Who Sang It Best? "I Can't Make You Love Me"
The Anguish of Loving Someone Who Doesn't Love You Back
Being involved in a one-sided romance can provoke feelings of despondency like nothing else. You adore your sweetheart with all of your being, but they don't feel the same way. Sadly, we can't make others love us back.
This song was inspired by a newspaper article the songwriter spotted. A man appeared before a judge, having been arrested for getting drunk and shooting at his girlfriend's car. When the judge asked him what he had learned from the incident, the fellow quipped, "you can't make a woman love you if she don't." This wisdom became the cornerstone of this moving song.
"I Can't Make You Love Me" is a sorrowful ballad of heartbreak that depicts rejection at its most intimate level. In this somber tune, the narrator spends one last night with a romantic partner. Having finally internalized the unrequited nature of her love, she just wants to be held close a few hours longer before the relationship ends forever. She implores him to avoid lying and patronizing her as she quietly relinquishes her struggle to be loved in return. This intimate song about rejection is a truly heartwrenching song, but not every artist sings it that way.
"Who Sang It Best?": Here's How It Works
In the "Who Sang It Best?" series, we start with the original version of popular songs that have been covered multiple times. Then we present a set of contenders, artists who have released cover versions in any genre. Some cover versions honor the original artist's style while others are reinterpretations.
Since the original song version is typically considered "the standard," we don't include it in our overall rankings. Instead, we display it first for comparison, with up to 14 contenders presented next in ranked order. Vote on your preferences:
- Do you prefer the original song or a cover version?
- And which of the cover versions do you prefer?
The Classic Song
"I Can't Make You Love Me" by Bonnie Raitt (1990)
Just as physical pain hurts, so, too, does a lover's rejection. When you hear Bonnie Raitt's 1990 original, you have no doubt of that fact. She recorded it in one soul-sucking take, and like a wet washcloth wrung dry, Raitt rendered every drop of emotion she had into its delivery.
The result is raw vulnerability on display, a narrator who suffers the slow, sorrowful resignation of defeat before final surrender as she admits to herself that this is a lop-sided love affair. Raitt's slow ballad is a blues-influenced mixture of resignation and forgiveness. There is forgiveness of self for staying too long, and forgiveness of her lover for withholding what she needs—what she craves— most of all.
Bonnie Raitt was inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and was named to Rolling Stone's list of the "100 Greatest Singers of All Time." She sets a high bar for other musicians who seek to cover the classic song. Her version of "I Can't Make You Love Me" is on Rolling Stone's list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time" and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Which version would you rather listen to -- Bonnie Raitt's original song or your favorite cover version?
Cover Versions in Ranked Order
1. "I Can't Make You Love Me" by George Michael (1997)
I confess that George Michael could sing the ingredients off a box of cereal, and I'd think it was magic. While his voice here doesn't convey the level of hurt that Bonnie Raitt's does, it softly tiptoes through the early morning hours as the narrator struggles to give up unrequited love.
Particularly as he sings the lines "I won't sleep" and "I'll do what's right," one can feel the narrator wondering, crestfallen, why he's unworthy of his lover's affection. Rejection by a lover carries with it a sense of shame as well as disappointment. George Michael's version of this song takes us right to his bed as he lays in the arms of the lover who has broken his heart.
2. "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Tank (2010)
Accompanied only by piano, American R&B singer-songwriter Tank delivers an emotionally authentic performance that convinces the audience just how much his narrator has wrestled with letting go of this love affair. As the song continues, his voice becomes more pained. Vibrato emphasizes his suffering. At one point, he even seems to choke up in disbelief ("If you don't -- huh"). Particularly towards the end of the song, Tank persuades his listener that his narrator has struggled mightily with what to do about not being loved in return and has no other answer but to let go.
3. "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Kelly Clarkson (2011)
There is a raspiness to Kelly Clarkson's voice that signals the intimacy of the classic tune she is covering. The former American Idol winner persuasively conveys that the couple in this song has been up for hours talking about their feelings. They've argued, they've cried, they've discussed how they want different things from one another. They've finally arrived at this heartwrenching moment of clarity, defeat, and rejection for the narrator.
While Kelly Clarkson delivers this ballad with more energy and skill than others who cover it, she is more emotionally reserved in the way that she connects with the lyrics. Unrequited love doesn't simply hurt. It feels like your heart is being ripped out of your chest while everyone is looking.
4. "I Can't Make You Love Me" Dave Thomas Junior (2016)
Full of grief, this modern folk cover of "I Can't Make You Love Me" captures the ethereal nature of early morning. The artist's voice is tentative and filled with anguish. His narrator feels thoroughly dejected. "Don't even try, don't even try," he repeatedly tells her about attempting to make herself love him back.
Their love is just not meant to be. This cover version is haunting. It left me wondering if he's going to come out of this okay (or at all).
5. "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Boyz II Men (2009)
When the now-grown 1990s boy band recorded "I Can't Make You Love Me" as a group R&B number, they demonstrated that sometimes less is more. While there isn't anything wrong with the quality of their vocals, they overplay the part and what you get is an overproduced, overly seductive rendition of Raitt's song. This should be a narrator who is feeling the ache of rejection, but the tempo feels too quick and there is too much background music overshadowing the vocals.
