The Number Ones

March 26, 1988

The Number Ones: Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.


I remember the jokes, even then. To a kid in the ’80s, it didn’t make sense to look at Michael Jackson as a fallible human being. He came off more as a walking miracle, a manifestation of flash and dazzle and magic. But for weird kids who read the gossip columns of local newspapers, like me, it was pretty apparent that plenty of adults did not look at Michael Jackson the way that I did. Plenty of them seemed to think that he was a weirdo. The animals were part of that. The feathery speaking voice. The plastic surgery. The Michael Jackson of 1988 did not look like the Michael Jackson of 1983, and the Michael Jackson of 1983 did not look like the Michael Jackson of 1979. A song like “Man In The Mirror” practically invited people to notice that changes were being made.

There was plenty of context, even if that context wasn’t known at the time. Jackson was five years old when Joe Jackson, the abusive taskmaster patriarch of the Jackson family, organized five of his sons into a singing group. Michael was the focus of the Jackson 5, and he was also the youngest member of the group, at least until baby brother Randy joined up years later. Michael was a shy and sensitive kid by nature, and constant hectoring from his father didn’t make him any more confident. When Michael was a kid, Joe would call him “Big Nose.” Michael hated it.

Michael had his first rhinoplasty surgery in 1979, reportedly after he’d broken his nose while falling during a dance rehearsal. Later on, he said he’d gotten a nose job so that he could breathe better and hit higher notes. Through the ’80s and beyond, Jackson’s face changed. So did his complexion. Jackson’s vitiligo caused blotches on his skin, and he wore makeup to cover it up. In the late ’80s, Michael Jackson was one of the most visible people in the world, and people definitely talked about how his features were changing. So maybe it was brave for Jackson to release “Man In The Mirror,” the song about taking a long look at yourself and making a change, as a single in 1988. Or maybe Jackson just didn’t care. Maybe he just knew that the song was powerful enough to shut everyone up, at least for a little while. If that’s what Jackson thought, he was right.

“Man In The Mirror” overwhelmed any and all talk about Michael Jackson the public figure. It became a kind of self-improvement folk song, a gospel standard. To this day, “Man In The Mirror” seems to stand apart from the increasingly troubling legend of Michael Jackson. I remember hearing “Man In The Mirror” on supermarket speakers the weekend before HBO aired Leaving Neverland, the documentary about some of the abuse allegations against Jackson, and wondering if I’d ever hear the song on any kind of institutional playlist again. But even if the public at large had turned against Jackson — and honestly, we really haven’t — then “Man In The Mirror” would probably still stand apart from all of that. It’s clearly a Michael Jackson song, and yet it doesn’t feel like a part of the Michael Jackson myth. It’s something else.

“Man In The Mirror” is one of only two songs on the Bad album that Michael Jackson didn’t write. (The other one is the Stevie Wonder duet “Just Good Friends.” General consensus, as far as I can tell, is that “Just Good Friends” is the worst song on Bad, but I don’t know, I think it’s pretty good.) Instead, “Man In The Mirror” came from Siedah Garrett and her writing partner Glen Ballard. Garrett didn’t have a lot of experience as a songwriter; she was more of a backup singer and vocal arranger, and she’d been Jackson’s duet partner on the Bad single “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” Ballard was a songwriter and producer who’d done a lot of work with Quincy Jones. Jackson had almost included the Ballard-written song “Nightline” on Thriller, but he bumped it at the last minute, and the Pointer Sisters recorded the song in 1983 instead. (Ballard’s work will appear in this column again.)

Siedah Garrett has told the “Man In The Mirror” story a lot of times, and she always seems enormously and understandably happy about Michael Jackson recording her song. Garrett knew that Quincy Jones was looking for more potential hits for Jackson, but she also knew that Jackson turned down almost everything Jones brought him. She’d had the “Man In The Mirror” title written in a book of lyric ideas for years, and she brought it out during a writing session at Ballard’s house while he played around with the keyboard. The song came together quickly one Friday night, and Garrett recorded a demo right away. She was so excited about it that she couldn’t wait for Jones’ office to reopen on the following Monday, so she drove it right over to his house. Jones loved the song, and so did Jackson.

