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Prince

Over the past 25 years, they have received Grammys, platinum records, critical accolades and fat royalty checks. This summer, they got invitations to join AARP.

Prince turned 50 on June 7, Madonna hit that milestone Aug. 16, and Michael Jackson follows suit today.

Madge is still causing a commotion. His Purple Highness kept the funk-soul party going after 1999. And nobody's sure the dormant Gloved One wants to be starting something.

All three exploded in the early '80s as ambitious trailblazers who sang, danced, wrote songs and transformed the music video from a promotional spot into a creative and provocative art form. Their careers, though beset by controversy and setbacks, proved lucrative and durable as they reached beyond music into film, fashion and publishing, deploying a canny sense for marketing, self-promotion and branding.

They were cultural thunderbolts. The harmonic convergence of Jackson, Madonna and Prince made a profound and widespread impression. MTV celebrated its ratings trifecta, moral watchdogs recoiled at the unholy trinity, media gawked at the three-ring circus, and pop fans reveled in a rare triple whammy of tantalizing talent.

Their songs remain potent supplements in the musical diet.

"A reality of pop culture now is the disposability of talent," says Janice Min, "Us Weekly" editor in chief. "That they have permeated several generations is incredible. Any 20-year-old in a car is going to sing along with "1999," "Let's Go Crazy," "Beat It" or "Borderline." These songs are at gyms, parties, weddings. And it's not the "Macarena."

"All three are such larger-than-life figures that they've become otherworldly," she says. "It's not like Pete Wentz or Gym Class Heroes. They're still enigmatic and inaccessible and on pedestals, which is the essence of iconic status. Madonna, her whole life, has been called the flavor of the month. It's been a really long month."

Variations in star power, sales patterns and stylistic ploys don't change the fact that "all three defined the '80s and a good part of the '90s," says Joe Levy, editor in chief of "Blender." "Their greatest work revolved around crossing boundaries and uniting audiences. They made music for white and black, gay and straight, male and female, and blurred the lines in their personal identities. They set the tone for music in the '80s to the extent that Bruce Springsteen had a hip-hop producer, Arthur Baker, remix his singles."

And don't misconstrue their fashion-forward, video-geared pop confections as transitory diversions.

Madonna and Jackson in particular "had titanic impact roughly equivalent to that of The Beatles and Bob Dylan," Levy says. "They set the model for what people afterward aspired to do culturally, musically and even artistically. Young performers today work in their shadow."

Though the three shared similar ambitions and success, one notable orbit wobbled off course.

"No pop star has a more rabid fan base than Jackson, but he has so many strikes against him, scandalwise," says Doug Brod, editor of "Spin." "So many people distrust him, don't like him and don't want to hear his music. He made the biggest cultural impact with "Thriller "and "Bad," but the wacky behavior and allegations overtook him. He lost focus."

And yet Jackson may stand tallest in history "because, much like Elvis, he went the craziest, and that's a story that gets remembered," Levy says. "We don't know how much the ghost of Elvis would haunt us if his end had not been so ugly and spectacular.

"The ghost of Michael haunts us while he still walks among us."