Of all Michael’s “message” songs, “Man In The Mirror” remains the most commercially succesful and in many ways, most enduring. There is good reason for that. Unlike the overly saccaharine “Heal The World” or more darkly angry political songs such as “Earth Song” and “They Don’t Care About Us,” “Man In The Mirror” derives its popularity due to a very simplistic yet universal message: That change has to start within. We can’t change the world until we have changed the reflection that is looking back at us.
Michael didn’t write “Man In The Mirror,” but along with “Human Nature” and “Thriller” it’s become one of those iconic songs so indelibly identified as “his” that it’s almost hard to believe that he had no hand in its creation.
But hold on…not so fast. According to those who attended last year’s Columbia Chicago Symposium, “Man In The Mirror” songwriter Siedah Garrett revealed that Michael actually had quite a significant hand in shaping the song’s final outcome. According to Garrett, Michael initially refused the song because he felt the bridge was too weak. He then collaborated with Garrett to build the song’s bridge, making suggestions and giving creative ideas, until finally “Man In The Mirror” took shape into the powerhouse gospel arrangement that eventually made it onto the “Bad” album and the top of the charts.
But how did Michael himself really feel about the man who stared back at him from his own mirror? The answer may be best revealed by something Michael did undisputably write-a piece that made it into his book Dancing the Dream, Michael’s 1992 collection of poems and reflections.
In a piece entitled “That One In The Mirror” Michael reveals something interesting-and very honest-about his own feelings of disconnect from his public image/persona as opposed to the person he really felt himself to be. Looking at this piece, it’s easy to see how and why Michael identified so powerfully with the speaker in “Man In The Mirror.”
But first, let’s look at the familiar lyrics from the song. I’ve boldfaced those lyrics that will be especially pertinent to this discussion:
I’m Gonna Make A Change,
For Once In My Life
It’s Gonna Feel Real Good,
Gonna Make A Difference
Gonna Make It Right. . .As I, Turn Up The Collar On My
Favourite Winter Coat
This Wind Is Blowin’ My Mind
I See The Kids In The Street,
With Not Enough To Eat
Who Am I, To Be Blind?
Pretending Not To See
A Summer’s Disregard,
A Broken Bottle Top
And A One Man’s Soul
They Follow Each Other On
The Wind Ya’ Know
‘Cause They Got Nowhere
That’s Why I Want You To
KnowI’m Starting With The Man In
I’m Asking Him To Change
And No Message Could Have
Been Any Clearer
If You Wanna Make The World
A Better Place
(If You Wanna Make The
World A Better Place)
Take A Look At Yourself, And
Then Make A Change
(Take A Look At Yourself, And
Then Make A Change)
(Na Na Na, Na Na Na, Na Na,
Na Nah)I’ve Been A Victim Of A Selfish
Kind Of Love
It’s Time That I Realize
That There Are Some With No
Home, Not A Nickel To Loan
Could It Be Really Me,
Pretending That They’re Not
Alone?A Willow Deeply Scarred,
Somebody’s Broken Heart
And A Washed-Out Dream
They Follow The Pattern Of
The Wind, Ya’ See
Cause They Got No Place
That’s Why I’m Starting With
(Starting With Me!)I’m Starting With The Man In
I’m Asking Him To Change
And No Message Could Have
Been Any Clearer
If You Wanna Make The World
A Better Place
(If You Wanna Make The
World A Better Place)
Take A Look At Yourself And
Then Make A Change
(Take A Look At Yourself And
Then Make A Change)-Man In The Mirror, Lyrics By Siedah Garrett, Performed By Michael Jackson
“I wanted to change the world, so I got up one morning and looked in the mirror. That one looking back said, ‘There is not much time left. The earth is wracked with pain. Children are starving. Nations remain divided by mistrust and hatred. Everywhere the air and water have been fouled almost beyond help. Do something!’That one in the mirror felt very angry and desperate. Everything looked like a mess, a tragedy, a disaster. I decided he must be right. Didn’t I feel terrible about these things too, just like him? The planet was being used up and thrown away. Imagining earthly life just one generation from now made me feel panicky.It was not hard to find the good people who wanted to solve the earth’s problems. As I listened to their solutions, I thought, ‘There is so much good will here, so much concern.’ At night before going to bed, that one in the mirror looked back at me seriously. ‘Now we’ll get somewhere,’ he declared. ‘If everybody does their part.’But everybody didn’t do their part. Some did, but were they stopping the tide? Were pain, starvation, hatred, and pollution about to be solved? Wishing wouldn’t make it so-I knew that. When I woke up the next morning, that one in the mirror looked confused. ‘Maybe it’s hopeless,’ he whispered. Then a sly look came into his eyes, and he shrugged. ‘But you and I will survive. At least we are doing all right.’
