Nonfiction: Michael Jackson & Michel Foucault Walk Into a Bar


Read More: A brief interview with D. Gilson

“Is it surprising that the cellular prison, with its regular chronologies, forced labor, its authorities of surveillance… should have become the modern instrument of penalty? Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”
—Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish

“That’s ignorant.”
—Michael Jackson, Living with Michael Jackson

A string of songs from the late seventies into the mid-eighties aspire to the identity of the American everyman. These are mostly white, working class anthems: John Mellancamp’s “Jack & Diane,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” and especially Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” These are power ballads fallen out of time but not out of favor, sung alike by middle-aged men who were teenagers when the songs first climbed Billboard charts, thirty-something women stuck in traffic listening to rush hour radio, and drunken fraternity boys in karaoke bars from Topeka to Tokyo. It would be difficult for me, as it would be for many, I suspect, to say I don’t love these songs, though en masse they become a ubiquitous blur, a sprawling shopping center with McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Subway, where the chords might be different, but the meat tastes blandly familiar and comforting.

One song from this era also claims universality, but stands astride the crowd: Rockwell’s 1984 hit “Somebody’s Watching Me.” “I’m just an average man,” contends the first verse, “with an average life. I work from nine to five; hey hell, I pay the price. All I want is to be left alone in my average home.” Rockwell’s home was anything but. His given name was Kennedy William Gordy; he was the son of Motown founder Berry Gordy, who claims he named his son after John Kennedy and William “Smokey” Robinson. In 1984 the father and son were estranged, and Rockwell lived with Berry’s ex-wife, R&B star Ray Singleton. Somehow, without his father’s knowledge, Rockwell attained a recording contract at Motown and wrote his biggest hit about the paranoia of living under the shadow of such a figure. He might have claimed to be average, but he wonders as the first verse moves into the song’s bridge, “Why do I always feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone?”


The Digital Age has made us all citizens of a surveillance state. How surveyed we are, of course, depends on any number of factors. I live in Washington, DC, one of the most surveyed cities on the planet, and cameras, visible and invisible, watch me as I commute to work, order coffee, go to the gym, and then walk to Captain Cookie & The Milk Man, a food truck with the most delicious vegan chocolate chip cookies I have yet to find. (An iPhone app, MyFitnessPal, estimates this cookie has 250 calories and I will have to run 2.55 miles to burn them off). If you travel regularly by plane, train, or automobile on our nation’s turnpikes and interstates, your picture is taken, your identity checked and cross-checked for general security purposes. Some of this—and my libertarian friends would scoff at me saying this—seems innocent enough, and at times necessary. I’ve seen enough movies where terrorists take over The White House to know we need their picture, that it helps us not only determine who they are and what they want, but also which rogue agent (Kiefer Sutherland, Harrison Ford, Matt Damon) to send in. God Bless America.

Well, it’s easy to say God Bless America as a white guy. If you are a woman, our country is obsessed with surveying your body. In 2012, the state of Virginia passed a law requiring women to get an ultrasound before having an abortion. During early stages of pregnancy, when most abortions are performed, this must be done by penetrating the woman’s vagina with a camera. If you appear Latino, you can be asked to prove citizenship at any point, and if you are African American, your body is far less likely to be protected by and three times more likely to be assaulted by our nation’s police forces. And god bless you, indeed, if you appear even vaguely Muslim in post-9/11 America.


When my father calls to say he has cancer, his first request is “Now I don’t want this posted on Facebook.” He’s mostly concerned two of my sisters, both evangelical Christians, will narrate his battle online, posting a stream of prayer requests as the cancer cells divide and multiply, or praise reports when a doctor tells him his latest blood counts look promising. Our father, a Vietnam veteran, also refuses to call this a “battle” with cancer. He is too rational, and explains scientists are seeing an uptick in lymph node cancers amongst veterans who fought in Southeast Asia and were exposed to Agent Orange. I want to post rabid liberal rants on social media about how the industrial military complex gave my dad cancer. Maybe my father, a scopophobe, should be concerned about his atheist son, too, the one who writes this essay, this act of writing both an agent and conduit of surveillance. What are those burdensome categories of essayistic nonfiction, if not our surveillance of the world, and memoir or confession, if not the surveillance of ourselves?


