Reinvention Through Transformation

As with so many popular forms of media, after a time another artist decides to take a crack at it. They may rework the piece in tribute, or perhaps they feel they could do it better than the original. The motivation isn’t important to me. What they create on the other hand, is important. You see, I hate covers that sound just like the original. I don’t want to hear a cover band, I want to hear an artist laying their heart out for all to see.

Sometimes you come across those transformative pieces, where the new work is not necessarily better or worse than the original – it stands on it’s own.

I recently stumbled upon Chris Cornell’s live acoustic cover of “Billie Jean”, which blew me away blows me away every time I listen to it.

“Billie Jean” is one of the most recognizable songs of the 80’s, serving as a defining point in Michael Jackson’s career, and it’s one of the few pop songs from that era that I still enjoy. I won’t provide a deep analysis of the song here, let’s just keep it at “I really like it”, although I’m not a big fan of Michael Jackson or the vast majority of pop. So this is one of those tricky areas, where I

  • like the original
  • like the artist producing the cover
  • am both intrigued and worried by the possibilities

I like the cover a lot, as much if not a bit more than the original. Chris Cornell provides a level of emotion not seen in Michael Jackson’s version and the story isn’t subsumed in a dance beat. These are powerful attractors for me.

Don’t settle for imitation in your work, or the product of others. Step up and make it your own and expect the same form the world around you.

Here’s what kickstarted this post:

Chris Cornell’s Live Acoustic Cover of “Billie Jean”

Side Note: I’m not blown away by the official version on Chris Cornell’s album, it lacks the raw power evident throughout the live take.

Other Examples

There are some other transformative works that I love:

  • Rusty Cage and Hurt by Johnny Cash, and so many other songs in his “American” series, which he recorded at the end of his career. He managed to make each and every song his own.
  • …Baby One More Time by Fountains of Wayne, who took the utter pinnacle of manufactured pop and made it interesting

I know there are many more. What are some other amazing transformative works?


  1. says

    Shepard Fairey’s photo-inspired poster of Barack Obama is a brilliant transformative work (although some argue it’s a “copy” or “theft.”)

    But *musically* the best covers I can think of offhand are
    – Joan Osborne’s minor-key soul version of James Taylor’s “How Sweet It Is” (
    – Sufjan Steven’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris”
    – and of course the greatest cover song of all time, Jimi Hendrix doing Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” – he OWNS that song now.

  2. says

    Oooh, great points all around, especially on All Along the Watchtower. I knew the HEndrix version much sooner than I was aware that it was Dylan’s originally and I’m still partial to the loud, electrified version.

  3. says

    Wow, what a neat post.

    Marcel Duchamp’s Mona Lisa (

    Feynman’s reformulation of Quantum Electrodynamics in terms of computations on simple diagrams.

    Dangermouse’s /Gray Album/ and The Kleptones’ /Night at the Hip-Hopera/
    Blind Boys of Alabama, “Down in the Hole” (Tom Waits, used as title track for The Wire).
    NOFX’s Satchmo-infused cover of the Hardcore Punk classic “Straight Edge” by Minor Threat.
    Tori Amos’ “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

    We’re also blessed to live in a world with >300 versions of ‘Popcorn’ (, >100 versions of ‘Besame Mucho’ (, and 61 versions of ‘Tico Tico’ ( – Liberace’s is the best one).

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