Michael Jackson Remembered: Chris Cornell on the Power of "Billie Jean"

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Chris Cornell

The main memory I have of Michael Jackson is from when I was a kid. When you're a child and you see another child on TV with other brothers who are basically children — and I had two brothers — and you see what they're doing, and listening to the music they're making, it kind of knocks you out. That was the initial impact, that that was even possible. Especially being a kid from Seattle, where you're nowhere near any sort of media center and have no understanding of that type of popular culture and where it comes from or how it's created. You think it comes from some other planet.

The next thing that had a clear impact was when I was already a musician, probably about 18 years old, and was working in restaurants but was also starting different bands at the time, and was obviously watching MTV all the time, just to see what was on it. I wasn't a fan of most of it. Then, "Thriller" happened, and to see that shift from pretty much an entirely white audience watching an entirely white music channel change because of this one guy — he didn't just get some videos sent there, like me and my friends did on 120 Minutes at 1 a.m. on a Sunday — he took over. His videos were played the same amount Madonna videos were played. I remember the first two, especially, had an amazing energy. "Beat It" was an incredible video. Here is this guy who used to seem so shy and quiet comes out super-aggressive and there's actual gang members in it. It opened the door for Prince and Run-DMC to suddenly be in the living rooms of white people across the nation.

The brilliance of "Billie Jean" came to me when I was reading the lyrics for the first time, which was around the time that I was doing that arrangement, and the idea came from a conversation I had with my wife about the art of the cover song, because she would bring up ideas about songs I should cover, and I would always shoot 'em down, and I would explain the art of it: You can cover a song by an artist you are obviously influenced by and you will reproduce it, paying homage to it, and sticking close to the original. That's one way, the other way is Johnny Cash doing "Rusty Cage," which on paper sounds like the most ridiculous fucking idea you'll hear in your life. It did to me.

So she sort of challenged me with, what would that song be for you, and I thought well, who would be the least likely artist for me to attempt to cover and the first name that popped into my head was Michael Jackson. I liked "Billie Jean" because it had that little keyboard line in it, which I thought I could turn into an electric guitar line. And it was just embarrassingly awful. When I started reading the lyrics, I realized it's a lament, not a dance track. His moon walking and the video as well, as just the bass line and the beat, took precedence over the meaning. The lyrics are brilliant, and the way that the way the lyrics are put together. The story isn't spoon-fed to you, it's poetic.

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