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Some thoughts on the passing of Michael Jackson (1958 - 2009)

Posted by Ty Burr  June 26, 2009 11:39 PM

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The mourning over Michael Jackson, dead of a heart attack at the absurdly young and weirdly old age of 50, can be said to have started on Thursday, June 25, 2009. Let’s be honest, though. It began when “Bad” was released 22 years ago.

That was when Jackson embarked on his long journey from born genius to all-American freak. We need both in this culture: we revere the first and dish endlessly about the second, and the King of Pop fulfilled both by virtue of his immense talent and tragic, inscrutable insecurities.

But the shift was still awkward and sad, from the pop artist possessed with grace to the mercurial figure of deepening tabloid headlines. Which Michael was the real Michael? Which face his real one? How do we reconcile the artist-changeling of “I Want You Back” or “Billie Jean” or “Off the Wall” with the sideshow that came after: the buyer of bones, the keeper of chimps, the dangler of babies. The (alleged) molester of boys. The man who thought himself a Lost Boy.

You don’t reconcile. You synthesize. You understand that Jackson was – and remains – a quintessential example of modern pop culture, the doomed superstar naif. The brilliant baby. The kid from nowhere whose high, clear voice cut through the white noise of the late 1960s, reminding us that pop could matter as much as politics. Michael was the centerpiece of the Jackson Five because Joe Jackson knew that a preternaturally gifted child (a few years shaved off to make the miracle complete) was a show biz staple. Money could be made. Security could be bought.

How many young prodigies have sacrificed childhood to be their families’ breadwinners and then gone on to stable adulthoods? The anomaly – the truer miracle – came when Jackson appeared to fulfill his childhood promise. 1982’s “Thriller” was the album that moved a bazillion units and seemingly the earth itself, but this writer was always more stirred, more warmed, by the album that came before it.

Released in 1979, the year the singer turned 21, “Off the Wall” was Jackson’s statement of purpose, an avowal that he could do it on his own. He had help from new friend and mentor Quincy Jones, but even the songs Jackson didn’t write flow from a unique place of confidence and comfort. “I Wanna Rock with You” is one of the sweetest come-on songs ever produced, and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” lays out every promise of energy and groove he would keep for the next few years. The message of “Off the Wall” can be found in a line in its title song – “just enjoy yourself” – and the greatness of the record is that Michael Jackson was doing just that and only that, on his own terms.

This is not how things are supposed to go in this culture. In 1923, the poet William Carlos Williams wrote “the pure products of America go crazy,” and in this he predicted Judy Garland, Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Kurt Cobain – any public figure whose inability to handle stardom becomes an inherent facet of their stardom.

So it was with Jackson. The demons were there but invisible in “Off the Wall.” With “Thriller,” the anxiety starts creeping in. The lyrics are tinged with defensiveness and paranoia – “Billie Jean is not my lover, but she says that I am the one”. “Beat It” is a song about fleeing an angry mob (and about self-pleasure, too, if you want it to be). “Thriller” came with a famous 14-minute horror movie, directed by John Landis, in which Jackson becomes a pale-faced, wide-eyed ghoul.

The album was one of the great pop moments in 20th century culture, yet how much does “Thriller” the video predict what Jackson would become? Here is where the strangeness starts, the facial surgery and the skin lightening – was it vitiligo, as was claimed, or a renunciation of self? Who was he turning himself into? Or what was he turning away from?

We don't know, since we only saw the headlines and never knew the man. Jackson became more globally loved, more famous, more controversial the odder his behavior got. Bubbles the Chimp, the building of Neverland, the 19-month marriage to the seed of Elvis, the impregnation follies of Deborah Rowe, the court cases and settlements and ugly rumors – this is not the life of someone who lives in the world but behind a wall of adulation, rhythm, money. Who built the wall – him or us?

It was a collaboration. The more bizarre Jackson got, the more we responded to the behavior and not the music, and the further he ran from the world. The records still sold, especially overseas, but did anyone buy them with the same thrill they did “Thriller”? With the feeling that an artist who had the gift of conveying such uncomplicated joy might rock with us once more?

