Billy Porter’s ‘For What It’s Worth’ Cover Calls on Us to ‘Get Off Our Asses’ and Vote
Cover of '60s protest classic fits our modern era all too well
Billy Porter’s brand-new cover of the Buffalo Springfield masterpiece “For What It’s Worth” is a barrage of bristling passion — which is exactly what he’s responding to.
“I have really been processing how we take in our news. I find our news cycles to be very often observative, statement-oriented and complaint-oriented, with not a whole lot of focus towards, ‘How do we change it’?” Porter told SPIN. “Everybody knows what the problems are, especially at this point. So how do we fix it?”
Porter’s cover — which he released to call Americans to rise up and vote in the 2020 elections — ticks with the simmering energy of 24-hour news. We start with the original song’s two familiar, gentle notes, one meditative, the other rising hopefully (or is it alarmingly?) over a precise, steady beat. Then a soft change on the familiar enters, a choir, and Porter sings Stephen Stills’ achingly understated opening line — “There’s something happening here” — as a cavalcade of new sounds rut below his gorgeous voice: shouts, hard thumps… and was that a shot? Porter’s “For What It’s Worth” vacillates between comfort and fear, just like the original.
But unlike the original, and the news, it resolves with a short, passionate resolution. “We need a change,” sings Porter. Damn straight.
Stills loves it.
“For many years no one tried to ‘make it theirs’ as covers are supposed to do. That an artist of Billy’s caliber has chosen to add his flourish to my song from so many years ago is totally in keeping with what I intended,” he said.
“For What It’s Worth” feels both rooted in ‘60s protest music and timeless. Its jittery quality fits like a rubber glove in the age of COVID-19. The song enjoyed a resurgence when it appeared in the trailer for Oliver Stone’s 1989 Born on the Fourth of July and again a decade later when Public Enemy reinvented it as the title song in Spike Lee’s He Got Game.
So it’s understandable that Porter has no idea when he first heard it.
“The song is ubiquitous. It’s been around since 1967. So I don’t know. It’s in everything. It’s in every war movie we’ve ever watched,” he said.
But the Emmy winner for Pose and Tony winner for Kinky Boots couldn’t be more clear on this: “I’m very political. I’ve always been very political. I’m on the left, and have always been on the left, and what’s going on in this country is crazy right now. And I wanted to have a song that came out during the election year to sort of help, hopefully, ignite some influence.”
He concludes: “We all have the power to make change, but we have to get off our asses and do that.”