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Michael Jackson and the Limits of Vanity

As an early teen in the early '80s, it was just about impossible not to like Michael Jackson's music. It was certainly impossible to avoid it. With Thriller, Jackson and producer Quincy Jones set out to make the ultimate crossover album -- one that would gain black and white audiences in equal measure. And equal airplay, too, back when radio stations were even more racially targeted than they are today.

And boy, did they succeed.

But Michael Jackson the person? It was pretty obvious even then that he was one strange dude. What happened though is what happens to too many child performers: The weirdness went up and up, while the quality of the performances went down and down. By the time Dangerous came out in 1991, the magic was pretty much gone. It sold in the millions, yet nobody was buying it. And by that I mean, nobody was buying Jackson's pseudo tough/tender/ladies man act anymore. The weird was just too weird.

Then came the obligatory-yet-somehow-disappointing greatest hits collection, the horrifying-yet-believable stories about his sleepover parties with kids...

I shudder even to think about it. His last studio album, ironically named Invincible, came out after years of delays and way over budget -- and to a tepid response.

It was around this time he was dangling babies off balconies and looking like a bad drag queen version of Elizabeth Taylor. Oh, and he'd somehow managed to go broke buying giraffes and rollercoasters and stuff. The music had hit bottom and the weird was at the top of the charts.

The amazingly talented and abused little boy who never had a childhood, never really had an adulthood, either. There's so much blame to go around, you barely know where to start.