No, never, and now he’s dead at 50, on the eve of a comeback that might have revived his career or just prompted more cultural gawking. You are forgiven if you felt this coming a long time ago, in your bones – the early death of another uneasy mass idol. Maybe even congratulations are in order, since Jackson did manage to live longer than Elvis (42), Garland (47), and Cobain (27).

What happens now? What always happens: The great industry of pop-culture mourning cranks up, the end-stage of every superstar career. Jackson’s music is currently flying off iTunes and a public grieving site has been set up at Somber quotes are offered from those who loved him and profited by him while he was alive. Newspaper writers like me wonder what it all means. Every media outlet has a page where you, too, can share your memories of what Michael Jackson meant.

So who are we grieving for? The star he carved himself into, or the person we wanted him to be?

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62 comments so far...
  1. We are grieving for the loss of the last "superstar", essentially. Everyone who came after him just doesn't cut it - in talent, weirdness and everything else that sums up the ridiculous celebrity culture. And as consumers, we just can't get enough of it. I need to sleep now.

    Posted by Ljubica Todorovic June 27, 09 01:47 AM
  1. Michael Jackson is a hero ever.always , he is always in my heart
    even after hundred years.

    Posted by gangatharan June 27, 09 02:31 AM
  1. He is a god of music

    Posted by madan June 27, 09 02:32 AM
  1. Michael Jackson cultivated an eccentric persona for himself as a marketing tactic to try & 'outdo' his Thriller LP in terms of sales. The hyperbaric chamber, trying to purchase the Elephant Man's bones, the 'shrine' to Liz Taylor - these were all fabrications concocted & fed to The National Enquirer by Michael himself to create the 'freaky genius' image he thought would elevate him to even dizzier heights of stardom. Michael was fascinated by hermits, outcasts, the fringes of society - which is why he loved studying Howard Hughes & loved watching movies like E.T. Michael cast himself as the Peter Pan of Pop: but the real Michael was much more mundane....,

    Posted by Ashley Bell June 27, 09 02:36 AM
  1. Very nicely done piece. I often wonder as well, and think how prophetic
    Jeff Koons sculpture is of him at the MOMA. My memory of that period is
    different, Michael Jackson's thriller was out at the same time I was watching countless friends die of AIDS, and having Ronald
    Reagan dismantle the budget and put this country on a credit card., in the middle
    of all that was Michael Jackson. I think the most telling thing for me is that he died
    400 million dollars in debt, not to harp on that but he was an icon for an age of decadance and his self absorbed and self destructive aspects pretty much defined the 80's for all of us who participated in them. But to the writers credit I have to agree on Off the Wall, it was a work of pure genius. For me it harkens
    back to a New York that was very confusing and not much fun.

    Posted by Bostonspaz June 27, 09 03:14 AM
  1. I guess we r mourning the person WE thought he our minds

    Posted by Linda June 27, 09 03:48 AM
  1. he was a diaomond in d world of entertainment.......

    Posted by hinanaaz June 27, 09 05:29 AM
  1. Thank you for your unprejudiced insight. A very well written piece, Ty.

    Posted by Ann June 27, 09 06:09 AM
  1. An excellent article, I agree with every word you've written. I was never a fan of Jackson, but I did recognise his ability and tue musical genius. A sad passing for a lonely and tortured man.

    Posted by Helen Cook June 27, 09 06:41 AM
  1. I just wished to say this, I will miss his music as will the generation of my peers, as well as those who knew his music, I know as well as all those who thought of Michael Jackson, why he surrounded himself with children, to recover his lost youth, to be with the innocent and the not so sinister of what adults are, we wanted to purge those who are gifted who have talent to make ourselves feel better in the world, He is to join the other great preformers and entertainers, that have left us, to a better place, away from the greediness and selfishness of how we treat those who are different.

    Posted by Rowan Harding June 27, 09 07:02 AM
  1. The person that was, Michael Jackson

    Posted by John Rizzo June 27, 09 07:41 AM
  1. For me, the ABBA song says it best .. "Thank You for the Music".

    Posted by Michelle June 27, 09 08:23 AM
  1. Whatever.......he was a child molester.

    Ty responds: An acquitted one, Nlitenme. This interview with MJ's biographer has an interesting slant on the matter.

    Posted by Nlitenme June 27, 09 08:32 AM
  1. This is great writing. It's a pleasure to read your work.

