VO): And it's surprisingly topical in [WeaponsMan logo for National Security Agency] 2013, weirdly enough. And a big part of the reason why that subsection of pop existed [brief clip of title track from Michael Jackson's ] was the success of Thriller, something "Somebody's Watching Me" couldn't exist without...
Todd: ...in more ways than one.
- Rockwell: All I want is to be left alone
Todd (VO): Now I have talked about Rockwell before, when [clip of LMFAO - "Sexy and I Know It"] a couple of his relatives were briefly popular a couple years ago.
- Sky Blu: I'm sexy and I know it
Todd: Thank God that's over.
Todd (VO): Now, I don't remember saying many nice things about Rockwell. Something about how he was a talentless wannabe exploiting the resources and connections he got from obvious nepotism. But I am often surprised how different artists end up looking when you explore more than a single song.
Todd: So why was Rockwell not able to leverage his influential family name beyond a single hit song?
Todd (VO): And for that matter, if you didn't want people to be watching you, why are you wearing that ridiculous Jheri curl? Well, come with me as we explore the primal fear of never really being alone.
Todd: And be sure to look over your shoulder because you never know who might be lurking behind you. [Echoing, spooky laughter]
- Rockwell: Well, can the people on TV see me
- Or am I just paranoid?
Before the hit
Todd: Rockwell's only hit begins...
- Rockwell: I'm just an average man
- With an average life
Todd: But that isn't remotely true. Now like I said...
- Images of Spanish single cover, portrait of Berry Gordy, Jr., and covers of Motown 50th Anniversary box set and A Tribute to Berry Gordy - The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown
Todd (VO): His real name is Kennedy Gordy, and he is the son of Berry Gordy, Jr., founder of Motown Records and one of the most important music executives who ever lived.
Todd: I assumed that meant that Kennedy was just some [cover of Richie Rich, No. 1] spoiled, pampered, rich boy, son of privilege. [picture of very young Rockwell totally decked out] Man, I found a picture of him. Enough said, right? But because the lurid, crazy history of the early days of Motown had been well documented, I found out that that's not necessarily the case.
- Picture of Gordy with Ray Singleton, and cover of Gerald Posner's Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power. Song in background is The Supremes - "Stop! In the Name of Love"
Todd (VO): Okay, for one, Kennedy's mom was not Berry Gordy's wife, but one of the many chicks Berry Gordy was seeing on the side.
Todd: Uh, that, of course, caused an ugly divorce. [Picture of Rockwell] Kennedy seems to have been on decent terms with his father growing up, but when his mom started having trouble with drugs, he started living with [cover of Berry, Me and Motown: The Untold Story by...] Gordy's ex-wife. Yeah, the same one Berry was cheating on when he had Kennedy.
- Clip of Rockwell on American Bandstand
Todd (VO): Also, of course, he was hanging out with all sorts of showbiz types, surrounded by their fans and paparazzi, which I'm sure must have been stressful for a young kid. When he recorded his first songs, he wasn't even on speaking terms with his dad, and his record deal with Motown happened entirely behind his dad's back, and he changed his name to Rockwell because he didn't want anyone to know their connection. [Picture of Prince] Also, one-named singers were big at the time, you know.
- Clip of alternate video for "Somebody's Watching Me"
All that is not to say that he doesn't owe his career to his family name. 'Cause even if his dad didn't know, the other execs surely did.
Todd: But also, Motown was at a really low point in the mid-80s.
- Clip of Dennis Edwards - "Don't Look Any Further"
- Dennis: ...in a world of change
Todd (VO): Like, it's a serious downgrade to go from Marvin Gaye and The Temptations and The Supremes and Smokey Robinson to [clips of "Rhythm of the Night" by...] El DeBarge, ["Lovergirl" by...] Teena Marie, [...and "Respect Yourself" by...] Bruce Willis.
- Bruce: Respect yourself
Todd (VO): Seriously? So I assume whoever signed him figured, you know...
Todd: ...why the hell not? Not like we got anything else going on.
Todd (VO): Also, were he not a Gordy, he wouldn't have met the man who made his hit. Namely, [picture of Michael with Bubbles and a llama] this guy. See...
Todd: ...the Gordys and the Jacksons were always really close.
- Picture of the Jackson 5
Todd (VO): As a kid, Kennedy was always hanging out with the Jackson 5, [wedding picture of Jermaine Jackson and Hazel Gordy] Rockwell's sister was married to a Jackson, [clip of Michael performing at Motown 25] and MJ himself was long gone from Motown at this point. But Rockwell played his demo for him, and when the King of Pop heard it, he found himself irresistibly attracted to this song about a [picture of Michael and Bubbles] terrified, privacy-obsessed paranoiac losing his mind.
Todd: God only knows why.
Todd (VO): Michael demanded a chance to sing on the actual recording. When Rockwell's dad heard it...
