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Some have suggested that "Man in the Mirror" takes its inspiration from a poem known as "Guy in the Mirror" or "Guy in the Glass."
The poem, written in 1934 by Dale Wimbrow, became widely popular and is sometimes attributed anonymously as a sort of folk poem. Still, even though the man in the mirror theme was not original, Siedah Garrett's own account of writing the song makes no mention of the poem. Instead, Garrett describes overhearing a phone conversation in Glen Ballard's home studio, and scribbling down the words "man in the mirror."
When producer Quincy Jones asked Garrett and Ballard to work on "an up tempo, kind of dance song," the phrase came back to Garrett, who scribbled down the rest of the lyrics as if she was "in a frenzied trance."
"Man in the Mirror" encapsulates the conflicted personal life of an extremely public figure. Michael Jackson is famous as one of the most talented pop singers that ever lived—but he is equally famous for being eccentric, at best, and a child molester, at worst.
Produced at the peak of his career, "Man in the Mirror" pre-dates Jackson's gradual loss of credibility in the public sphere. The emotional, introspective tone of the pop song, with its exuberant display of Jackson's vocal talents, is a signature for the larger-than-life singer.
The discrepancies between the public face and voice of the singer and his little-known private realities will probably never be fully sorted out. Whether or not a genuinely sensitive guy, concerned with social change and personal improvement, really existed behind the singer's ever-changing face, "Man in the Mirror" leaves us with an impression of the idealized, innocent, and brilliant young Michael Jackson his fans first knew, and still hold onto.
What is the message of "Man in the Mirror"?
The song focuses on the efforts of an individual to improve himself and change the world. Self-reflection, inner agony and personal improvement are hardly original themes for a poem, but pop music in the 1980s—like pop music today—tended to focus more heavily on, well, love and sex (and heartbreak, too). "Man in the Mirror," poppy but probing, is a notable departure from these themes.
The primary social issue touched on in the song is homelessness. In response to his knowledge that kids are starving and living in the streets, the singer vows to change his own life (that's what "starting with the man in the mirror" is all about). But like many good poems and songs, the lyrics to "Man in the Mirror" don't limit themselves narrowly to the historical context in which they emerged. The continued popularity of "Man in the Mirror" highlights the continued importance of the questions it raises: What is the individual's responsibility to society? Can we change the world by changing ourselves? What is the power of one person to create change?
Whether it's homelessness, poverty, AIDS, nuclear weaponry, or war, songwriters Siedah Garrett and Glen Ballard penned a lyric to inspire listeners to do something about human suffering for longer than a passing moment.