    Posted by Kathy June 27, 09 09:08 AM
  1. I'd like to say this ...... HIS talent , that belonged to Quincy Jones .... Thriller was a Ouincy album that MJ sang on ...... He ripped off almost as many people as Maloff did ..... He has RUINED the lives of his three children and MOLESTED THE REST ! !! !!! BURNING IN HELL IS A WASTE OF FUEL (I didn't say that aloud did I ) ??

    Posted by roderick mac donald June 27, 09 09:59 AM
  1. Farrah Fawcett died and went to heaven where St Peter informed her that since she led a reasonably pure life god would grant her one final wish.

    She thought long and hard, and finally smiled and said, "I wish that all of the world's children could be safe and free from harm".

    St. Peter relayed the message to god, and a moment later Michael Jackson died.

    Posted by Chris in Boston June 27, 09 10:04 AM
  1. I just don't get why everyone is grieving over a pedophile. It makes my stomach turn to think that as a society we are either so blind as to not recognize him for what he was or so forgiving that we don't care about the children he abused. The only trajedy here is that he didn't die before he molested those children.

    Posted by Mike June 27, 09 10:37 AM
  1. I guess I live under a rock. I heard he died on Thursday, but of greater impact to me was hearing Farrah died the same day; elicited more of a sympathetic response from me to hear she died. I haven't heard a Michael Jackson song in years, maybe at least 10, and I haven't heard any Jackson songs on the radio lately. Maybe I don't listen to the same radio stations as the masses. I've never watched an episode of American Idol or Dancing with the Stars; but I know they exist. Am I missing anything special?

    Posted by Robroy June 27, 09 11:00 AM
  1. I agree with a few of the other commenters, great article. Thank you

    Posted by Dan June 27, 09 11:32 AM
  1. You gotta wonder if the man was ever happy after all to a lot of people he was just a money machine, and I would think over time that would ware you down. I also think its funny all these radio stations that refused to play his stuff are all over it now that he's gone everyone loves you when you die.

    Posted by Red June 27, 09 11:52 AM
  1. Best reflection on Michael Jackson on what he was and became I've read so far!

    However, As for the "alleged" part - by his own words, Jackson was someone too fond of sleeping with little boys for a middle aged man.

    Posted by aurora1000 June 27, 09 12:05 PM
  1. Michael Jackson grew up with people judging him and when he became the king of pop, people were judging his music. Maybe in the last few years he had some difficult times that led to fans and disbelievers to call him names and find him guilty of a crime before the court did. But Michael Jackson is THE man people remember as a great entertainer, as activist, as a friend, as a brother, as a son and mostly he is and will always be remembered as the KING of POP. Michael Jackson's music as influenced many artists to be creative and to not hold anything back. He has taught the world that with determintation and love for your craft, you can reach as high as the sky like he did with his album Thriller. Jackson may have been through everything in the media but what we should praise isn't the negative but the positive insight of Michael Jackosn. He died so sudden that all remember of him was the trial but now that his music is selling, literally disappearing off the shelves, the only thing we can do is dance and laugh and sing outside the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, NY. Michael Jackson was a human being and he had feelings. With his signature move across the stage, is dance moves captivated us. When he performed he left everything including his soul on stage and i dont agree with the poeple who call themselves fans of Michael Jackson only reminiscing the bad. He is the King of pop. He is the one and only Michael Jackson. He lives on through his music which is still a success; selling out all 50 shows in London for his comeback tour. No one should even question his abilities to grab our attention. Michael is just Michael. A little boy from Gary, Indiana that grew up to become what we know and forever rmember as the KING of POP. R.I.P. Michael Jackson 1958-2009

    Posted by Lisa June 27, 09 12:27 PM
  1. I just read Lisa Presley's commentary on CNN a few minutes ago. Her words stopped me in my tracks. I don't need to read one more word from the mountains, absolute mountains of press about Jackson's life, career, talent that are coming our way. Presley's words, and this article, say it all.

    The child molestation case was tragic to me. It's obvious that MJ was eccentric, even weird, but did they ever prove that he did it? I don't think the man, or the career, were ever the same after that.