Todd: ...he immediately declared it a hit and rushed it into the marketplace.
Berry Gordy knows a hit when he hears it, yo
- Video for "Somebody's Watching Me"
- Rockwell: Who's watching
Todd (VO): I'm not gonna say a lot of nice things about Rockwell, so let me say this right now, clearly and for the record.
Todd: "Somebody's Watching Me" is just an awesome song.
Todd (VO): Most everything Motown put out in the 80s is kinda lame; but "Somebody's Watching Me," the production is fantastic, the concept is great, and like I said, for a couple years there, you could write all sorts of silly songs about [clips of Eurythmics - "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" and Ray Parker, Jr. - "Ghostbusters"] Halloween-y type things; and also, synthesizers, most of the time, sound cold and creepy, so no wonder this was a glory time for horror pop.
- Rockwell: When I come home at night
- I bolt the door real tight
Todd (VO): You can blame "Thriller" for that probably, but...
Todd: ...honestly, I've never really liked "Thriller" that much. Kinda a little, just, too cheesy for me, whereas...
Todd (VO): "Somebody's Watching Me" taps into something kinda real and crazy and falling apart.
- Michael: I always feel like somebody's watching me
Todd (VO): And knowing how the Michael Jackson story unfolded only adds another dimension to it.
Todd: And I just like the concept of the song. Like...
Todd (VO): ...I love the next silly love song as much as anyone. But how many times have we had a song about a guy who's being tormented by unknown monsters haunting his house.
Todd: And of course, Michael Jackson was a huge get.
- Michael: I always feel like somebody's watching me
Todd (VO) That practically guaranteed the success of this song. I think, at one point that year, the sound of [clip from Neil Young - "This Note's for You"] Michael Jackson's hair catching fire was the #1 song in the country. And in his own way, Rockwell was ahead of his time. Nowadays, featuring credits are ubiquitous; rappers hire [brief clip from Jennifer Lopez ft. Pitbull - "On the Floor"] big name stars all the time to sing their hooks. But in 1984? Never. Of course, calling Rockwell a rapper is pushing it.
Todd: He is the weak link on this song by a large margin. His rap skills are roughly on the same level as [clip of...] Rodney Dangerfield in "Rappin' Rodney," but his jokes are a lot cornier.
- Rockwell: I wonder who's watching me now
- Jermaine: Who?
- Rockwell: The IRS?
Todd: Well, pay your damn taxes, rich boy, and you can stop worrying about it.
- Rockwell: When I come home at night
Todd (VO): And even just on a pure, vocal level, he's pretty bad. He's not exactly called on to do much here. For comparison, check out Morris Day's cover a couple decades later.
- Clip of Morris Day - "Somebody's Watching Me"
- Morris: People calling me on the phone
- That I'm trying to avoid
- Is it the people on the TV see me
- Or am I just paranoid?
Todd: That's a guy with some delivery. Not that Rockwell doesn't try.
- Rockwell: Are the neighbors watching me
- Well, is the mailman watching me
Todd (VO): Mostly, he compensates for his utter lack of vocal talent by going over-the-top ham. He's practically chewing on the cheap Halloween store scenery.
Todd: Nah, that's mean. The video's actually quite...
Todd (VO): ...appropriately Poltergeist-y. But ignoring the cool video where there are ghosts and ghouls and zombies and...pig-dogs everywhere, as far as I can tell, this is not a song about being haunted or stalked or in danger.
Todd: It's just a guy who's weird.
Todd (VO): He's scared to answer the phone, he's scared to watch TV, he's scared to shower...
- Rockwell: When I'm in the shower
- I'm afraid to wash my hair
Todd (VO): Which he really should and get all that gunk out of his hair. But he can't, because performing the basic functions of life is just too much for him to handle. He's going full-on Howard Hughes, and he probably needs to be medicated. This is less [posters of...] Psycho and more Repulsion. Uh...Spider? Pi?
Todd: Just one of those movies where the protagonist is going crazy. Uh...Black Swan?
- Rockwell: I don't know anymore
Todd (VO): Honestly, that's what I like about it the most, that it's so crazy. That and the killer organ solo.
Todd: Okay, Michael Jackson's, like, 80% of why I like this, but Rockwell had definitely established himself as a unique standout with his hit song, which reached all the way to #2. Where did he go from here?
The failed follow-up
Todd: You know those artists, like David Bowie and Madonna, who evolve and reinvent themselves with every successive album? We don't cover those on this show.
- Video for "Obscene Phone Caller"
Todd (VO): Anyway, the video for his failed follow-up has him coming straight from a Rockwell concert, being mobbed by screaming Rockwell fans...
- Fans: Rockwell, Rockwell...
Todd (VO): ...when this happens.
- Rockwell: Hello?
- Who is this?
