Johnny Cash's Taylor Swift Cover Predicts the Boring Future of AI Music

With covers of “Blank Space” and Aqua's “Barbie Girl” going viral, Johnny Cash is suddenly the voice of AI. The choice is telling.
Person playing a guitar on stage
AI-made songs featuring Johnny Cash playing hits like “Blank Space” and “Barbie Girl” have been going viral online lately.Photograph: RB/Getty Images

When Texas-based copywriter Dustin Ballard released a cover of Aqua’s 1997 Europop hit “Barbie Girl” this summer using an AI-generated version of Johnny Cash’s voice, he was surprised by its reception. “I actually expected more of a backlash,” he says. Earlier this fall, when he followed up with AI Johnny Cash singing Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” the feedback was unexpectedly positive once again. “This is hauntingly beautiful,” the top comment reads. Media coverage skewed glowing. “It absolutely slaps,” Futurism wrote.

This was not precisely the intended reaction. Riling people up with weird mashups is Ballard’s thing; he describes the goal of his musical project, “There I Ruined It,” as “ruining as many beloved songs as possible.” In essence, he’s a novelty song-collager going viral for bits like Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” recreated with Super Marios Bros. sound effects, and a rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” as a bluegrass tune. Imagine if Girl Talk made an album inspired by Weird Al Yankovic but didn’t try his best. That’s the vibe. Ballard has been doing this since 2020—it’s a pandemic boredom side project that blew up, not his main source of income—and recently, some of his biggest hits have used AI.

That alone isn’t particularly surprising. Artificial intelligence tools are increasingly commonplace in the music business, and absurdly hyped up. Just last week, the Beatles released what’s being billed as their last new song, “Now and Then,” made possible by AI tools that improved sound quality on vocals from a decades-old John Lennon demo cassette.

When artists use machine learning as a part of production, it doesn’t tend to ruffle feathers. But another type of AI-inflected music does: when people use AI tools to mimic voices of musical artists, as with “Heart on My Sleeve,” the song released last summer by an anonymous producer called Ghostwriter977. It’s the most prominent example of a new mini-genre called Fake Drake, as its vocals were generated to sound like the Canadian rapper (it also featured AI vocals from Drake’s compatriot, The Weeknd). To be clear: Lots of people liked this song. Still, industry backlash was considerable. Above all else, this genre nettles the record labels, who view it as an encroachment on their property. Universal Music Group successfully urged streamers like Spotify and Apple to pull “Heart on My Sleeve,” calling it a copyright violation. (There are, of course, conspiracies that UMG and Drake are secretly behind the whole thing.) In October, UMG and other major labels sued the amply-funded AI startup Anthropic for distributing copyrighted lyrics. Ice Cube encouraged Drake to sue, then described voice-cloning artists without their permission as “evil and demonic” on X. Last week, The Hollywood Reporter ran a piece in which Dolly Parton called the technology “the mark of the beast.”

So far, though, there’s no comparable ire for the slew of Johnny Cash covers. Ballard is one of many people putting AI Cash concoctions online; they’re all over YouTube, where Cash is made to sing Zach Bryan, Coldplay, Simon and Garfunkel, and a version of the blockbuster duet “Shallow” from A Star Is Born in which Lady Gaga sings with Cash instead of Bradley Cooper. (Important note: The uploader took the time to edit the image on YouTube to show Cash’s face nestled against Gaga’s instead of Cooper.)

No Cash-related AI lawsuits yet, either. Josh Matas, the manager of Cash’s estate, says he’s keeping a close eye on the songs coming out, and the larger surge of AI music. “I’m pretty much monitoring on a day-to-day basis,” he says.

Matas wants to advocate for uses of AI that are respectful to what an artist would have wanted for their legacy. “I’m not sure that it was Johnny Cash’s intent to have his voice manipulated to sing ‘Barbie Girl,’” he says. But, to Matas, the current crop of AI songs are parodies, and as the work of hobbyists they’re not worth pursuing over any potential copyright claims (which is wise—several copyright lawyers I spoke with see this sort of work as likely covered by the fair use doctrine, which shields copyright-infringing behavior if the result is viewed as transformative).

The question of whether songs that are developed with AI and trained on copyrighted work violate the law, nevertheless, remains an open one. The Anthropic lawsuit will be important to watch to see how that matter is settled. There are other questions raised by the popularity of projects like Johnny Cash AI covers: Are these songs viewed as harmless fun because Cash has been dead for decades? Because he’s so iconic, does his work feel like it’s public domain, even if we’re years away from that being the case?

Creating AI versions of living artists without their permission is often seen as a violation, a way to capitalize on somebody else’s skill and reputation without consent. Death takes care of that objection. But there’s still something disrespectful about it, in the same way those tacky holograms of dead artists are disrespectful. This is why there are laws in certain US states developed specifically to protect the postmortem rights of dead celebrities, including California, Florida, and Nevada.

If somebody set out to clearly violate Cash’s rights with an AI song—say, by making AI Cash sing a jingle for a cryptocurrency exchange—his estate wouldn’t let that go. Dead singers can be violated, too. But something about how instantly-recognizable Cash’s voice is—and the fact that he’s long dead, so it’s obviously not him belting out girlie pop—makes the AI Cash trend feel benign. Toothless, even. It’s not boundary-pushing like “Heart on My Sleeve.” It’s not worth getting mad about. It’s trifling.

Listening to the songs feels like eating a dinner entirely from leftover Halloween candy as an adult. Fun, a little whimsical, but ultimately all empty calories. And that’s what makes these songs, in particular, especially emblematic of the state of AI-generated music right now. Using machine learning in production can result in real innovation. Using it to whole-cloth imitate someone’s voice is really little more than a gimmick. The most boring version of the future.