Late Night OTB – Billy Jean

Two *really* different versions of an iconic song.

I don’t remember a time before the Jackson family were a cultural phenomenon. In a literal sense, the Jackson 5 were formed before I was born and they had achieved a level of stardom before I was out of diapers. I vaguely remember watching the Jackson 5ive cartoon series (1971-2). My family and I watched The Jacksons’ variety show (1976-77). I even watched the weird rat movie “Ben” (1972) largely because of Michael Jackson’s theme song. And Michael and his famous siblings seemed to be doing guest appearances everywhere.

As I was forming my own musical tastes, I enjoyed his 1979 album “Off The Wall.” But, of course, the Michael-mania moved to a whole ‘nother level with 1982’s “Thriller,” one of the biggest albums of all time. It shattered all manner of sales records and broke down racial and genre barriers in the music industry. But I didn’t love it.

It’s hard to assess one’s own tastes and reactions, let alone 35 years after the fact. I’d turned 17 a few days before the album’s release (although not by the release of its first single, “This Girl is Mine.”) I know I found the whole moonwalking thing annoying. Regardless, of the Hot 100 songs of 1983 (the album came out in late November of the previous year; none of the songs made 1982’s list), Jackson’s contributions are pretty much all I didn’t like quite a bit.

“Billy Jean,” the second single from the album, was by far the biggest:

While I didn’t hate it in the way I did “Beat It,” it didn’t do much for me. And, while I have come to appreciate its place in the canon (Blender named it #1 on its 2005 “The 500 Greatest Songs Since You Were Born“ list) it still doesn’t, really.

Then I stumbled on this a few months back:

It’s from a 2010 tribute album (“Songs from Neverland: the bluegrass tribute to Michael Jackson“) by Bryan “BC” Clark and Ben “Benwell” Levine, performing as Honeywagon. While I’d never heard of them before finding them via YouTube’s suggestion algorithm, they’ve apparently been around a decade or so doing bluegrass-inspired tributes to pop acts, including Blink-182, Green Day, Jackson, and Lady Gaga.

What’s interesting about their version of the song is the combination of the gravelly presentation on the verses with the softer, Jackson-inspired singing on the chorus. Until getting to the latter, it’s almost unrecognizable as the same song. But I much prefer this version.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Grewgills says:
  2. Jack says:
  3. Kylopod says:

    I have a much higher opinion of the Thriller album than you do, but have you heard of the band Hayseed Dixie? It’s more a comedy act than these other examples, but it basically does bluegrass versions of songs by AC/DC and other rock groups.

  4. CSK says:

    This is great.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Kylopod: The “bluegrass version of pop classics” genre has exploded over the last decade or so. I did the Gourds version of Snoop Dogg’s Gin and Juice years ago. Iron Horse is one of the better bands doing these. Steve’N’Seagulls does some good AC/DC takes.

  6. MarkedMan says:

    It’s always interesting to see Michael Jackson back when he was a handsome black man and not the deformed travesty of elective plastic surgery and skin lighteners he became. I always had trouble with this song though. The lyrics are… strange. Stalking? Celebrity disavowing a child with a groupie? Something else? Not exactly compelling.

  7. al-Ameda says:

    @James Joyner:
    “Gin And Juice” is a great song.
    A couple of months ago, in the early morning on my way to the office, while walking up Market Street from the Ferry Building, I passed by a street person singing that song – Snoop would have been proud.