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"Man in the Mirror" is one of the most widely played tributes to the late King of Pop, not least because of the positive, benevolent light it puts him in. But it's hard to look at the life of Michael Jackson without wondering, at least for a moment, "what happened?"
What happened between the days of Thriller and Bad, and the day when what was determined to be a drug-induced homicide ended MJ's life at only 51? Who was Michael Jackson when "Man in the Mirror" first came out—and who did the man in the mirror become?
Instead of a single, simple song about a self-reflective man, it seems like "Man in the Mirror" is two songs—or at least a song that tells two stories. The first, the 1988 version of the song, is about a beloved child star grown up into a strong sense of social involvement and worldly compassion. The second, the "Man in the Mirror" that played at the end of Jackson's 2009 public memorial, is a song about a man whose struggles with self-image, personal identity, and media attention spiraled out of control and arguably led to his early death.
"Man in the Mirror," circa 1988: Beloved superstar Jackson was still under 30 when Bad was released. Since the 1969 explosion of the Jackson 5's debut single "I Want You Back," the young singer and dancer had remained in the limelight almost without cease, releasing hits such as "ABC" and "I'll Be There" in 1970, and coming out with his first solo album in 1972. The Jackson 5, signed to the famed Motown Records, left Motown for Epic Records in 1975. Despite unheard-of success as a solo artist, Michael remained with his brothers as the Jacksons until 1984.
It was in 1977, when Jackson performed with Diana Ross in the musical The Wiz, that Jackson met star producer, musician, and civil rights activist Quincy Jones. Jones, the most-nominated Grammy artist of all time, was the producer for Off the Wall, Jackson's first adult solo album, and for Thriller, an unprecedented success that has sold more copies than any album in history. Jones also produced "We Are the World," the famous 1985 charity single that raised money for impoverished people in Africa (the concept and name was replicated by a group of today's big names to raise money after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti).
With Jones, Jackson produced "Man in the Mirror" and no less than four other singles to hit the top of the Billboard charts in 1988 (Jackson released 13 number one hit singles in his lifetime, and Bad holds the record for the most number one singles from one album by any artist). Though Jackson wrote most of the songs on Bad, "Man in the Mirror" was the work of Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett, a brilliant singer and songwriter who also sings with Jackson on "I Just Can't Stop Loving You."
When "Man in the Mirror" came out, it was the inspired work of a huge star in his prime. The song is an exploration of personal identity and the relationship of an individual to society. It reflects MJ's growing contributions to social change, and his impressive life as a breakthrough black artist who had lived through the huge transformations of the Civil Rights Movement to become a global star. While it succeeds as an upbeat pop song, "Man in the Mirror" is also sentimental, idealistic, and sensitive. The man MJ saw in the mirror in 1988 may have been the same.
But "Man in the Mirror" circa 2009 tells a different story. By the time of his death, controversy had followed Michael Jackson closely for almost as long as this catchy tune. Rumors about him abounded, ranging from widespread discussion of his various plastic surgeries to accusations that he was trying to look "less black" by changing his skin color (MJ actually lived with a condition, vitiligo, that lightens the skin). Even worse, a 1993 child molestation accusation and a 2005 public trial about a similar case made a huge mess of his reputation and led him into dire financial straits towards the end of his life.
MJ never publicly held down a real romance, and when he married Lisa Marie Presley for just a few years, he was accused of doing so in order to distract from his publicized struggles with sexuality. At multiple points, the harassed star spoke publicly about the abuse he'd endured as a child, garnering some empathetic attention. But in 2003, when MJ was caught on film holding his baby out the window in front of a group of screaming fans, the relentless chorus of voices against him only increased.
Toward the end of his life, the singer responded bitterly to this attention. He began going out in public wearing a surgical mask over his face, and only allowed his three children to go out wearing masks or veils. He became increasingly reclusive. It appeared that MJ was being driven to total weirdness by his inability to do all the things that normal human beings do without being incessantly watched.
Still, in the sentimental 2009 documentary This Is It, which documents the final weeks of his life, the singer appears sweet, soft-spoken, gentle, and wildly talented. His back-up dancers give interviews that are moving in their sincere, extreme excitement about the opportunity to work with the King of Pop on stage (some burst into tears talking about it). MJ appears exhausted, but strikingly composed, on screen.
After Jackson's tragic death in June 2009, "Man in the Mirror" was the final song to play at his public memorial. As the song played, a spotlight shined onto an empty microphone on stage. But it still seemed like nobody knew who the man in the mirror—or, more accurately, the man in the spotlight—really was.
In the years to come, how will Michael Jackson be remembered? As the sweet and accomplished star of 1988? Or as the desperate, tired, strange man he appeared to be by 2009? As a victim, or as a villain? Despite the derisive terming of the star as "Wacko Jacko," the public obsession with his face, and the confusion and pain no doubt caused by the accusations against him, the image of MJ is likely to age well.
Many remember Michael Jackson for his charitable work and care for those at the margins. Even more remember him for his brilliance in the Jackson 5, and his beauty, creativity, and wild talent in the days of Thriller and Bad.
Looking in the mirror is a private moment. But for MJ himself, that contemplative, reflective, personal moment described in "Man in the Mirror" was never really an option. Everything he did was in the public eye—and everything we say about him is based on that troublesome, distorted mirror of media attention. All of our attempts to figure out who MJ "really was" are bound to be even more futile than his own. But it's clear that what people want to remember (and what MJ himself probably wanted to see) is that sensitive person at the center of "Man in the Mirror," whose ideal relationship to society was all about bettering it by bettering himself.
And at least a part of that image will go down in history. At the star-studded Jackson memorial, Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee represented the entire Congressional Black Caucus in mourning MJ's death. She talked about Jackson's work for the public good and defended his innocence in legal matters. She spoke about the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), comparing the Good Samaritan to Jackson as she told touching stories about his concern for those living with AIDS and for Iraq veterans in poor conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"He called us into public service," she said. "He even told us…look at yourself in the mirror. If you were gonna make a difference, look at the man or the woman in the mirror." Jackson's story, she said, was "a miraculous and wonderful story…if he was burned, he built a burn unit. If a hospital needed beds, he built those beds…Michael never stopped giving."