    Michael Jackson, and the Jackson 5, are markers of my 1960-70's childhood. I was around before Thriller. It's hard and it's sad to see him, like so many others who've achieve such fame and wealth (with or without talent) at the cost of their souls and their lives

    Talk about America's obsession with celebrity, with the weird and the sensational.

    And we get a break from Jon and Kate, for a few weeks. I wonder where THAT mess will land, once everyone's squeezed the last drop of profit from it. And people continue to watch.

    Posted by Ava June 27, 09 12:48 PM
  1. I was never a huge fan of Michael Jackson and I thought that it was kind of wierd that he went through all of that plastic surgery and skin bleaching to make himself white. He didn't really represent black folks at all unless it was black folks who thought white was better.

    Posted by shaedenfreude June 27, 09 01:07 PM
  1. MJ is in a far better place than this creepy country

    Posted by MJbehappy June 27, 09 01:48 PM

    Posted by MICHELLE June 27, 09 01:58 PM
  1. poster#13 I don't believed that, people make up all kind of lies and he just a nice
    person that don't bother to fight that's why he just settle what they accused him of
    perhaps he was over crowded with children especially boys.

    Posted by sad enough already June 27, 09 02:00 PM
  1. I think your lyric references fall completely flat. While you try to distinguish this article from so many other negative snapshot biographies, it boomerangs and is exactly just that. (With a corny question mark at the end - how societal, how inquisitive of you)

    Posted by frank June 27, 09 02:04 PM
  1. Michael Jackson was my age. We were born in the same year, just a few months apart. I "grew up" with the Jackson 5 and knew all the songs. My grandfather was a producer for rhythm and blues acts, and hence knew Jackson through a "few degrees of separation" within the community of African-American artists he represented.

    Although my tastes would change - preferring Pearl Jam and the The Jayhawks, Lucinda Williams and Maria McKee - Jackson to me was always music's musicman. I didn't care about the "sideshow." Jackson was a singer-songwriter, and he was one of the best. I persona;y am grieving for the music he won't be writing again, not on Earth, anyway. But you know he'll be writing it "Up There." Yes, I'm sure he made it there.

    Posted by reindeergirl June 27, 09 02:20 PM
  1. ENOUGH ALREADY!!!! So he died - get over it. The world will not end - there are and have been other more talented and gifted people that this guy. He is a HAS BEEN - past his prime and got screwy as he got old.! Pity his kids.

    There is more important things happening in the world now.

    Posted by g05 June 27, 09 02:33 PM
  1. "Let the one who have not sinned be the first to cast the stone.". Im not here to judge a person for his/her weakness. I could only praise our Creator for giving the world a soul with an amazing gift /talent that not anyone at least in my time, has equalled.
    I believe he's forgiven just like anyone else who has sinned. " The yardstick you use to judge your fellow human beings is the same yardstick that will be used to judge you".
    To Michael. Where ever you are? I my respect for your talent will not die. You are still alive in my heart.

    Posted by E.M. Mendoza June 27, 09 03:56 PM

    Posted by Stef June 27, 09 04:48 PM
  1. I am grieving for the lost of a spectacular one of a kind artist, however, I am grateful for the music and for the very special person he was. God bless you Michael.

    Posted by Marvelyn June 27, 09 04:54 PM
  1. He is beyond any definition. Has touch so many lives worldwide through his songs. Even hardened inmates is grieving. He crosses racial barriers and religion. He is immortal. Spirit of Michael Jackson is still alive worldwide. I hope they will arrange a burial place much like of President Lincoln where it is impossible for some grave robbers to steal whatever remains of him. Every museum would love to have any real material coming from him. Did the coroner return some of his organs? This is a real probability. He is a mortal human God.

    Posted by Michael Spirit June 27, 09 05:36 PM
  1. I'm grieving for the person HE wanted to be. It would be a better world if our truly talented people were allowed to grow and if those who tried to cash in on them were the persecuted. I believe that what he became--and I found that sad-- was the result of what was done to him, all his life, not because of some inherent fault in his nature. RIP, Michael, you've earned some peace.

    Posted by mthel June 27, 09 08:16 PM
  1. He's dead...give it a rest. Supposed clhid molester, maybe drugs...who knows...I care more about everyday people going through crisis than this. Natural disasters, war, famine etc... and we focus on this...please. It's a shame that he passed but there are bigger things to think and report on.

