You’d think Taylor Swift had just posted a video of herself torching a Bible or dropping a flour sack full of puppies into the East River from the social media firestorm that erupted surrounding her latest release.
Instead, it’s the “Reputation” singer and songwriter’s acoustic version of Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1978 Top 10 pop-R&B hit “September” released April 13 that’s causing all the fuss.
Swift has reconfigured the original dance floor anthem into an introspective ballad built on banjo and acoustic guitar backing, and her vocal that emphasizes the song’s lyric rather than EWF’s “ba-dee-yah” singalong chorus.
“My Nana did not play Earth, Wind and Fire’s ‘September’ in the house when I was growing up for Taylor Swift to come along and ruin it,” wrote Julia Craven, who covers race issues for the Huffington Post, going on to describe Swift’s rendition as “blasphemous.”
“She has morphed one of our culture’s greatest songs into one of them acoustic covers white women who frequent coffee shops love so much,” Craven added.
Swift recorded ‘September” for the Spotify Singles monthly celebrity playlist promotion, along with an acoustic version of “Delicate,” one of her own songs from “Reputation.” She has explained that she chose to cover “September,” a song she loved growing up, for “sentimental reasons” and because the month of September has special meaning in regard to one of her relationships.
Reaction on social media was fast and fierce. A Twitter user who goes by the handle @BaltimoreJoJo tweeted: “I believe it is finally time to launch Taylor Swift into the depths of outer space, perhaps, if anything, so she may experience blackness at no cost or detriment to our own here on Earth.”
Some specifically took Swift to task for altering the date referenced in the song’s opening line: “Do you remember the 21st night of September” to the 28th, sparking considerable speculation that it’s either a clue to something new that she will reveal on Sept. 28, or code for an allusion to a romantic figure in her life, past or present.
(Note to world: This is the same songwriter who rewrote Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” for her 2008 hit “Love Story” to allow the erstwhile star-crossed lovers a happy ending.)
Swift’s supporters quickly rallied to her defense, while others expressed confusion over the intensity of the negative responses.
“Trump is sending signals that lying to the FBI is cool, Rosenstein is closer to being fired and America is on the verge of war, but somehow Taylor Swift’s cover of September is still the worst thing that happened today,” Nick Jack Pappas (@Pappiness) tweeted on the day the track was released.
More noteworthy among those offering aid and comfort to Swift was Earth, Wind & Fire singer Philip Bailey, who tweeted at Swift, “Music is free like that… Ain’t Got Nothing But Love for Ya #freedominmusic.”
Musicians have expressed widely varying attitudes historically toward other artists who record their songs.
In a recent interview discussing two all-star albums of new versions of songs he wrote with lyricist Bernie Taupin, Elton John said, “When you get a cover version of your song, no matter if it’s good, bad or indifferent, it always makes me happy because it’s a compliment.”
On the other hand, veteran composer Burt Bacharach once told The Times a certain jazz artist disappointed him considerably with interpretations of some of his signature songs written with lyricist Hal David that he felt missed the songs’ essence.
Dolly Parton famously told then NBC “Today” show anchor Katie Couric that she wasn’t bothered by fans who didn’t know she had written “I Will Always Love You.”
“Well, a lot of people say that’s Whitney’s song,” Parton said, “and I always say, ‘That’s fine, she can have the credit; I just want my cash.’”
Yet the issue of cultural appropriation continues to be a hot-button topic, particularly in a world in which social media turns every listener into a commentator with a potential global platform.
“When it comes to cultural appropriation, where does the melting pot concept come into play?” writer Lynne Margolis posted on Facebook. “I’m not talking about playing banjos in blackface, but I am thinking about the notion that every art form builds on what came before it. Almost every ‘white’ musical idiom has black origins. It’s all about respecting the roots. As someone noted, if her version sends people to the original, that’s a plus.
“BTW,” Margolis added, look at [John Fogerty’s Creedence Clearwater Revival hit] ‘Proud Mary.’ Half the world thinks of it as a Tina Turner song. I once had a friend who rated weddings on a ‘Proud Mary’ scale: It wasn’t the CCR version he heard at each one, but both make people feel good. I’m sure no wedding-goers are in danger of having EWF’s version replaced by TSwift’s, which is as it should be. And maybe she’ll learn something from this dialogue. At least she’s not doing what Led Zep did.”
That was a reference to several instances in which the celebrated English hard rock band repurposed earlier blues songs, sometimes without giving credit to the song’s writers.
Earth, Wind & Fire, in fact, is part of that club, having recorded a radical reworking of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” for the 1978 film “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Some Beatles fans at the time were offended by the group’s nontraditionalist re-imagining of that song, although it reached No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, and went to No. 1 on the publications’ R&B singles list at the time.
Veteran L.A. radio show host Nic Harcourt, now hosting mornings at KCSN-FM (88.5) in Northridge, took the longer view of the issue with his post to Facebook on the debate: “A very famous musician once told me that there are no rules in music. I believe him to be correct. Everything else is just opinion or agenda.”
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