How Michael Jackson Helped Kris Allen win 'Idol'

American Idol is back! OK, not really. But last night Fox, in memory of the late King of Pop, aired the episode from last spring when the top 13 contestants covered Michael Jackson songs. The show was strangely poignant, especially when Adam Lambert covered "Black and White"—in my opinion, his best performance on the Idol stage—and Kris Allen strummed his guitar to "Remember the Time." As Paula Abdul cooed, "Kris, I truly believe no one knows Michael's catalog better than you." You could even argue if it weren't for Michael Jackson, Kris Allen—who started his Idol career with a performance of "Man in the Mirror"—might not be our American Idol.

But wait a minute. Kris Allen is only 24. He wasn't even born when Michael Jackson released Thriller in 1982. How did Allen, who grew up in Jacksonville, Ark., discover Michael Jackson? We asked him to tell us, and to share how the other Idol contestants reacted to news of Jackson's death. Excerpts:

Do you remember the first time you heard a Michael Jackson song?
I was probably 7 or 8 years old. The Dangerous album came out, and I bought it. It was a tape. It kind of stayed in my tape player forever.

Were either of your parents fans?
I think my dad might have listened to him before.

Did you have a favorite song on the album?
The whole album was good. One of my favorites of his was "Remember the Time," I did that on the show. There are so many good ones on that album. I think that could be said of every one of his albums. Not too long after that, I think his History album came out, with him on the cover as a gold statue. Then I was like, wow he's been around forever and all of his stuff was incredible. I have the Thriller album. I have the Off the Wall album. I have all that stuff now.

What is it about Michael Jackson that appeals to you?
Every time you listen to this music you get this feeling and you always feel good. And as a kid, that's a captivating thing. His music was so easy to get lost into. I remember being 8 years old and dancing in my room to his music. Trying to dance like him, as well. It was ugly, but it was fun.

Did you try to moonwalk?
I think everyone has tried to do the moonwalk, man. And it never works.

What about all the stuff in his personal life: the trial, him showing up to court in pajamas, how he dangled one of his kids from a balcony.
It never turned me off against his music. Because it was always a separate thing to me. There were always things that I saw, that I'd be like: awww Michael, what are you doing?! But when you put his songs on, you completely forget about that. And the nice things was, my parents would see even more of that stuff than I did, obviously they're going to watch the news more than me as a kid, and they never turned me off on him.

Did they worry he was a bad role model?
I don't think so. I don't think they were thinking that I was trying to model my life after him. It was a pure appreciation for his music.

Does your wife listen to Michael Jackson?
Oh, yeah.

Did you ever bond with her over Michael Jackson?
I don't know if we've ever bonded over Michael Jackson. Probably. Maybe in the car, dancing, taking a road trip listening to Michael Jackson.

Where were you when you heard news of his death?
We were at rehearsal for the tour. Actually, Adam was on stage. He was almost done, and I was about to go up. We heard the news and we stopped everything and we canceled the rehearsal.

Why? Out of respect?
I'd like to say that was part of it. More than anything, it was weird. The weird thing was he was in the room next to us probably a couple weeks before that. We all knew people that worked on the tour and everything. It was just weird. No one could really feel right. It was one of those moments in life when you're like what the heck just happened. I remember thinking I hope this isn't real, but if it is, Wow this is a sad day in music.

Did you ever meet him?
We never met him. I haven't heard if he saw our episode or not.

Would you have gone to seen his tour?
If I could've found a way, I would've been there.

The first song you sang live on Idol was "Man in the Mirror." How did you pick that song?
Funny story, I actually picked a song and someone else picked it. So I had to search at the last minute for another song. I was going through, they gave me a list of 1,000 songs, and it was crazy. I couldn't find one song on there that I wanted to sing. Then I took two seconds and thought: if I had to sing one song right now, what would I sing? That popped in my head. I said you: know what, I'm going to run with it. So I did.

Is it true that you mentored the other contestants during Michael Jackson week? I think Kara DioGuardi mentioned something about that.
Probably the person she was referring to was Allison [Iraheta]. Obviously, I'm probably going to know more about Michael Jackson than Allison. Because I'm a little older. He was definitely more my time than her time. I was listening to a bunch of stuff, and I wanted to do "Give In to Me," but I didn't think it would work for me. I said do you know who would really good on this? Allison. I shot it at her. I was like, Allison, just listen to this song and tell me if you want to do it. She went and listened to it and ran back into the room and was like, "Yes! Of course I want to do this."

If you could pick one Michael Jackson song to listen to for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I really, really like "Leave Me Alone." It's always been one of my favorites. But I don't know if you pick just one favorite Michael song.