I felt strange when he said that. There was something very wrong here. A faint suspicion came to me, one that had never dawned so clearly before. What if that one in the mirror isn’t me? He feels separate. He ‘sees’ problems out there to be solved. Maybe they will be, maybe they won’t. He’ll get along. But I don’t feel that way-those problems aren’t ‘out there,’ not really. I feel them inside me. A child crying in Ethiopia, a sea gull struggling pathetically in an oil spill, a mountain gorilla being mercilessly hunted, a teenage soldier trembling with terror when he hears the planes fly over: Aren’t these things happening in me when I see and hear about them?
The next time I looked in the mirror, that one looking back had started to fade. It was only an image after all. It showed me a solitary person enclosed in a neat package of skin and bones. ‘Did I once think you were me?’ I began to wonder. I am not so separate and afraid. The pain of life touches me, but the joy of life is so much stronger. And it alone will heal. Life is the healer of life, and the most I can do for the earth is to be its loving child.
That one in the mirror winced and squirmed. He hadn’t thought so much about love. Seeing ‘problems’ was much easier, because love means complete self-honesty. Ouch!
‘Oh, friend,’ I whispered to him, ‘do you think anything can solve problems without love?’ That one in the mirror wasn’t sure. Being alone for so long, not trusting others and being trusted by others, it tended to detach itself from the reality of life. ‘Is love more real than pain?’ he asked.
‘I can’t promise that it is. But it might be. Let’s discover,’ I said. I touched the mirror with a grin. ‘Let’s not be alone again. Will you be my partner? I hear a dance starting up. Come.’ That one in the mirror smiled shyly. He was realizing that we could be best friends. We could be more peaceful, more loving, more honest with each other every day.
Would that change the world? I think it will, because Mother Earth wants us to be happy and to love her as we tend her needs. She needs fearless people on her side, whose courage comes from being part of her, like a baby who is brave enough to walk because Mother is holding out her arms to catch him. When that one in the mirror is full of love for me and for him, there is no room for fear. When we were afraid and panicky, we stopped loving this life of ours and this earth. We disconnected. Yet how can anybody rush to help the earth if they feel disconnected? Perhaps the earth is telling us what she wants, and by not listening, we fall back on our own fear and panic.
One thing I know: I never feel alone when I am earth’s child. I do not have to cling to my personal survival as long as I realize, day by day, that all of life is in me. The children and their pain; the children and their joy. The ocean swelling under the sun; the ocean weeping with black oil. The animals hunted in fear; the animals bursting with the sheer joy of being alive.
This sense of ‘the world in me’ is how I always want to feel. That one in the mirror has his doubts sometimes. So I am tender with him. Every morning I touch the mirror and whisper, ‘Oh, friend, I hear a dance. Will you be my partner? Come.'”-Michael Jackson, “That One In The Mirror.”
Something I find very interesting about this piece is how he speaks of the disconnect and separateness between himself and his mirror image. The mirror image is the outside self, the flesh and blood shell that the world sees. I think that here, he is referencing the image he sees in the mirror as his public, outward self. The “man in the mirror” is aware of the earth’s problems, and makes a great show of standing up for these causes and uniting people all over the world to fight them. But when push comes to shove, he is only giving lip service to the idea of change. Inwardly, he feels afraid and powerless.
Did Michael feel afraid and powerless, even as he strove to tell us to “make that change” and to unite and “heal the world?” Did he have his moments of doubt and selfish weakness?
In this piece, he is very candidly giving us those answers. His outer self tells him, “It doesn’t really matter what happens to the world. You and I-(here the image is pointing outward, as if to say, “You and I, Michael”)-will be all right.” What did Michael Jackson, world famous celebrity and mega rich entertainer, have to be worried about? His position in life was secure. In fact, this was someone who had wanted for very little in the way of material riches since childhood. His “outer image” tells him that no matter what happens to the world or to the people and animals in it, his own life isn’t going to be affected. How many times have we seen stories of war and destruction in the news, or the commercials of starving children in Africa, only to turn away in numb indifference? Because the petty concerns of our own lives are so much more urgent, and pressing? In this piece, as Michael honestly looks upon his own reflection, his “friend” in the mirror, he makes a disturbing discovery-he realizes he doesn’t really know this person at all! The outer man he sees has become smug, complacent; numb and unfeeling-a hypocrite, even.
But the inner man knows better. He becomes somewhat repulsed by the selfish image in the mirror. Is this the person he has allowed himself to become-selfish, indifferent; someone who gives lip service to the suffering of the world only because it’s the “fashionable” thing to do? Or who gives up too easily just because the fight seems so hopeless?
He comes to dislike the man in the mirror. But the realization only serves to intensify his sense of helplessness.
