Songs in the Mirror by McKenzie Tozan

Songs in the Mirror by McKenzie Tozan

When I think of Michael Jackson, two very specific memories come to mind before anything else, before the song lyrics or the beats, before I can really let in the impact this artist had on this particular teenager.

In the first, I remember the school’s back hallway, only half-lit after-hours, how it was full of spare instrument cases piled to one side, how the smell of old gym socks seemed to permeate the wall of glass on the opposite side of the hall, looking down at the gymnasium. I remember the itchy, glittery black jacket I was wearing and how it rubbed against the back of my neck, how the old fedora my mom had lent me, with a long feather extending from the brim, was too hot. The sequined glove, the oversized loafers, and the otherwise-highly-feminized version of the costume I was wearing. But more than anything else, I remember the ending of my audition for the middle school’s lip sync concert, when I realized too late that I was singing along (rather loudly) and was immediately disqualified. How the CD was scratched when it was returned to me and “PYT (Pretty Young Thing)” has skipped ever since.

But then, the second, it overrides any embarrassment I might have for that earlier memory, any aversion I might have to the snickers that rose in that room after I sang that last line and spun. Because in this memory, I’m sitting in the second row of my theater class in college, rehearsing to myself and taking notes on the poem that I would perform for my next reading, when my instructor solemnly moves to the front of the room. He moved his hands in from of himself like a shield and said that the voice that often filled the background of our rehearsals was gone. It was my birthday. The class broke out into a mixture of giggles and jokes about the artist’s appearance, and those who genuinely enjoyed him. I sat there and watched my instructor move to the player in the corner and play a song; I’ve forgotten which one.

Michael Jackson has been with me since I was a child, when my mother purchased a VHS copy of Free Willy and Michael’s music video, “Will You Be There?,” prefaced the film… and then again later in elementary school, one Halloween when I was parading around in a sunflower costume and my father introduced me to the full-length “Thriller” music video, as it was marathoning on VH1 (which I then had to watch multiple times). I realized that day that these two men were one in the same, and I was fascinated; I borrowed the copies of Thriller and Bad that my mother owned, quickly learning that I would need to buy my own copies, plus others.

But this became more than developing a taste for a favorite artist, but in a way, a relationship between a well-expressed artist and a teenager who had a lot of questions and no one to openly ask. It wasn’t an obsession, as my peers called it, as I listened to the same CDs on the bus, or read books on music theory and composition; it was a search for answers—about music, about dance, even about learning to be myself. The first two of these came easily; I read books and practiced instruments; I worked through dance routines that I saw in music videos and began to choreograph my own. Being comfortable in my own skin, as a teenager, reasonably took years; but what I carried with me in these songs were the reminders that this acceptance would come, and when it did, it was okay to own it.

While I could make several mixtapes—and have—of this artist, these are the songs that I keep coming back to, that keep reminding me of those early loves of music and dance, and of owning the self that I have. There are others, many others, but these are the ones that keep echoing back and that I want to play over and over… especially on June 25th.

About the Author:

McKenzie Lynn Tozan lives and writes in Indiana, where she works as a virtual assistant, editor, and freelance writer via her self-started business, MLT: Virtually Creative. She received her MFA in Poetry from Western Michigan University, where she worked as the Layout and Design Editor for New Issues Poetry and Prose and as an Assistant Poetry Editor for Third Coast. She previously completed her B.S. in Secondary English Education and B.A. in English, with a Concentration in Writing, at Indiana University South Bend, where she worked as the Managing Editor for 42 Miles Press. Her poems have appeared in Rogue Agent, Whale Road Review, the James Franco Review, Emerge Literary Journal, Encore Magazine, Thank You for Swallowing, The Spooklet, Sleet Magazine, and Analecta, among others; and her book reviews and essays have appeared on The Rumpus, Motherly, and Memoir Mixtapes. When not writing, she enjoys art and music, and the simple mathematics of being a wife of one, a mama of two, and a cat-mom of three.