Why Michael Jackson Refused to Be in the Video For ‘Man in the Mirror’

Michael Jackson was famous for making elaborate music videos, however, he refused to appear in the video for one of his No. 1 hits. He made that decision for a very specific reason. Here’s a look at the thought process behind the video for his song.

Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones | Chris Walter/WireImage

A director had permission to do whatever he wanted for this Michael Jackson video

Firstly, a little background. In 1987, Jackson released one of his most famous albums: Bad. Bad included some huge, memorable singles, such as the title song, “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and “Smooth Criminal.” Each of those songs has a memorable music video. However, Jackson sometimes paired his songs with music videos that were a little more low-key.

During an interview with Billboard, Epic Records executive Larry Stessel recalled the creation of one of his videos. “We’re in [Frank DiLeo’s] study and Michael says ‘I want you to make a video for ‘Man in the Mirror’ and I will not be in it.’ He was getting ready for the tour and rehearsing. He didn’t want to make another video. They wanted to keep the costs down because Michael paid for all the studios. It wasn’t so much the money, it was more like, “You know what, we’ve made big videos, this is just… I don’t know what I want, so I want you to make the video. You do whatever you want.” 

“Man in the Mirror”

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Don Wilson’s unusual idea for the video for Michael Jackson’s ‘Man in the Mirror’

Stessel discussed picking the music video’s director. “I called a friend of mine, his name is Don Wilson, who is primarily a video editor. He did some commercials and stuff and some small things…. So we started throwing around some ideas and he said, “How about we use all these images of things that relate to the song and we’ll edit them together and let’s see what we have?’”

The video for “Man in the Mirror” features clips of many historical figures known for their roles in movements for equality, including Mahatma Gandhi, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Robert F. Kennedy, and John F. Kennedy. In addition, the video includes people who represent the sort of hatred the aforementioned figures stood against, such as Nazis and Klansmen.

“Man in the Mirror”

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How the world reacted to ‘Man in the Mirror’

While the video for “Man in the Mirror” is not as complex as other Jackson videos, it’s a lot more socially conscious than the famous videos for “Thriller” and “Beat It.” So did this more serious approach work for Jackson? According to The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits, “Man in the Mirror” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in 1988. Perhaps the politically-charged video especially resonated in 1988, which was an election year in the United States. Regardless, Jackson proved he didn’t need to appear in a video for his music to sell.