Like most people, I was stunned to learn that Michael Jackson passed away last week. Unlike other celebrities (like Farrah Fawcett, who died the same day), I'd had no indication that his health was even in decline. Of course, I'd not even been following his career enough to know that he was trying to stage a comeback tour in the coming year, so it would definitely be a stretch to say I was a huge fan. Still, I came of age in a time where Michael Jackson's music was inescapable. Too young to have direct memories of his tenure as the lead singer (albeit youngest!) of the "Jackson Five," I became aware of Michael Jackson right at the time when he was redefining his own career as his own person.
In the summer of 1988, just before I entered high school, I attended my very first Montreat Youth Conference. Toward the end of the week, they always have a Variety Show, and I performed Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," which I had learned the previous spring in choir. I really should never have done that. I had no background music to play, and none of my friends who knew the song could play instruments, so I did the whole thing a cappella. Also, the song was a bit too high for my comfortable voice range (Jackson is known for a rather high singing voice, whereas my voice has been in the low bass range since I entered my teens). In fact, my voice actually cracked as I tried to hit the high note at the end of the second verse, right in front of an audience of over 1000 people! There was no point in trying to hide it (especially a cappella!), so I basically made a face acknowledging the mistake, and then finished the song. The song was actually well-received, and I got a few compliments for handling the voice-crack the way I did. Still, if I'd had to do it over again, I probably would have let someone else have the slot.
I've often mused about the fact that performers often sing (and even write) songs that don't consistently match their own lives. Someone will sing a song about eternal love, yet have multiple marriages and divorces, for example. There will always be some controversy over Michael Jackson's life, especially the last decade or so of it. There's that incident several years ago where he dangled his baby son from a balcony before reporters, for example, and there will probably always be some question about whether or not Jackson had a problem with pedophilia. In light of these kinds of oddities, "Man in the Mirror" may well be one of those songs that was "just something to perform" that "sounded good," even if the real meaning of it (making a change in one's self in order to make a difference in the world) didn't fully enter into Jackson's being.
But, recognizing the way in which Jackson did take control of his life, not only terms of redefining himself for his solo musical career, but in other ways (both good and bad), I have to imagine that there was at least a part of "Man in the Mirror" that reflected Jackson pretty deeply. I get the impression that he wanted to make the world a better, happier place, and even if he didn't always know the right way to go about it, he got out there and made the effort. His choices were his own, and good or bad, he made them himself. Perhaps that's the best that can be said of any of us.