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Michael Jackson had it all as a pop star -- catchy beats, an unmistakable voice, inimitable dance moves and a distinctive look. But he also had it all when it came to celebrity dysfunction. In his 50 years, he managed to embody virtually all the tropes of weird celebrity that dominate the tabloids. To wit:

  • Preternatural child star. You've got your demanding stage parents and a performer who is at once sweet and innocent and mature beyond his years. Think of him as an early Jon-Benet Ramsey.
  • Sexual ambiguity. Before the accusations of child molestation turned the whole thing creepy, he was right up there with Prince.
  • Inexplicable marriages and divorce. Britney has been trying to give him a run for his money on this score, but the man married Elvis' daughter for god's sake.
  • Weird child issues. The dangling the baby over the balcony incident, the baby with an unnamed surrogate, the strange names, it all fed a tabloid fascination with celebrity children that carries through the Madonna/Angelina adoptions, the Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes situation, etc.
  • The mansion. Neverland Ranch is just a grander (and weirder) version of Graceland, something that enabled Jackson to be a recluse in the public eye, if such a thing is possible.
  • Extravagant spending and debt/comeback concert tour. Jackson was apparently about $400 million in the hole and the 50-show tour he was headed out on was an effort to make some of that up. There are shades here of the Willie Nelson tax debt situation.
  • The radical change in appearance. Perhaps nobody tops his record here, what with the werid plastic surgery, but the Britney head-shaving incident is in the same genre.
  • The celebrity trial. No one will ever outdo O.J., of course, but the Jackson child molestation trial was pretty good, particularly when he walked out of the courthouse carrying an umbrella on a sunny day and proceeded to climb on top of a car and perform dance moves for his fans.

There are only a couple of classic elements that have been missing. A drugs/rehab phase would seem essential, though reports that he may have been taking prescription painkilllers could, upon autopsy, put him in Anna Nicole Smith range. And of course, he never appeared on reality television. But his record of inducing cultural rubbernecking may never be topped.

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It's hard to reconcile all that with his genuine record as one of the all-time great performers. When the news broke, I was in a bar in Annapolis. The guy with a guitar who was the live music for the evening started off his set with a tribute to Michael Jackson that sounded sort of like an apology, like we have to justify appreciating his music without endorsing all the other stuff. I can remember conversations like this in elementary school in the early '80s, when even then it was crucial for reasons none of us could quite articulate to separate liking Jackson's music from liking him, per se. But in the end, when all the weirdness fades away, the music will certainly remain. Thursday night, when the guitarist finished his windup, he launched into Billie Jean, and the crowd hummed along, perhaps in spite of itself.

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