Who but Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton can divide Americans quite like Taylor Swift? Practically anything she does gets scrutinized and overanalyzed, becoming fodder for conspiracy theorists and internet trolls. On Friday, Swift seemingly broke the internet again when she unleashed a banjo-infused, country cover of Earth, Wind & Fire’s classic “September” as a single on Spotify. Judging by the reactions of her fans and detractors, you’d think she had either discovered the Holy Grail or desecrated the Shroud of Turin.
Now that the proverbial dust has settled, it’s time to take a step back and evaluate the song as both a single and a cover song. First, to address one oft-cited line of outrage, there’s nothing new or particularly controversial about a country cover of an R&B song. The line between the two genres has always been fairly fluid, more about marketing than about music; Kenny Rogers has often referred to country music as the “white man’s R&B.” Music history is filled with examples of R&B songs going country and vice versa. Perhaps the most famous is Whitney Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” But there’s also the song “I Swear,” which was a massive hit for both the R&B group All-4-One and country balladeer John Michael Montgomery in the ‘90s. In his book, Cover Me editor Ray Padgett detailed how the soul classic “Midnight Train to Georgia” was originally written as “Midnight Plane to Houston” and songwriter Jim Weatherly hoped to get Glen Campbell to sing it. Long story short, it is not an act of blasphemy to countrify an R&B song.
Listening to the cover itself, Swift gives it a rather sparse arrangement, mostly featuring the banjo. The track is more of a traditional country song than the music from Swift’s “country” era or anything coming out of Nashville in the last few decades. It’s like something Parton or Loretta Lynn might have done in the 1970s. Swift slightly reworked the lyrics, changing the date mentioned in the song from the “21st night of September” to the “28th,” an alteration that will keep the the Twitterverse guessing away, at least until she unleashes her next video.
While Earth, Wind, and Fire’s original is a fun-filled celebration of the past, in Swift’s hands the tune is a sad and wistful remembrance of things gone by. Not a bad cross-genre reinterpretation of a classic. In any other singer’s hands it might not have been nearly as divisive. But welcome to America in 2018, where everybody freaks out about everything, including cover songs.
Click here to listen to – and maybe get outraged by – more Taylor Swift covers.