The version of “Man In The Mirror” from Siedah Garrett’s demo is very close to the one that Jackson recorded. It’s a gospel song, essentially, though it never mentions God. Instead, “Man In The Mirror” is all about confronting yourself, realizing that you can be a better person, and making it happen. There’s tension in the song, in the choppiness of some of the vocal phrasing, and there’s also the relief of that gloriously overwhelmed chorus melody. Jackson seized on that sensibility and fleshed it out further, adding a gigantic key change to the end of the song and bringing in a team of all-star gospel singers, including the Winans Family and the André Crouch Choir, to sing backup on it. (Garrett sang backup, too, and Ballard programmed the Linn drum machines.)

Jackson sings “Man In The Mirror” as someone who’s not happy with his own moral shortcomings. He knows that he’s been the victim of a selfish kind of love — that he’s victimized himself — and he starts things off by singing that he intends to do better: “Gonna make a change for once in my life.” The song takes full advantage of the soft, vulnerable quality of Jackson’s voice. On that intro, singing over glassy cascade of expensive keyboard sounds, Jackson’s voice is halting and gasping, as if he’s forcing himself to get the words out. As the song builds, though, Jackson’s voice gets stronger. By the time it ends, he’s throwing his voice against the assembled gospel choir, stretching out the outro with his ad-libbed yips and grunts. He sounds driven, purposeful — a motivational force.

As a piece of pop songwriting, “Man In The Mirror” is basically spotless. It’s full of sharp little melodic flourishes, and all the big-’80s production choices are smart and well-realized. Jackson plays the song perfectly. Some of the lyrical imagery is a little overblown — “a broken bottle top,” “a willow deeply scarred” — but Jackson latches down on those lines hard enough that you’re mostly just hearing the grain of his voice. Jackson also highlights the lines that work best, letting them trip fluidly out of his throat. I love the lilt in his voice when he sings that dreams “follow the pattern of the wind, ya see.”

When big pop singers work with gospel choirs, it’s usually a manipulative affectation, a way to add instant uplift to a song that may or may not deserve it. On “Man In The Mirror,” Michael Jackson actually sounds like he belongs with this choir, like he’s leading it. On that outro, he sounds like he’s spurring them on with his ad-libs, inventing a call-and-response cadence in the moment. On “Man In The Mirror,” Jackson is as rhythmically focused as he is on his dance songs, but he’s also hoarse and raspy and immediate — a soul singer, singing a soul song. If there’s any grit in the aerodynamic, antiseptic production of “Man In The Mirror,” it’s in the voices and the voices only.

But does “Man In The Mirror” really say anything? I’m not convinced. Michael Jackson was not the type of artist who took stands. He was happy, for instance, to visit the White House during Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign. The message of “Man In The Mirror” — that you’ll make the world better by making yourself better — is fluffy and nonspecific. It’s vague self-help puffery, and it hits differently now, decades later, when we know that Jackson made some deeply questionable personal decisions in his life. The same month that “Man In The Mirror” hit #1, Jackson paid millions for a 2,700-acre estate in Santa Barbara County. He turned that ranch into a fantasy world that he called Neverland, and some of the kids who went to that place have told harrowing stories about the experience.

“Man In The Mirror” is a song about striving to become better, not magically being better. That’s an internal struggle, and you don’t always see the results. Maybe that’s why the song feels universal, not specific to Michael Jackson himself. But it’s still Michael Jackson singing this song, and hearing Jackson sing about the process of becoming a better person feels different than hearing him sing about, say, a smooth criminal.

Maybe that universality is why Jackson refused to appear in the “Man In The Mirror” video, or maybe he was just too busy. Instead, the video is a long montage of global traumas and atrocities, edited together by director Don Wilson. (The Don Wilson who directed the “Man In The Mirror” video is not the kickboxer and B-movie star Don “The Dragon” Wilson. It’s a different Don Wilson — Don “Not The Dragon” Wilson.) The video works as a random aria of 20th-century news footage: African famines, Klan rallies, demonstrations, assassinated political leaders, monstrous dictators, poverty, anger, hopelessness. At the climactic key change, a nuclear bomb explodes. This video is ridiculous. It means nothing.

