Behind the Meaning of the 1988 Michael Jackson Hit “Man in the Mirror”

As he was working on his 1988 album, Bad, with producer Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson was still looking for an anthem, something that would add more positive vibes, so Jones invited several writers to present some songs.

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Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett presented their demo of “Man in the Mirror,” one of two songs—the other being “Just Good Friends,” featuring Stevie Wonder—that Jackson picked for the album and the only tracks that he didn’t pen himself for Bad.

The Meaning of Change

Right from the opening, “Man in the Mirror” centers around making change and realizing that it has to start within.

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

Deeper into the verses, the narrator recognizes those in need and how people can often neglect the need to put others before them and help.

As I, turn up the collar on
My favorite 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 their needs?

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 to go
That’s why I want you to know

By the chorus, “Man in the Mirror” revolves around making an honest assessment of oneself and one’s ability to make a change.

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could’ve been any clearer
If they wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and then make a change

The Notebook

For Ballard, who also worked with Jackson on his album Thriller and would go on to work on his 1991 album, Dangerous, as well as writing and producing Alanis Morisette‘s Grammy-winning Jagged Little Pill later in the ’90s, the idea for “Man in the Mirror” was already written—in Garrett’s notebook.

As Ballard began playing something on the keyboard, he noticed some lyrics Garrett had written in her notebook about a man looking in a mirror.

By the end of the week, the songwriting team had a completed demo, with Garrett’s vocals singing “Man in the Mirror.” Garrett rushed the demo over to Jones, who said, “Baby, the song is great. It’s really good.”

Jackson felt the same and immediately connected with the song after hearing it. He even invited Garrett to sing backing vocals on the recorded version.

“The song was deeper than just the visual of a man looking at himself in the mirror,” said Garrett. “To make a difference on the outside, you have to first start from within. So I think that Michael just got it. He got the meaning of the song right away.”

Ballard and Garrett

Garrett and Ballard ended up writing another song for Jackson, “Keep The Faith,” which was released on his 1991 album Dangerous, and features gospel singer Andraé Crouch.

No. 1

Upon its release on Feb. 6, 1988, “Man in the Mirror” hit the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for a Grammy for Record of the Year.

Photo: Francis Sylvain/AFP via Getty Images

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