Last fall, Billy Porter realized a presidential election was on the horizon and decided the time had come to motivate voters through song.
“I’ve always been a political artist,” says the actor, singer and star of Pose and Broadway’s Kinky Boots. “I came of age as an artist during the AIDS crisis and I’ve always used my voice in that way. So looking forward, I knew it was an election year and I wanted to find material that would speak to that process.”
At the suggestion of his manager, Porter turned to Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth,” which Stills first wrote and recorded with Buffalo Springfield in 1966; it became their only hit the following year. Originally inspired by a Sunset Strip protest over a club curfew, which resulted in a clash with police, the song —with its nods to paranoia and guns — has transcended its time. It’s become one of the go-to pop protest songs of the last five decades, covered by Led Zeppelin, Ozzy Osbourne, Lucinda Williams, Kid Rock, Rush, the Staple Singers, Nancy Wilson of Heart and many more.
“As the lyrics tumbled out, I quickly realized that my little song spoke to much more than simply a confrontation between a gathering of young people paying a last visit to a favorite music bar about to be demolished and a rather excessive number of LAPD riot police intent on dispersing the overflow crowd that had spilled into the street,” Stills says. “I purposefully resisted the urge to rewrite or expand upon my theme and let the metaphors speak for themselves. Fortunately, succeeding generations have found something in it that touches them personally or alludes to their own sense of foreboding during tumultuous times.”
Porter was born two years after the original version of “For What It’s Worth” was released, but he says he was already familiar with it when his manager suggested he cut his own version. “That song is ubiquitous,” Porter says. “It’s in every [Vietnam] war movie ever made. It’s everywhere. Back then, protest music was a thing, so it seemed perfect.”
When Porter read over the lyrics, they struck him as attuned to the times in ways he hadn’t expected. “I looked at the lyrics and they reminded me very much of our news cycle,” he says. “In the sense that it puts what’s happening right out in front.”
Working with producer Zack Arnett last September, Porter adhered to some parts of the original — the stark drum beat and a recreation of Neil Young’s spooky guitar notes — but also gave it an R&B and hip-hop feel. “I wanted it to be like Aretha Franklin’s version of ‘Eleanor Rigby,’” he says. “I wanted to honor the original intention while holding on to who I am and where I come from.”
Porter improvised a new ending, where he riffs and improvs on the word “change.” “It all came out organically,” he says. “I knew I wanted to say something and it needed to be positive and hopeful, and I was just singing over the end. In the news cycle, I find there’s a lot of complaining and a lot of statements and observations, but not a lot of focus on how we change or address things. So I wanted to offer some hope. Yes, things are happening, but how do you change it for the good?”
For his part, Stills says he is “both proud and delighted” that Porter revived the song. “For many years no one tried to ‘make it theirs’ as covers are supposed to do,” he says. “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.
Although the “everybody look what’s goin’ down” hook has also taken on a new context in light of the coronavirus, Porter also feels the remake adheres to its original goal of encouraging people to vote this November. “It’s our call to action, and I hope people are inspired and remember to vote,” says Porter, who is working on a memoir and an album inspired by classic dance artists like Sylvester, and will play the Fairy Godmother in an upcoming remake of Cinderella. “It’s our duty.”