If you begin to search for “Somebody’s Watching Me,” Google assumes you are looking for Michael Jackson, though it is not his song. Jackson appears on the track as the melodic voice of the chorus — I always feel like somebody’s watching me. Michael Jackson’s fame, of course, eclipsed that of Rockwell, who rests now in relative obscurity. This was especially true in 1984, a year when “Somebody’s Watching Me” steadily climbed the Billboard charts, yes, but also a year when Jackson ascended his throne, with Thriller taking home eight Grammy awards and becoming the best-selling album of all time. The album’s title track begins “It’s close to midnight and something evil’s lurking in the dark.” The something remains lyrically vague, though in hindsight this seems a pivotal moment for both Jackson personally and Jackson the cultural zeitgeist. Perhaps the something evil was us, a public that would not stop watching his every move, a gaze Jackson most often welcomed, but a gaze that eventually devoured him. Perhaps the something evil was also Jackson, or rather, his vexed need to be seen and then not seen, a change that would render the adult Jackson confined to his secure homes or various hotel rooms for much of his life. In his 1975 study Discipline & Punish, philosopher Michel Foucault argues that not only modern prisons but also schools, hospitals, and the general mechanisms of public society have used the idea of surveillance to make us all self-disciplining citizens. His original French title, in fact, is Surveiller et Punir. Jackson, though I cannot claim he read Foucault, seemed keenly aware of the principles therein, and of the irony inherent in the fact that the thing which made him famous eventually also made him a prisoner.


“Wherever you go from now on, people will be watching you,” Dianna Ross told ten-year-old Michael Jackson in 1968. By 1981, Jackson explained to Rolling Stone, “I would sleep on the stage if I could.” As the Scarecrow in 1978’s The Wiz, Michael quoted Henry IV, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” but he wouldn’t become known as the King of Pop until 1991, a title he requested for himself in a memo to MTV.


In his theory of a modern surveillance society, Foucault put forth the idea that the Panopticon — that circular prison where inmates were constantly watched — is a model for many other systems. He especially distrusted the medical gaze, as outlined in his later book The Birth of the Clinic, where the philosopher imagined doctors as co-conspirators with governing régimes, arguing “the struggle against disease must begin with a war against bad government… Man will be totally and definitively cured only if he is first liberated” from eyes who gaze upon him. The symptoms Foucault began exhibiting in the early 1980s would be clear to us now, though biographers, scholars, and activists waver on whether or not Foucault knew he had AIDS.

In a February 2014 interview with the Telegraph, the American novelist Edmund White, a friend of Foucault’s, claimed that in 1981

I was warning Foucault about AIDS. When I first told him about the disease he said: “Oh that’s perfect Edmund: you American puritans, you’re always inventing diseases. And one that singles out blacks, drug users and gays – how perfect!”… I tried to insist that it was real despite its ideological aspects… The doctors were intimidated by Foucault’s anti-medicine stance. They didn’t want to be accused of having a paternalistic or an I’m-better-than-you attitude. He himself wasn’t sure what his illness was until the last few months.

I find it hard to believe Foucault was so ingrained in his own ideology that he didn’t know he had AIDS until the very end. He lived in Paris, after all, spending a majority of his time outside France in either San Francisco or New York, epicenters of gay men’s health. While in residence at Berkeley during the seventies, he was a frequent visitor to Bay Area bathhouses. How could he not know? But this is easy for me to say as a gay man in the twenty-first century. And in examining Foucault’s past, I aim not to shame but to understand: he, like many of us, didn’t want his body to be under the surveillance of anyone, let along prodding doctors at a moment when many thought those with AIDS had only themselves to blame. Perhaps he chose not to know, one of the few choices we are truly offered. […]

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D. Gilson is the author of I Will Say This Exactly One Time: Essays (Sibling Rivalry, 2015); Crush (Punctum Books, 2014), with Will Stockton; Brit Lit (Sibling Rivalry, 2013); and Catch & Release (2012), winner of the Robin Becker Chapbook Prize. He is an Assistant Professor of English at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and his work has appeared in PANK, The Indiana Review, The Rumpus, and as a notable essay in Best American Essays.

“Michael Jackson & Michel Foucault Walk Into a Bar” was a runner-up in the 2016 Editor’s Reprint Award and originally appeared in The Threepenny Review. Read More: A brief interview with D. Gilson.