    Posted by WhatEver June 27, 09 11:20 PM
  1. I can't think of a Black woman in her forties or early fifties for whom Michael jackson did not have a special meaning..he was our very first real crush, we judges other boys by whether or not they danced or looked like Michael Jackson...and the "Fro...they had to have a 'fro like Michael's. Whenever his music came on we all mimicked his dance moves.. We were all going to marry him..every single little Black girl was going to marry him. He was such an indelible part of our culture

    Posted by Helene Tomlinson June 27, 09 11:29 PM

    Posted by PUBUDU June 28, 09 01:40 AM
  1. mik,
    once u showed ur immence talent
    world crowned urslf "king of pop"
    magical life u started ur career beatin millions heart
    n left whole world breakin their hearts.
    im imaginin wat it b if we cud see ur last concerts.

    Posted by santosh pandey "punk" June 28, 09 05:42 AM
  1. Michael, Michael, Michael . . . you are still my love!

    Posted by Jane X Jones June 28, 09 06:39 AM
  1. It sickens me that we as Americans look to this type of lost soul to represent our society or "pop culture" . He was a drug addict, insecure, wasteful and no discipline - oh and self confessed sleeps with children. He made some good songs (25 years ago) but he was a F-R-E-A-K. I would prefer my children study his life in physiology than look up to him as a Hero... did you say Hero Ganga??

    squandered all his money - escaped every bit of reality from his physical look to his mental state - what a weak pathetic individual he was. Not what I want as a hero.

    Sorry I should let the manBoy RIP - but it irritates me that we raise this type of freakshow to great heights and my crippled Marine cousin gets a hospital bed for two weeks....what a country

    America where have your values gone....jeez!!

    Posted by MeanBoy June 28, 09 06:50 AM
  1. michael jackson was a very conflicted person. he didn't know if he wanted to be black or white, male or female, man or child, parent or pedophile. Michael Jackson was unique because it rhymes with freak.

    Posted by holly fullerton June 28, 09 10:38 AM

    Posted by Azeez June 28, 09 11:09 AM
  1. You make no mention of Michael Jackson the global humanitarian. He gave more to charity than any other pop star.
    Those who truly try to understand Michael Jackson the human being realize that he suffered from vitiligo and body dismorphic syndrome. Instead of showing compassion the media chooses to exploit him as freak.
    Michael thank you for all you have given us.The weight of the world is finially off your shoulders. May you rest in peace.

    Posted by Ann June 28, 09 01:40 PM
  1. He was not one of the Greats. He was the Greatest.

    Thanks Michael, for the good times.

    Posted by IDIOKO June 28, 09 06:11 PM
  1. Michael Jackson was a creep. He was a child molester. He was a drug addict. His plastic surgery showed what a pathetic sickster he really was. As for all the media veneration and the childish sentimentalism in the media and on this board - you people worship a self-loathing dog. Good riddance worm!

    Posted by Barry Roberts June 28, 09 09:45 PM
  1. :'(
    we miss u so much jackoo..............

    if u dont like him , then why ar uu commentin on him?
    he is awsome and he will never die. i luv u jacko...


    Posted by Jackson-luva June 29, 09 08:10 AM
  1. Michael Jackson was and still is the top legendary musician of my time. Just about every R&B artist you see today has taken something from him and used it to better their career. If it weren't for him, many of today's R&B stars probably wouldn't have even made it. Who will be the next Michael, or for that matter, John Lennon or Elvis? Music will never be the same again. NO ONE comes close to these legends. I am deeply saddened and as a reslut almost feel that music is now dead as we know it.

    Posted by Ashley June 29, 09 10:17 AM
  1. Mmmm. We love to judge people without knowing them ah? Who knows what Michael Jackson went thru with when people started judging him. Who cares if he became white? He wasn’t or isn't the only one having plastic surgery in the FAMOUS ARTIST INDUSTRY. One day the truth about him molesting kids will come out.. Maybe the drug usage came from being depressed with all this judging. I know he's done strange things ( we all do ) but come on let him rest in PEACE. No one is perfect.

