The title features Clapton playing acoustic guitar only and reached the Top 40 in various countries around the world. It became a number-one single in Canada, both on the RPM Top Singles- and Adult Contemporary chart, as well as in Japan on the Oricon international singles chart and reached number one on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, where it spend a total of 81 weeks. The release sold more than 1,500,000 copies worldwide and was awarded three Grammy Awards in 1997.
In an interview with American Songwriter, Gordon Kennedy remembered the recording history of the song: "'Change The World' was a song written over the course of a year by Tommy Sims, Wayne Kirkpatrick, and myself. On a recording session in Quad Studios in Nashville, in the early '90s, Wayne and I were recording some demos in an attempt to do the 'artist' thing. We recorded four songs that day, three of which wound up on Garth [Brooks]'s Chris Gaines CD (this would happen several years later). During that session, Tommy was there playing bass and played us the nugget of an idea he had, wondering if it might be something that would work for the sound we were doing. He had the title and a chord progression and melody direction going. Wayne would ask him some months later for a tape of the idea so he could work on it. He wrote the lyrics to the chorus and all but one line of the second verse. Then, it went dormant again for a time before I asked Wayne about its progress. He gave me what he'd done on it. I finished writing the music, went to Columbus, Ohio and laid down a demo track with Tommy. He was there working on a church choir album. On the way home, I listened to a tape of the track and dictated lyrics into another little handheld recorder (I still have the micro-cassette!). I wrote the lyrics to the first verse and the missing line in the second verse. When I got home, I went into the studio and did a guitar and all of the vocals for a finished demo, the one Clapton heard later… None of the three of us were together when we wrote what we each wrote on the song."
In 2013, Clapton explained his take on the song in an interview with MOJO magazine: "When I heard Tommy Sims' demo, I could hear McCartney doing that, so I needed to, with greatest respect to Paul, take that and put it somewhere black. So I asked Babyface who, even though he may not be aware of it, gave it the blues thing. The first two lines I play on that song on the acoustic guitar are lines I quote wherever I can and they come from the beginning of "Mannish Boy" by Muddy Waters. On every record I make where I think, this has got a chance of doing well, I make sure I pay my dues on this. So I think I've found a way to do it, but it has to have one foot in the blues, even if its subtly disguised."
The song is in the key of E major. In the song, the performer expresses his desire to communicate his love to an unnamed woman. This love, he fears, will go unrequited without a drastic change in his life.
Elton John's lyricist Bernie Taupin, who worked with Clapton on "Runaway Train", uses this track an example of a song that can succeed without a great title or lyric. He told Musician magazine: "What sold that song, I believe, is production. And it had a good melody. But don't listen to the lyric. Because the lyric is appalling. It's a bad lyric. There are some rhymes in there that are really awful. But that's not what sold the song."
Previous to the release of Clapton's hit version, the song was recorded by country artist, Wynonna Judd, for her February 1996 album entitled Revelations. Judd, however, did not release her version as a single despite the popularity of Clapton's release. Clapton's take on the song was released on July 5, 1996 on 7" vinyl, music cassette and CD. The recording was released through Reprise Records. The music publishing rights belong to Warner Chappell Music. Although "Change the World" is best known by Eric Clapton's unplugged acoustic version, an electric performance of the song was featured on Babyface's 1997 live album, MTV Unplugged NYC 1997, with Clapton on co-lead vocals and electric guitar. Babyface also served as the song's producer for the electric guitar take.
AllMusic critic Matthew Greenwald recalls that Clapton "smartly realized his strength in acoustic-based, soulful folk-pop and cut this fabulous side with noted producer Babyface" after the huge success of Unplugged and "Tears in Heaven". The music journalist went on to say that "Change the World"'s homespun quality and overall sense of reality is refreshing. Greenwald finished his review by noting, that the release's "folksy melodic hook and soulful turnaround in the catchy chorus are handled by Clapton admirably here and, more importantly, with honesty and an artless grace". He rated the single release with 2.5 out of five possible stars. Music journalist Frank Merschmeier wrote for his review on the official Swiss music charts chart that the song is without a question a definitive lovesong and goes on by liking the religious background note of the song. The German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung awarded the single release four out of five possible stars, without any further comment.
The single peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 4 on the Cash Box Top 100 charts in the summer of 1996. It also spent 13 weeks at No. 1 on the adult contemporary chart and remained on that chart for over a year and a half (81 weeks), a feat which was extraordinarily rare at the time. Since then, however, certain songs have remained on the Adult Contemporary chart for extended periods of time, prompting the eventual creation of an Adult Contemporary recurrent chart for songs that have stayed on the chart for many weeks and fallen below a certain threshold. "Change the World" is ranked as the 19th biggest hit of 1996. In Canada, the release reached the number one positions on both the Top Singles and Adult Contemporary chart in 1996. The song reached the Top 20 in eight other countries and sold more than 1,500,000 copies worldwide.
Saxophonist Alto Reed covered the song for his debut album Cool Breeze in 1997. The group Fourte! from the Philippines also covered this song on their TV guest spots. Remixed Eurodance versions of the song have appeared on the Dancemania series albums, including the 2000 compilation Dancemania SPEED 4 where an uptempo Eurodance remix of the song by CJ Crew and Blueman is listed. In 2002, saxophonist Gerald Albright covered the song off the album Groovology. In 2004, the song was covered by British musical theatre icon Elaine Paige as part of the new recordings on her "Best of" album, entitled Centre Stage. In their 15th single "Wings of Words", J-pop group CHEMISTRY did their rendition of the song.