Last Tuesday night, American Idol contestant David Cook gave a rousing — if also melancholic — rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” While that’s not exactly news in itself, the judges’ comments were. The trio praised Cook for his originality in rearranging the composition. The trouble is that Cook was covering Chris Cornell‘s version of the song as it appeared on the latter’s second solo album, Carry On — as was clearly stated by Ryan Seacrest before Cook began performing. The Seattle rock luminary and former Soundgarden frontman reinterpreted the Thriller classic as a much darker song; Cook followed Cornell’s version note for note. (Cornell’s version has seen a massive sales jump on iTunes in the days since.) We caught up with Cornell to ask him about what he thought of Cook’s version.
VH1: Your fans seemed to be outraged with David Cook. Can you talk about their response?
Chris Cornell: They were angry because they felt like the judges were giving David Cook credit for coming up with the idea — reinventing the song in a rock format — and didn’t seem to know that it was taken from somewhere else.
VH1: Is that how you found out about it?
CC: I’d landed after coming back from South Africa, where I was doing a couple of dates. I started getting texts that explained there were fans going online and complaining about this song. I didn’t know which song, but they were angry about someone on American Idol doing a cover of a Chris Cornell song. I didn’t really understand why they were upset, like, how’s that bad for me? When I got home, I YouTubed it and saw the performance and the judges’ reactions. Even though it’s introduced as Chris Cornell’s version of “Billie Jean,” the judges really were bowled over by the arrangement and the approach. They described it as brave, and how it could have either been insane or fantastic . . . . Then I understood — oh, OK, [my fans] think the judges are giving this guy credit on national TV for an idea that I came up with. Then I understood. But I thought he sung it great. He followed my version, so he was obviously a fan. That’s never not flattering. That’s always good.
VH1: So you enjoyed it.
CC: It was great! And it was one of those moments for me where you realize that you’ve made an impact on music and pop culture. When I take a song like that, completely transform it, and then hear it coming back at me through the TV set . . . in a way, I’m remembering wondering, “Will people like this, or is this a really bad idea?” Then, seeing it, and seeing people respond so positively to it, even if there was confusion, it was still this moment of satisfaction.
VH1: How did you come to cover the song in the first place?
CC: It’s not a standard cover, and it’s not a cover version that you would expect in any way. The whole point of it was to do something that I felt would be the last thing anyone would think of for me to do. [The idea was] to do something that would hold its own, just to prove that you can do anything with music — that there are no genres, no barriers. The reason why it ended up being on an album was because of the response. I played “Billie Jean” in Zurich for a small acoustic show . . . [the audience] were so bowled over by it that I decided to do a version of it for my album.
David Cook’s version of “Billie Jean”:
Chris Cornell’s version of “Billie Jean”: