The Ultimate Thriller

Forget all the scandals and the weirdness, Pat O’Brien says. In the end, what we will remember about the Michael Jackson he knew is the music.

06.25.09 11:37 PM ET

In his brilliant book about Fred Astaire, Joseph Epstein borrowed from the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer to describe the difference between talent and genius. “Talent,” Epstein wrote, “is like a marksman who hits a target that the rest cannot reach; genius, one who hits a target they cannot even sight.”

By that definition, Michael Jackson was, indeed, a genius. Yes, through all the demons and Wacko Jacko behavior and all the horrible allegations and public displays of craziness, it was the genius of his music that we end up mourning today. There is enough material on Michael Jackson to make it possible to actually narrate something about him without saying one nice thing, but that’s not going to be the case with this man. The King of Pop lived and died in controversy but will be long remembered as an icon who transcended anything we threw at him. In his death, nothing will stick. Bank it.

Sinatra made us want to love. Elvis made us want to swoon. The Beatles made us want to sing. Michael’s music made us want to dance.

Few have hit the musical bull's-eye he targeted. Sinatra did it. Elvis did it. The Beatles did it. And that’s about it. It’s a pretty good club. It wasn’t so much about the sheer numbers of records sold, which was astounding. It wasn’t so much about the hysteria from day one, when he came on the scene as a young boy. It wasn’t even the moonwalk. It was that he made you want to, well, dance. Sinatra made us want to love. Elvis made us want to swoon. The Beatles made us want to sing. Michael’s music made us want to dance. And unless you haven’t studied this aspect of our glorious history, we are not a dancing country. We’re lovers and fighters and singers. Michael taught us to dance.

I was talking to one of the aforementioned Beatles shortly after George Harrison died and we were reminding ourselves that when somebody who is such a big part of our lives dies, he takes a little of all of us with him. We remember the milestones, we remember the clothes, the performances, the good and the bad and the ugly.

Many of Michael Jackson’s milestones are not worth remembering, or more to the point, are somehow worth forgetting. He’ll never be forgiven for at least the perception he was a pedophile or for the way he paraded his kids around in masks or the way his physical appearance morphed into something that made us squeamish. Those events and demons, if you will, will always be part of his memory, but when it came down to it in the immediate coverage of his death it was about his genius. It was about the music.

Even this country’s greatest self-appointed cynic, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, was able to forget about the “issues” tonight. There he sat, with his coat off and without a teleprompter for a change, morphing himself into Walter Cronkite covering the death of John F. Kennedy. There was a sense of urgency we rarely see in this cable and viral world. Olbermann, it should be remembered, was the Pied Piper of Michael Jackson critics, humiliating and degrading the King of Pop night after night in the form of puppets, gleaming with great “journalistic” joy, it seemed, in Jackson’s downfall.

But listen to him now. Listen and watch all of them, all of us, now all hail the King of Pop.

I heard the news while in Beverly Hills, and from the first ping on my BlackBerry to the next stoplight, the news spread like a California wildfire. Within 10 minutes, traffic from nearby UCLA Hospital, where he died, was backed up to Beverly Hills and radio stations were saying, “stay off the freeways.” Which gave everybody a wonderful opportunity to sit in their cars and hear radio station after radio station dig out their Michael Jackson favorites. I turned my radio off and I could still hear the melodic beats from Thriller up and down Rodeo Drive. Suddenly BlackBerry and cell service was jammed. People were crying. Michael Jackson was dead. All Hail the King.

I always found Michael to be a nice guy, actually. He was the most soft-spoken person in entertainment and surrounded himself with so many people—I never did figure out who did what and why. His security platoons seemed to always create more havoc than there already was. His spokespeople always felt like they were dealing with the leader of the Western world. But his family—all of them—was always congenial and supportive and, frankly, incredibly grateful to be along for the ride. They stuck with him through all the bad and had their hearts broken more than they could ever have imagined. Ironic, then, that it was Michael’s heart that finally stopped.

So now what? There will be no comeback tour. There will be no more whispers. There will be no more Wacko Jacko moments. Even though he no doubt leaves behind him a terrifying mess of legal and financial issue, the gift he leaves us with is the music. The beats. One of the necessary soundtracks of our lives. And if you hit your knees tonight, thank God for Michael Jackson. Because in a nation that lives on thrills, he was the ultimate Thriller.

Pat O'Brien has been a broadcaster for more than three decades, including many years as the co-host of Access Hollywood and The Insider. A former anchor for CBS Sports, he is also the author of Talkin' Sports: A B.S.-er's Guide. He divides his time among Los Angeles, New York, and Nantucket.