Michael Jackson: Man in the Mirror
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
Somewhere in a suburban Detroit scrapyard lies a wine red Chrysler minivan, the one that carried my brother, myself, and our two cousins to grade school in the late 80s. A minivan whose tape deck, between 1988 and 1995, wore itself out playing one of three tapes: Michael Jackson’s Bad, Weird Al Yankovic’s parody of that album, Even Worse, and, a bit later on, the soundtrack to the Animaniacs television show.
Never mind for a sec that every child born in the early to mid-80’s has a “I was exposed to Michael Jackson at a young age!” line to kill dinner parties: Bad was my first pop music cassette. I can’t remember why I wanted to own it, but I was part of a demographic that knew no better than to take the title track and cover art at face value, and that probably didn’t hurt. I could’ve done worse; everyone knows that Jackson was fire in the 80s, and while Bad didn’t reach the heights of Off the Wall or Thriller, it’s still firmly entrenched in the classic Michael discography.
Things were, however, sloping south. Being “bad” is a little like being “crazy” or “weird”: If you have to tell people it’s so, it’s almost certainly not. Bad was a transition time for Jackson, a time when snickers started outweighing adoration (I distinctly remember a morning rush hour radio DJ having great fun tallying the number of times MJ grabbed his balls during the previous night’s national television appearance), when the white started outweighing the black (sorry), when the absurd started to set in. You could read as much into “Man in the Mirror” and perhaps declare it the time when trite sentimentality started to bum rush the show, even when the tunes were still all-world. Six-year-olds don’t know any of this, however, and “Man in the Mirror” seemed better than honey rice-cakes and “Fat” rolled together.
Set aside the nostalgia for a moment and allow a forced analogy: If pop music is life, then the chorus (the best part) is sex. Everything else happens during the verse or the bridge, and everything else is kinda boring. What’s great about “Mirror” is not its ringing chorus, but that it masters the aural equivalent of foreplay. Jackson blows through eight bars of Gerber sentimentality during the placeholder verses, before the melody switches gears and iron Mike delivers a godly pre-chorus. Dig the imagery, Yeats:
A willow deeply scarredJackson delivers the last line with a crotch-grabbing passion that belies his restrained vocal performance during the rest of the track. It’s not lyrical gold, but the melody is so slick that the words not only slide out, they inherit weight and emotion that Jackson really has no business fucking with at this point in his career. “They follow the path of the wind ya’ see,”—“windy sea”?—and you do, because Jackson is singing a melody so good that he's essentially saving orphans with narcissism, a feat that was basically unprecedented, even for late-80s MJ.
Somebody’s broken heart
And a washed out dream
They follow the pattern of the wind, ya’ see
Cause they got no place to be
That’s why I’m starting with me!
There’s plenty I remember about that red van, including the fact that my ma let us get away with leaving cardboard McDonald’s drinks in the cup holders for so long that the remaining pop would soak through and make a mess. And I remember that “Man in the Mirror” is a song I would choose whenever it was my turn to sit in the front seat, and that this song was very likely about a ghost who talked to the hardass dude on the cover of my cassette. “Man in the Mirror” is ascendant enough to inspire those same thoughts in a twenty-something wiseass who knows Mike was being a crybaby billionaire weirdo. Who’s bad?