I’m not sure there’s any actual intent behind this disconnected barrage of imagery, but maybe the idea is that we can all make the world better if we all make a change. Toward the end of the clip, we see vague images of hope: Willie Nelson playing Farm Aid, a Greenpeace boat, a starving kid eating a cracker, a non-starving kid hugging a killer whale. (This was when people didn’t think there was anything wrong with putting killer whales in tanks and making them do tricks for kids.) Michael Jackson himself finally shows up in a crowd of people near the end of the video, and there’s also a shot of a kid in a USA For Africa shirt, a possible nod to Jackson’s involvement in “We Are The World.”

The entire video rings clangingly false, at least to me. If simple personal choice could solve the problems of the world, then the problems in the world wouldn’t be so systemically entrenched. Things are way more fucked up than that, and they always have been. This kind of nonspecific all-gesture signaling, done without any kind of actual identifiable point or message, drives me nuts. It’s pure puffed-up pop-music indulgence, saying that you’re changing stuff when really you’re just waving at cameras and broadcasting generalized good cheer. I hate it. (I would hate it more if Jackson was in the video more, playing some kind of messianic figure. He was smart to avoid that.)

My issues with the “Man In The Mirror” video aren’t Michael Jackson’s fault, and they don’t ultimately reflect on the song. Jackson didn’t even see the video until it had already been out for weeks. In March of 1988, Jackson screened the video while getting ready to perform at the Grammys, and it made him cry. (It’s almost like Don Wilson assembled that footage with the express intent of making Michael Jackson cry.) Jackson didn’t use the video’s footage in his stretched-out, passionate Grammy-night performance of “Man In The Mirror,” which probably helped drive the single to #1 a few weeks later. But Jackson did use some of that imagery, interspersed with tour footage, in Moonwalker, the vanity-project long-form video that he released later in 1988.

When “Man In The Mirror” reached #1, Michael Jackson became the first artist ever to land four straight chart-topping singles from the same album. (There were four #1 singles on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, but only three of them were Bee Gees songs.) Within the next few months, a couple of other artists would achieve the same feat. But Michael Jackson wasn’t done with Bad yet. We’ll see him in this column again soon.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: At Michael Jackson’s big 2001 TV special, taped at Madison Square Garden just before 9/11, a deeply random group of singers got together to cover “Man In The Mirror”: Luther Vandross, Usher, 98 Degrees. The non-Nick Lachey members of 98 Degrees all seemed vaguely embarrassed, like they knew they had no business on that stage. Usher wore black leather JNCOs. Luther Vandross absolutely brought the house down, looking like Sparkly Megachurch Blade. Here’s that fascinating time capsule of a performance:

(Luther Vandross’ highest-charting single, the version of “Endless Love” that he and Mariah Carey released in 1994, peaked at #2. It’s a 5. Usher will eventually appear in this column a bunch of times. 98 Degrees will be in the column, too, but only as guests. 98 Degrees’ highest-charting single as lead artists, 2000’s “Just Give Me One Night (Una Noche),” peaked at #2. It’s a 4.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Man In The Mirror” remix that Rhymefest and Mark Ronson released as a mixtape track in 2008:

(Mark Ronson will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2012 gospel-choir movie Joyful Noise where Keke Palmer sings a lovely version of “Man In The Mirror”:

(Keke Palmer doesn’t have any Hot 100 hits, but a couple of the other people in that scene do. Queen Latifah’s highest-charting single, 1994’s “U.N.I.T.Y.,” peaked at #23. Dolly Parton has already been in this column twice.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Camila Cabello, backed by Zedd and Incubus member Mike Einziger, singing “Man In The Mirror” at a 2017 concert:

(Zedd’s highest-charting single, the 2018 Maren Morris/Grey collab “The Middle,” peaked at #5. It’s a 7. Incubus’ highest-charting single, 2000’s “Drive,” peaked at #9. It’s a 5. Camila Cabello will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Siedah Garrett singing “Man In The Mirror” with K-pop star BoA in 2018:

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