Behind the Song: Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror,” written by Siedah Garrett & Glen Ballard

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

The year was 1988, and the world was in the enthralling season of Michael Jackson and his astounding album Thriller. Featuring “Billie Jean” and other classics produced by Quincy Jones, it’ s the astounding apex of Michael-mania, as few then could remain indifferent to this soul phenomenon.

Michael seemed to be a miracle, all the things he was: the songs, singing, and of course, the dancing, crystallized by the magic moonwalk. We couldn’t get enough of it. Not only were multitudes entranced and enraptured by the pure passion he injected into anything he did, we were all waking up to the realization that this remarkable entertainer – one of the great song & dance men in the history of American show-biz – had become a seriously great songwriter. 

Suddenly news started to spread that he was working on the follow-up to Thriller, again to be produced by Quincy. It was surprising, considering the unchained impact of his own songs on Thriller when we learned he cut a song he didn’t write. Written by a great singer named Siedah Garrett and a composer named Glen Ballard, tt had the intriguing title, “Man In The Mirror.” It was, Quincy said, the first outside song Michael had accepted in two years.

Siedah was enlisted also to sing a duet with Michael on his song “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” That her star was already blazing by the time we learned her name was fairly evident. As the editor of SongTalk, the journal of the National Academy of Songwriters, I invited Siedah and Glen to do an interview.

Glen Ballard, as students of songwriting and pop music already know, went onto enormous success as a co-writer and producer with Alanis Morrisette on her first albums, as well as many other projects. He wrote the music for “Man In The Mirror” and Siedah, who also added her distinctive vocal sound to Michael’s record of the song, wrote the words. She was already well-known  for her own harmony vocals and brilliance in vocal arranging.

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Her star rose entirely because of Quincy, who recognized her talent immediately, and picked her out of about 800 hopefuls to sing with his group Deco; she sang the lead on the dance hit “Do You Want It Right Now.” She also sang and arranged vocals on Madonna’s True Blue album, while simultaneously churning out great songs she wrote herself for Kenny Loggins, The Pointer Sisters and Donna Summers.

But the biggest of big breaks came when Quincy told her that Michael needed songs for his next album. It was an invitation she couldn’t resist. But this was a formidable challenge: Expected not only to write a hit, but an inspirational hit, something with a luminous musical magnitude Michael could make his own, this was a big one. It had to have everything: great melody, soulful compelling feel, and a lyric of substance. 

They succeeded, as the world already knows. Michael was thrilled. He loved it so much that it is the only song lyric to be quoted on the album. Not the whole song, but the key line:

“If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.”

It makes sense why Michael loved it. Not only does it have the soul, beauty and funk of great music, it was in perfect tune with his essence. This is a song written very deliberately for this one singer to sing. It was Michael’s song. Because it transcended the expected content of this new pop music with its beautifully etched socially-conscious lyric. It brought the outside world in; the kids in the street with not enough to eat. The willow scarred. The meaning of the song was heard and felt. The message of the song, essentially, is to get the message. Wake up. No message could have been any clearer.

Not only did Michael fall in love with the song, but also by the singer, and the soulful beauty of Siedah’s voice on the demo (indeed, as the demo below shows, she sings the song with the same intensity of passion and purity of intention as Michael would also inject into it). He immediately enlisted her, and not other notables being considered (such as Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston) to duet with him on his song “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” She also was to learn that Michael wanted her to personally guide his vocal sessions for “Man In The Mirror” as he wanted to sing it like she did on the demo. (The following year, she, Glen and Michael co-wrote the song “Keep The Faith.”)

“Man in the Mirror,” the official video by Michael Jackson.

Siedah and Glen met me for an interview at Warner Brothers’ Burbank headquarters, which was exultant. Never did either of them attempt to suppress their immense excitement about this. “It’s like winning the lottery,” she said with some disbelief. She was right. Her life was transformed forever. Now all these years later, with Michael sadly long gone, the song itself is as powerful as ever, as soulfully funky and inspirational as ever. That spirit of the singer, the song and songwriters is alive forever. Such is the timeless power of song.

SIEDAH GARRETT: “The song came all came at once. I had the title for about a year. I have a book and when I hear things that I like, I write it down. I keep a pad in my car at all times.