Then there is the puzzling addition of lyrics in the song bridge. They change the meaning of the song from a narrator who is giving up the fight to one who has yet to concede he has lost the fight:
Just let me hold you, baby, one more time
And maybe tonight I can change your mind
And make you love me like you did before
Leave a feeling in your heart you can't ignore
I feel that baby, we can make this right
If you just give me one more night
I think that we're worth it and I feel we deserve it
If you feel that we don't have a chance.
6. "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Prince (1996)
Prince gets bonus points for creativity.
Lay down with me, tell me no lies
Just hold me close between your thighs ... .
Leave it to the audacious Purple One to paint this sad song raunchy. In Prince's version, the narrator's partner may not love him back, but he'll give her such a sexually electric sendoff that she'll be coming back for a friends-with-benefits arrangement.
Prince's sensual rendition has the effect of a seedy lounge act with its saxophone, background singers, and finger snapping. Then there are Prince's sultry utterances and modifed lyrics. He sings the line, "I can't make you love me" like it hurts, but apparently, it's the good kind of hurt. There may not be a love connection between the narrator and his partner but there sure is a physical connection:
Talk to me, tell me where you wanna be kissed
Talk to me, tell me how you want me to do this
In this bedroom/church, you can guess the offering.
7. "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Adele (2011)
Where's the intensity of heartache in this version? Although "I Can't Make You Love Me" seems like a song that could have been written for Adele, I was surprised to discover how her rendition lacked the emotional expressiveness of some of her best ballads: "Someone Like You," "When We Were Young," or "Hello." Perhaps the current number falls short of expectations because Adele performed this before a live audience. Or maybe we've grown entitled, expecting her to knock every song out of the park.
Unfortunately, this version is plagued by some sour notes, and Adele delivers it at a pace that is altogether too quick. The narrator wants to linger, to savor these last moments with her lover because she'll never be together with her lover like this again. She doesn't want to rush through it. Adele instead hurries her along.
8. "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Nancy Wilson (1994)
Grammy Award-winning jazz singer Nancy Wilson offers up this cover version of "I Can't Make You Love Me" with a jazz flair. There is aching in her voice as she utters the somber lyrics, and she portrays just the right emotional temperature although there is a bit of a "lounge act" or "dinner show" feel to it.
Her intonation for key phrases differs from that of other singers, providing a dreamy, head-shaking quality. One can imagine that Wilson's narrator is in disbelief that she could love someone so much but not have the attraction returned in kind. (Unrequited love is enough to make you ponder both your own judgment and that of your beloved's.)
9. "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Union J (2014)
Their youth may give some folks pause about their ability to carry off the mature theme of this love song. However, this former British boy band did a respectable job conveying the narrator's pain. Backed by a choir, they allow their voices to soar for effect, thus conveying the intensity of their narrator's internal conflict.
True, they were rushed from the start. Yes, some of the harmony parts were off. But at least they didn't try anything super weird.
The band rose to fame after appearing on The X Factor, a British reality television music competition created by Simon Cowell. They had several hits in the UK but disbanded in 2019.
10. "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Bon Iver (2011)
With a super slow tempo of someone bogged down by depression, Bon Iver offers this bare-bones version of "I Can't Make You Love Me." Accompanied only by piano, the voice is high pitch and reminiscent of someone who's been weeping way too long. The delivery is all wrong. While there is certainly mourning packed into this song, it's in the wrong key and as a result, this effort represents a missed opportunity.
11. "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Kenny Rogers (1999)
In this cover version, Kenny's singing it but he's not feeling it. The song feels flat, and his emphasis on certain words is misplaced. It also has a sing-song quality. Given that he member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and winner of not only multiple Grammys but also many other prestigious awards, we're going to pretend this didn't happen.
12. "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Patti LaBelle (2005)
Patti LaBelle issues strong sighs in the first few bars of the song. One must wonder whether they telegraph the narrator's emotional misery or instead foreshadow LaBelle's less-than-stellar performance?
The level of sensuality that she pours into this song suggests that LaBelle's narrator is still trying to convince her lover to stay. It resembles garish mood music with its background singers, backup vocalists, and overdone vibrato. Then the substance of LaBelle's song disintegrates into a rambling stream of consciousness tune, crammed with ineffective verbal filler. What happened here?
13. "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Maoli (2018)
This cover version starts out slow with a piano introduction that fails to impress, and the listener believes they're going to get a fairly standard interpretation of Bonnie Raitt's song. They're sadly mistaken.
The song inexplicably bursts into a reggae beat thereafter. If you're an overthinker, perhaps you wonder whether this rendition is a display of the contrast in emotions between the rejected lover and his beloved. But really, reggae is too cheerful a genre for this crushing song. The combination is like a weird, unwanted surprise. It doesn't honor the song's emotional depth. Not good.
14. "I Can't Make You Love Me" by Priyanka Chopra (2014)
Combining sad, soulful lyrics with the hyped-up energy and excitement of electronic dance music is about as appropriate as mixing minty toothpaste and orange juice. The background music of this terrible cover version overpowers Priyanka Chopra's vocals. It's just as well, however, because for all the energy of the electropop sound, there's zero emotion in her voice.
The Indian actress and former Miss World who sang this cover of "I Can't Make You Love Me" had no problem making singer Nick Jonas love her. The couple was married in 2018.
Readers Weigh In
Reader Poll: Your Favorite Cover Version
So which CONTENDER do you think sang it best?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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