The AOR (album oriented rock) format at WVBR was narrow and specific. We played what our top-of-the-hour station ID described as "Rock and Roll's Best." And that format was dominated by white male bands: the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Police, etc. Self-proclaimed rock devotees, we somehow managed to play very few black artists other than Jimi Hendrix...until Michael Jackson came along and thrust our unacknowledged racism in our faces.
"Rock Doesn't Have Violins"
As one of a handful of females deejays -- and the only Asian-American -- among the primarily white male on-air staff, I remember the station's rationale as to why we wouldn't play any cuts from Jackson's wildly popular Thriller album, particularly Billie Jean, which was #1 on the Billboard charts at the time.
"It has violins," argued the music director, "and rock doesn't have violins."
That argument fell by the wayside when Jackson released Beat It as a single and it flew up the charts. After all, Eddie Van Halen had a rockin' guitar solo in the song. To ignore Beat It was to ignore one of "Rock and Roll's Best." And so we added it, integrating rock for the legions of African American artists that would follow.
Our own small conflict was played out on a larger scale at MTV, when Jackson's music videos became the first ones by a black artist to be broadcast by that still-new cable network.
Jackson held up a mirror to society that reflected what we hadn't seen until then -- the divisions between black and white that his music unexpectedly bridged.
Making the World a Better Place
Part of his talent was his ability to sell his music with passion and conviction, even when the tunes weren't written by him. Such is the case with Man in the Mirror, a song with lyrics that seem intensely personal:
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 that change.
A Woman's Touch of Magic
The song, however, wasn't written by Jackson. It was penned by Siedah Garrett who told Singersroom.com that the song evolved from phrases she'd scribbled down from an overheard conversation. Two years later, when she had the chance to compose something for Jackson, she remembered the phrase "man in the mirror" and just started singing, almost unable to write the words and music down fast enough. She said the experience was "like magic."
Unable to Make That Change
Michael Jackson's life was deeply troubled, and therein lies the rub. His magic was a gift he could share with millions but never fully accept for himself. He was a musical tsunami sweeping across an entire planet, and we embraced him regardless of his color or ours. Together, we made "that change."
But because he could never see in himself the man we saw in him, the only personal changes he could make were surface ones -- physical, cosmetic, and sometimes odd-seeming. Despite worldwide adulation, he could never lighten the sadness, despair, or fear that took root in childhood and shadowed him every day of his life.
An Undelivered Message
It's bittersweet to think that it took a woman to write a moving, powerful anthem for him that was painfully apropos. No message could have been any clearer than that which Siedah Garrett invested Man in the Mirror with. Yet Michael Jackson skillfully and convincingly delivered its message to everyone but himself. As much as he wanted to change from the inside out, he was unable to do so, and the world is mourning because of it.
The man is gone, but the mirror he held up to society remains. What can we do to remember Michael Jackson? The answer is both obvious and subtle...easy and hard...possible and impossible. Take a look at yourself and then make that change.
Photo of Siedah Garrett
© Vince Bucci/Getty Images