- Girl: Obscene phone caller
Todd (VO): Yes, Rockwell has taken his original song's theme of unknown lurking terrors, and found a new...
Todd: ...substantially ickier take on them.
- Rockwell: Obscene phone caller
Todd (VO): An obscene phone caller, which was this horrible phenomenon that existed before caller ID. And "Obscene Phone Caller" is a fitting title because this song is obscenely terrible.
- Rockwell: I don't know what's going through your mind
- But these naughty phone calls are a waste of time.
Todd (VO): I do feel like "Somebody's Watching Me" taps into creeping dread in a fun way. There's nothing fun about perverts making creepy, mouth-breathing phone calls.
Todd: Also, is this something that happened to a lot of men?
Todd (VO): Yeah, the video's trying to make it look as sexy as possible, but by the song's own admission, he doesn't even know whether the creeper on the other line is a girl or a guy.
- Rockwell: Just let me know if you're a girl or something, maybe I'll talk to you
- Rockwell: ...off breathing
Todd (VO): This obviously didn't chart. Nor did his next single, which is titled, [single cover of...] "Knife".
Todd: You'd think that's continuing the stalker/horror theme, but it's actually a soft, slow R&B ballad, and it is here where he demonstrates the full extent of his talent.
- "Knife" plays over different video
- Rockwell: Knife
- Cuts like a knife
- Rockwell: You cut away the heart of my life
Todd: You cut out "the heart of my life." This sounds like some badly translated Asian karaoke song.
- Rockwell: I'm so deeply wounded
Did he ever do anything else?
Todd: No. Well, yes, but not really.
- "Taxman" over other video
Todd (VO): First off, this wasn't a single, but I really wanted to share his cover of the Beatles' "Taxman".
- Rockwell: Cause I'm the taxman
- Yeah, I'm the taxman
Todd (VO): God, this guy really had it in for the IRS, huh? Maybe he's worried they'll repossess the single Casio keyboard they had to record this with.
Todd: After that, he did release two more albums over the next two years—[album covers of...] Captured, [slight chuckle] nice jacket, and The Genie. [Another laugh] Oh my God, that's even better. He released several singles, but none of them charted, and if they had videos, I couldn't find them. Except...
- Video for...
Todd (VO): ...for this one off his second album, "Peeping Tom".
- Rockwell: She's my peeping tom
Todd (VO): God, he really has a problem with stalkers. Women just want him and don't respect his boundaries.
- Rockwell: Peeping tom
- Peeping tom
Todd: [singing] King of pain!
Todd (VO): Okay, okay, this is just stupid. [Clip of "Dirty Diana" by...] Now, Michael put out lots of songs where he was a victim of female sexual predators, but he also did seem kind of legitimately terrified of sex. In the case of "Peeping Tom", meanwhile, Rockwell actually seems to be delighted and interested in this ogling psycho sneaking through his yard.
- Rockwell: ...when she's peekin'
- Will she find it 'cause I don't mind it
- Clip of "Leave Me Alone"
Todd (VO): Also, when Michael Jackson put out song after song pleading for privacy,...
Todd: ...at least you understood where he was coming from.
Todd (VO): Rockwell, were people ever really that interested in you? Were you really so hounded by attention that you wrote song after song about it?
Todd: Actually, maybe he was.
- Alternate video of "Somebody's Watching Me"
Todd (VO): At first, I assumed that he kept writing songs like that just to try and recapture the magic of the first hit. But I think he might really have been that paranoid because, as far as I can tell,...
Todd: ...Rockwell has completely disappeared.
Todd (VO): I...I tried to find out what happened to him after he stopped singing, and I can find almost nothing. I...I know he's still alive because TMZ reported he got a divorce three months ago. I found one unverified source that said he was working in the music industry in some unspecified capacity. In Berry Gordy's autobiography, he says he sees a lot of his own entrepreneurial spirit in his son Rockwell. But what's he doing? I have no idea. No interviews, no "where are they now"s, no public appearances. Apparently, he's trying to make sure, once and for all, that no one is watching him.
Todd: Or maybe...they got him.
Did he deserve better?
Todd (VO): [to opening riff] No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.
Todd (VO): I can't emphasize how little business Rockwell had being a recording artist. He couldn't rap, he couldn't sing, he wasn't a pretty good songwriter or engaging performer, and if his dad had been Robert Q. Schmuck, he would not have had the opportunities he did. That said, "Somebody's Watching Me" was a bolt of inspiration that came together perfectly, one that lives on in Halloween dance parties to this day.
Todd: But let's be clear. That was a fluke. Somebody may have been watching him, but I can't imagine why.
- Michael: I always feel like somebody's watching me...
Closing tag song: Warmen - "Somebody's Watching Me"
"Somebody's Watching Me" is owned by Motown Records
This video is owned by me