As long as there is disconnect within the self, there can be no true happiness and no true inner peace. Here Michael seems to be taking a very deep and honest look at his self-reflection and coming to the realization that this is not someone who can heal the world-not yet. Because he can’t even heal himself. And that is both a scary and disconcerting realization. “A faint suspicion came to me, one that had never dawned so clearly before. What if that one in the mirror isn’t me? He feels separate. He ‘sees’ problems out there to be solved. Maybe they will be, maybe they won’t. He’ll get along. But I don’t feel that way-those problems aren’t ‘out there,’ not really. I feel them inside me.”
In this very candid self-realization, he admits that it’s much easier to “see problems” than to actually give love, especially if one has no love to give! And what would keep one from being able to give love selflessly? “He hadn’t thought so much about love…because love means complete self-honesty. Ouch!”
The interjection of the word “ouch” here is very telling. He’s admitting that it hurts to really look at one’s self; the self-honesty of reflection is a painful process, forcing us to face not only the truths we keep hidden from the world, but even from our own selves. If most of us really took the time to look at our own reflections, we probably wouldn’t like what we see! But forcing ourselves to look is the first painful, crucial step to embracing ourselves fully. We can’t begin to love others until we can love ourselves.
The next paragraph is perhaps one of the most revealing and honest glimpses into his soul that Michael has ever allowed us. This is coming straight from the heart of that little boy who had to learn a very hard lesson far too early in life: You can’t trust anyone. “Being alone for so long, not trusting others and being trusted by others, it tended to detach itself from the reality of life. ‘Is love more real than pain?’ he asked.”
That the image who speaks to Michael from the mirror even has to ask this question is very telling. He speaks of his mirror image as being something “detached” from “the reality of life.” Yet, coming from within himself, he knows this is not the real man. He realizes there is a disconnect between what he is capable of feeling-the love he is capable of giving-and that empty, lonely man in the mirror. But how to bridge them? He seems to arrive at his own answer.
“The pain of life touches me, but the joy of life is so much stronger. And it alone will heal. Life is the healer of life, and the most I can do for the earth is to be its loving child.”
Part of becoming “that loving child” is reaching out to that pained, lonely, and fearful man in the mirror, making him realize the true power that comes from the abilility to love. This is Michael looking at himself-the scarred and abused child; the megastar who had learned craftily how to hide his true emotions; even the philanthropist who was telling us “We Are The World.” This is all of that completely stripped away, and what is left? Nothing but a naked man and frightened child, too scared to love; too indifferent to care. “When that one in the mirror is full of love for me and for him, there is no room for fear. When we were afraid and panicky, we stopped loving this life of ours and this earth. We disconnected. Yet how can anybody rush to help the earth if they feel disconnected? Perhaps the earth is telling us what she wants, and by not listening, we fall back on our own fear and panic.”
But the next paragraph is very telling. He says that the “man in the mirror” is just an image-and one that is ‘starting to fade.” Perhaps this is a double play on the word “image,” meaning in the one sense, his literal mirror reflection, and in the other sense, “image” as when we speak of a celebrity’s public persona and how we perceive them. He says it was “only an image, after all,” a solitary person ‘enclosed in a neat package of skin and bones.” The self-serving image, along with all of its fears, doubts, and shallow insecurities, fades as he learns to fully embrace and love himself. “That one in the mirror smiled shyly. He was realizing that we could be best friends. We could be more peaceful, more loving, more honest with each other every day.”
The word “honest” is key here. Michael is attempting, finally, to bridge his inner and outer self in order to achieve true peace and happiness. He is finally learning how to love himself so that he can be a good steward in the way that God and Mother Earth intends. Or at the very least, he is arriving at the self realization of this need, which is the crucial first step to healing and becoming whole. In doing so, he can even give himself permission to stumble; to be weak; to embrace his imperfections as part of the human dance. I do not have to cling to my personal survival as long as I realize, day by day, that all of life is in me…
Life is a force much bigger than ourselves; we are but a part of the dance. This was a theme that Michael’s work returns to over and over again. But as children of God and of Mother Earth, we cannot partake fully in life if we remain divided from our own self-or if we insist on loathing the man or woman in the mirror. After all, that image is only ourself as we are, encased in “a neat package of skin and bones.”
The last paragraph seems to reflect a newfound inner peace and self-acceptance,and perhaps we can take this as indicative of the place Michael finally arrived at, at least for a little while.
“This sense of ‘the world in me’ is how I always want to feel. That one in the mirror has his doubts sometimes. So I am tender with him…”
In this piece, Michael seems to be telling us that he has come to an important crossroads; an important realization. This “man in the mirror” isn’t perfect. This “man in the mirror” is no Pollyanna. He knows the world is a dark, scary and sometimes lonely place. He knows it’s a dirty, screwed up world and humanity in general sucks. He knows it because he sees it in himself.
But he also sees something else. He sees love and the eternal hope that keeps us all hanging on, in hopes of a brighter day tomorrow. He sees the light within himself. He sees the possibilities.
He’s not afraid to ask for change; to demand it even. Not from the world, and not from us, but from where it matters most. From deep within the heart of that man staring back in the mirror.