When I go to Glen’s house, I’ll listen to what he has to play me and I’ll leaf through my book at these titles that I’ve written or collected. And if anything else catches my attention that works well with his music, we’ll use it.

And when that title came to me, I already knew the concept behind the whole song. Because Quincy [Jones] asked me for anything from a funk-groove street song to a ballad. So I figured I pretty much had free rein.

We wrote it quickly. Usually it’s a much longer process, during which Glen goes off to embellish the music and I work on the lyric. But this came fast. We wrote it, and then had the demo of the song done on a Friday evening. Knowing that Quincy’s offices were going to be closed until Monday, I called him and said, “I can’t wait until Monday!” He told me to bring the tape over. I did.

Four hours later – four hours! – he called me. He said, “Baby, the song is great. It’s really good. But– ” I said,

“But what?”

And he said, “I don’t know. I’ve been playing songs for Michael for two years. And he has yet to accept an outside song.”

Three days later I got a call from Quincy and he told me that Michael loved the song and wanted to cut it.

I screamed! Couldn’t believe it.

Then he said that Michael had a great idea for the background; he’s gonna have the Winans and Andre Crouch and a choir. Then he said, “And I might be able to squeeze you in on that.”

I said, “Q Babe! Thanks!” 

Michael and Siedah at work.

A few days before the session I got a call from Quincy. He told me Michael wanted to extend the bridge and needed some new lyrics for it. And he was trying to tell me the message that should be in these new lyrics. He would say, “Michael wants so-and-so,” and then, in the background I would hear, [softly and high-pitched] “Mmmrrrmmrr…” And it was Michael, you know?

This went on for a little while, with Quincy translating for Michael. Finally, Quincy says, “Hold on,” and puts Michael Jackson on the phone, right? I’m home cooking dinner, right? And inside I’m like “OMIGOD!! It’s MICHAEL JACKSON!!” But on the phone I’m like [softly and coolly], “Yes, Michael?” Really cool, you know?

He said, “I love your song and I think you have a great voice.”

I said, “Wow. Thanks! Thanks for doing it, dude!” 

So Michael tells me what he wants and I take off to find the answer to his dilemma in the bridge. I came up with three different ideas for the part. But then the song turned out to be long anyway, that they never used it. So it’s pretty much as it was in demo form with the exception of the key change.

It is ironic, isn’t it? I can’t tell you how happy I am. I’m a happy puppy. Things are going so right. My plan was nowhere near this grand. God’s plan is great!

Before he started the session to do the vocals on it, I was packing up and getting ready to leave. Suddenly he said, “Hey, Where you goin’?”

I said, “Aren’t we done? Isn’t this history, dude?”

Siedah singing “Man In The Mirror” at Berklee with Berklee students for a tribute to Quincy, 2013.
“Man In The Mirror,” the original demo produced by Glen Ballard & Siedah Garrett, and performed by Siedah. Michael not only loved the song, he loved Siedah’s voice.

He said, “No!. We’re getting ready to do ‘Man In The Mirror’ and I need you to stay because I want to sing it like you.”
Okay then! I didn’t expect that! I stayed!

One time Michael asked me where I got the idea for the song. My answer to him was that “I asked for it.” I didn’t mention God because I didn’t know then where he was as far as religion goes. But he knew who I was talking about. I mean, I didn’t ask my neighbor George for it!

Glen Ballard & Siedah Garrett

I did ask God’s help. It’s God’s honest truth! I said, “I want to write a song for Michael Jackson.” Since I wanted Michael to know who I was, I was thinking, “What can I say to him that he wouldn’t be afraid to say to the rest of the world?” And this song came through. And that is the truth.”

Man in the Mirror”
By Glen Ballard & Siedah Garrett

I’m gonna make a change,
For once I’m my life
It’s gonna feel real good
Gonna make a difference
Gonna make it right

As I turn up the collar on
My favorite winter coat

This wind is blowing my mind
I see the kids in the streets
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 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
I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change

I’ve been a victim of a selfish kind of love
It’s time that I realize
That there are some with no home, not a nickel to loan
Could it be really me, pretending that they’re not alone?

A willow deeply scarred, 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
I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change

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