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April 23, 2014

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Michael Jackson: ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’

Michael Jackson died 20 years ago.

That is to say that the creatively dynamic pop dynamo known as Michael Jackson ceased to exist as a vital, influential artistic force sometime after his 1987 album "Bad."

After that album and its string of undeniably vivid singles and genre-stretching videos, Jackson sank into unprecedented depths of celebrity solopsism and hypochondria, tabloid-baiting behavior, alleged criminality and squalid wastefulness. He may still have been the world's most famous human being, but his "life" had become a series of artistic, health, legal and financial crises. He was most often mentioned as a punchline: nearly every impressionist in Las Vegas, included Jackson in their routines, invoking his iconic sound, look and movements while often taking cheap shots at the singer's hyper-publicized troubles.

The pathology eclipsed the performer long ago. At this point in time, it's hard to hear Jackson's world-changing music without the distorting static of scandal and squalor.

His physical body, what was left of Michael Jackson, was rushed to UCLA Medical Center early this afternoon for a reported cardiac arrest. The Los Angeles Times confirmed that Jackson was pronounced dead at 3:15 p.m..

Much has been said, and much more will undoubtedly revealed about the artistic contributions and unimaginable life of Michael Jackson, who incorporated elements of Peter Pan, P.T. Barnum, Diana Ross and the galaxy of Motown stars, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley, Chaplin, Liza Minnelli and Edgar Allen Poe into his persona and penumbra. He became an eccentric and cryptic figure after the supernova burst of worldwide fame and popularity that followed his breakthrough albums "Off The Wall," "Thriller" and "Bad."

Jackson was scheduled to perform up to 50 concerts at London's 02 Arena, which were widely touted as his "comeback" to pop music stardom, validity and financial stability. Fans and producers began clamoring for a U.S. tour, and a world tour after that. But Jackson's reliability and endurance have been in question for years, and he recently pushed back the first run of London shows from July 8 to July 12, leading to speculation about his health and ability to sustain a single performance, let alone 50. He was rarely seen without a protective mask covering his nose and mouth.

My first reaction, on hearing the news of Jackson's sudden hospitalization, was that his emergency was staged with the cooperation of his equally theatrical family, as his way of getting out of his contractual obligations to perform. Jackson's health has famously been touch-and-go, in large part due to his decades-long program of self-modification via plastic surgery, reported experimentation with exotic remedies, including sleeping in hyperbaric chambers, and the results of the stress of fame and misfortune.

It's certainly not out of the realm of possibility: Born into showbiz, Jackson's career has been a chain of ever more outrageous stunts, and his pop icon predecessors Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley are still said (by some of their fringier fans) to have faked their deaths.

In her 2006 book "On Michael Jackson," Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson notes that Jackson read the autobiography of P.T. Barnum, huckster and ringmaster nonpareil, "fervently," distributing copies to his staff, telling them "I want my career to be the greatest show on earth."

Sadly, it has been confirmed that Jackson has in fact died. And now his "greatest show" will turn out to be the latest show: the worldwide spectacle of his funeral and the media carnival -- make that World's Fair, or even Olympics -- that has already begun.

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