We would have remembered him if it was just the songwriting or just the dancing or just the eyebrow-raising fashion. But Michael Jackson dominated each of those artistic avenues - and so many others.
You see his influence in every Justin Timberlake who sweats to perfect a signature move. Every movie-esque flourish in a video. Every African-American artist who sits atop the pop charts.
His legacy is as enduring as it is multi-faceted.
When America first met Jackson, he was a lovable, pint-sized pre-teen with a puffy Afro and an electric voice.
Through the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, Jackson held onto the earnestness he had as the frontman of the Jackson Five. Back then, it was impossible to hate Jackson. He was just so likable. When he sang "We are the ones who make a brighter day / So let's start giving" in "We Are the World," you believed him.
As for the music? Pop, rock, disco, jazz - Jackson's tunes had a little bit of everything, all swirled together and peppered with plenty of high-pitched shrieks, squeals and "Hee-hees." His death leaves many questions, not the least of them being what, exactly, does "Shamone" mean?
Pop stars like the Spice Girls and Pussycat Dolls can sell millions of albums but never be taken seriously for their music. Not so for Jackson. His albums - Thriller especially - were embraced by fans and critics alike. He didn't just have 13 No. 1 singles; he had 13 Grammys, too.
No one moved like Michael Jackson. But everyone wanted to.
Music might have made him a star, but from the blunt sexuality of the crotch grabs, to the laser-sharp spins, snaps and pivots, to the mesmerizing group choreography spotlighted in his videos, to, of course, the otherworldly impossibility that was his moonwalk, dance launched Jackson into the stratosphere.
He might not have invented the moonwalk, but he might as well have. When the world watched him gliding like that for the first time, black loafers moving across the stage with liquid smoothness during a televised Motown Music special in 1983, no one had ever seen anything like it.
How many teenagers spent how many hours dragging their stockinged feet across carpeted bedroom floors, trying to master that illusion but remaining, alas, hopelessly earthbound?
The single, white, sequined glove. The red leather jacket with so many zippers. The pegged pants. The fedora. The bedazzled military coats.
Like everything Jackson, his look was a precise exercise straddling desirability and eccentricity. Everybody wanted that leather jacket he wore in the Beat It video, but who, save Jackson, could pull off a solitary, spangled glove?
The Jheri curls? Maybe not. The mirrored sunglasses? Definitely.
He outfitted himself to show off his moves. Black shoes with glittering white socks? He knew no one could ignore feet turned out like that.
In regal coats with epaulets and rhinestone regalia, he was the King of Pop who dressed for the job.
When Jackson's full-length Thriller video was set to debut following an orgy of hype on MTV in late 1983, people wrote it on their calendars. They stayed home just to see it. The most expensive video ever made at the time, it was essentially a cinematic experience, a nearly 15-minute long mini-movie, a happening.
Unlike many artists who phone in videos with concert footage or pack them full of scantily clad models, Jackson used his MTV time to tell stories (as in Thriller and Smooth Criminal), push the boundaries of special effects (as in Billie Jean), produce full, Broadway-choreography (as in Beat It).
He single-handedly fortified the fledgling music television channel and turned the music video into an art form.
Like Elvis and Bob Dylan before him, Jackson reshaped pop culture in ways that are hard to comprehend. Jackson influenced just about every musician who came after him in one way or another. He was unavoidable.
Baltimore-based hip-hop performer MC Saleem Heggins can't point to one specific way Jackson helped shape his music. That would almost be insulting, he said. Jackson was much broader than that, and his legacy is almost impossible to pin down.
"For me, he was the largest figure in music," Heggins said. "I was inspired and entertained by his ability to reach all walks of life. ... It's a legacy of creating great music that appeals to people without compromising yourself."
This week as the world mourned Jackson, a CNN commenter wondered if there has ever been anyone on the planet with a more recognized name.
He was a superstar, but a superstar whose eccentricities drove one tabloid headline after another. His marriages. His monkey. His plastic surgeries. The molestation trial.
For a generation, Jackson was an ever-present media image, selling millions of records, launching millions of rumors.
Byrd was hoping that Jackson's planned comeback tour would turn the spotlight away from the freak show and back to the artistry.
"I was praying even that Michael was going to return to the Michael we know and love," he said, "and the music that was the soundtrack to our lives."
Before Billie Jean, MTV hadn't played a black artist. They weren't "rock" enough, the channel's executives said.
But as Thriller became the top-selling album of all-time, and its corresponding videos all but made MTV, Jackson soundly broke that color barrier.
Jackson's appeal became near-universal, a sound as inescapable on white suburban boomboxes as it was in urban dance clubs.
Still, the idea of racial harmony played out throughout Jackson's career. He teamed with Paul McCartney in the 1980s for the singles "Say, Say, Say" and "The Girl is Mine," and years later, even as his own blackness seemed to be literally fading away as his skin tone became ever lighter, he sang: "If you're thinking about my baby it don't matter if you're black or white."
"His catalog revolves around love, around African-American pride and around uplifting all people," says Eric Byrd, a music lecturer at McDaniel College. "He was trying to tell people we can do better as a human family."
Baltimore Sun reporter Sam Sessa contributed to this article.