Pop music royalty and human content mine Taylor Swift released two new songs today as part of the Spotify Singles series. The first one is “Delicate,” a tender live version of the track from her latest album, Reputation. It’s a lovelorn and classically defensive Swift song, reminding you that she is still a gentle flower looking for love. That’s not what this is about, though. As part of the Spotify Singles series, artists who participate turn in an original song and a cover song. For Taylor, the natural choice was to make a soft, acoustic cover of… Earth Wind & Fire’s “September.”
“September” by Earth Wind & Fire is a classic—truly an all-time-best record. Exciting, groovy arena funk, the 1978 recording has stood the test of time by being, in the words of co-writer Allee Willis, “the happiest-sounding song in the world.” It’s a perfect fit for weddings, cookouts, reunions, or just a night out at a bar. Everything you need to know about the song can be summed up in a fight Willis had with co-writer and lead singer Maurice White over the repeating of the nonsense lyric “ba-dee-ya.” “What the fuck does ‘ba-dee-ya’ mean?” Willis asked White, to which he responded, “Who the fuck cares?” This prompted Willis to later reflect, “I learned my greatest lesson ever in songwriting from him, which was never let the lyric get in the way of the groove.”
Taylor Swift is far from the first to cover “September,” nor will she be the last—Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick joined the song’s creators for a rendition that appeared on the Trolls soundtrack just two years ago. But their version held onto the spirit and joy of the original, largely thanks to having the creators of the groove on hand to deliver its most significant instrumental parts. In Swift’s cover of “September,” she commits a cardinal sin, one that immediately reflects on that conversation between White and Willis decades ago, by removing the groove entirely in favor for something tepid and precious. Swift’s version drains the song of its funk exuberance and disco free spirit and replaces it with somber acoustics and quiet banjos, following the Ryan Adams roadmap of making whimpering covers of songs expressly created to be fun. The reason “September” is iconic has little to do with its lyrics—as White would tell you—but instead its majesty and intricate musicality. It is funk and disco and R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, all at once, designed to get you moving and smiling. Swift turns it into a song about lyrics and ethereal wistfulness, exposing the simple writing as though it were lazy rather than ingenious.
At best, Swift’s “September” cover is another example of the rich YouTube tradition of turning funk/hip-hop/R&B records into twee indie bullshit, from infamous YouTubers Karmin to Ed Sheeran singing “Trap Queen” on Jimmy Fallon. There’s nothing wrong with putting your own spin on something, but the best covers capture a new beauty already hidden in an original. Let’s be honest: Swift chose this song because it offered a chance to showcase her breathy singing and guitar skills while possibly subtweeting someone about “the 28th night of September.”