    Posted by claudia June 29, 09 01:13 PM
  1. im still cryin from the painful moment of michael jackson until this day i hope his children are ok and i pray for the family and i pray for them not to be sad but happy that he is at peace now may god bless and keep the family in many ways. I LOVE YOU MICHAEL JACKSON.

    Posted by BRITT June 29, 09 10:49 PM
  1. michael jackson waz the coolest i am really mad
    that this has happened but I MIISS U MICHAEL JACKSON

    Posted by rachael July 1, 09 12:28 AM
  1. He was my best , i luv his songs

    Posted by fridah moggy July 3, 09 05:32 AM
  1. Michael Jackson was my first crush. I remember seeing the video Thriller at school in our auditorium. I don't even remember why they were playing it. I just knew that I was lost in his eyes. And I had to have that album. Which I did get. His life could have been so different, if he would have had a different dad. He was so beautiful in the 80's and 90's and could have just gotten better, if his dad had left him alone. He will be forever my Michael.

    Posted by Leanna July 7, 09 12:18 AM
  1. Michael Jackson DIED A LONG TIME AGO. Although I liked Michael as a Singer/Performer I must say that Michael died a long time ago in my eyes approximately around the time Bad was released. At this time he really got weird. Michael didn't like himself, judging from his ever evolving face, skin color and his drug use just to escape the reality of who he was. Please America, DON'T by any means call this man a hero. A Great Singer and Performer at most but a weak and demented man.

    Posted by Kevweb July 7, 09 02:04 PM
  1. He was the best...**** all you's because of you guys why people are the type of people that do sick **** for money....get a life haters and go watch your mother. MJ IS NUMBER 1 !!!

    Posted by cammie July 7, 09 03:01 PM
  1. some of these comments are so judgemental. imagine if all those haters were perfect our world would be a better place. u let the Lord judge him for u r not here to judge. you live ur life and let others live theirs. who r u to judge, as the Lord has said, if u have never sinned throw the first stone. I guarantee no one will throw the first stone, for we are ALL sinners. why is it when someone is a genius or different he is considered a freak. how fast we r to judge other and never look in our own back yard. let the man rest in peace, ur turn will come and then it will be God who will judge you not the humans on earth, that are all in the same boat. u let God take care of these issues u take care of urs and let the world roll. he never judged u, he didnot ask u to love him, so let him be. u let people decide if they love him or hate him and keep those ugly comments to urself. he must be important to u otherwise u would not even bother to comment or say anything at all. pray that the Lord does not judge u without knowing u, for you could be judge harshy as u have judged harshly, pray for the Lords mercy instead of trashing Michael. His talent is undeniable, that no one can take, not even haters like all those that trash him. REST IN PEACE MICHAEL, make peace with the Lord, HE LOVES ALL HIS CHILDREN.

    Posted by NORMS July 7, 09 03:28 PM
  1. MICHEAL JACKSON was an very great person even tho i never got an chance to meet him every time i listened to one his songs it was like i was right there with him. His viedos were the best they always stood out and showed his personality , he will always be missed in love will carry throughout life. ''LOVE YOU , MICHEAL JACKSON '' HUGS& KISSES

    Posted by jessica craft July 8, 09 01:47 PM
  1. We are greiving death and how it comes to all no matter what. And we somehow are greiving our own mortality as it relates to those of us who grew up with him - the mere reality of death. We are greiving our own childhood, our own loss of innocense through this loss and our association with him. We are greiving where we once were and will never again be. We are doing all this through Michael Jackson, the sweet talented child; the handsome young man; the eccentric aging pop icon who was trying desparately to recapture his success to reaffirm his worth. Funny isn't that someone we all do just on a different level.

    Posted by Donna July 8, 09 06:46 PM
  1. People don't know what to say about Micheal Jackson let him rest in peace

    Posted by monique July 8, 09 07:29 PM
    THAN YOU LIVED FOR NOTHING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    HE DIDN'T!

    Posted by GEANINA July 9, 09 10:05 AM

    Posted by Kayleigh Page July 13, 09 06:37 AM
  1. Remember people, there is a fine line between genius and insanity. Unfortunately, Michael may have crossed that line. But that means that he was also a genius. And that loss, alone, is what I mourn.

    Posted by D. July 31, 09 05:48 PM

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