Earth tunes countdown: Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” (#9)

Welcome to our musical countdown to Earth Day 2018; once a month, B Shawn Clark shares one of his Top Ten nature songs.

TOP TEN EARTH SONGS

By B SHAWN CLARK

That finding an oasis of inspiration, urging humans to protect and nurture the planet they inhabit, in the wasteland of pop music is as much a reflection of the ethos those humans choose to embrace (or not) as it is how artists have struggled so in their attempts to evoke compassion for Mother Earth from their fans through their music.   

More than a few have tried, mostly without success, to till this infertile ground.  

The long, long catalogue of music said to be about the environment on Wiki (listed by a couple hundred artists in alphabetical order) is strewn with the crumpled efforts (not to mention song sheets) of those that tried, but failed, to find success musically with such songs in the eyes (and ears) of their fans.  

A case in point is the late, great Michael Jackson, the King of Pop.  Hardly one to be thought of as an Earthy kind of guy (at least stateside), MJ actually has four songs on the Wiki Master List, including Cry (from the 2001 album Invincible), Heal the World (Dangerous – 1991) and Earth Song (HIStory, Past, Present & Future, Book I – 1995) the latter of which, accompanied by a lavishly expensive, award-winning video,  became a top-five hit in most of Europe (MJ’s best selling single in the UK) but failed to gain much appreciation in America, where it became the last song he performed (at rehearsal) shortly after midnight on June 25, 2009, the date he passed from this World he loved so much.  Adding to the list of socially conscious material associated with MJ is the charity song We are the World (1985), co-written with Lionel Richie.  

Tellingly, although Man in the Mirror (Bad – 1987) is one of the four songs on the Wiki Master List of environmental songs, there is precious little evidence in the lyrics (and music video released at the time) that it overtly expresses what were obviously MJ’s deep and abiding concern about the state of Mother Earth and the need to preserve and protect her resources for all humankind.

Intended by Jackson and his producer, Quincy Jones, as an “anthem” for the emerging superstar to spread “sunshine on the world” the song, while clearly a call to action, obscures any preachy message about saving the planet and the human race from itself, calling instead on people to look inside themselves for answers, starting with Jackson himself:

I’m gonna make a change…
I’m starting with the man in the mirror
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and
Then make that Change!

Man in the Mirror stands alone among the music produced by MJ that is (arguably) about the environment and is a call for awareness and action to improve the human condition that is both critically acclaimed and a commercial success.   Because the song does so well in two of the three criteria for the Top Ten songs suitable for Earth Day (the song is very recognizable and is a fine piece of work, musically speaking) Man in the Mirror, despite shaky credentials as a true environmental song, makes it onto the Best-Of List (just barely) at Number Nine.

When compared to the many, many songs written about the environment that no one has ever heard of (or that never really saw the light of day), the success of a song like Man in the Mirror that has to obscure its underlying message of calling upon listeners to become more aware of social problems all around them, their role in making Planet Earth that type of world, and to make a personal effort to make a change is, well, like the song says, a very poor reflection on us.

In case you missed it: #10 James Taylor’s “Traffic Jam”.

B Shawn Clark is a conservationist and attorney turned freelance writer who is attempting to reprise the role of Thoreau in shaping human thought and reflection through life in nature. He is currently holed up in the seaside town of Englewood, Florida at a self-styled “Man Cave” in a wooded area populated by wildlife (not counting those kids next door) beside a creek reminiscent of Walden Pond, where he continues to ponder the law, and the law of human nature.


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