The staff that organized Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ monumental victory speeches this past Saturday (November 7) had the entire history of recorded music to choose from when they selected the one with which to close the event.
It could have been something obvious and sentimental. “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” would have effectively tear-jerked the nation. The nostalgic familiarity of some heartland rock — say the hardscrabble idealism of Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” — would have given us a collective warm fuzzy.
Instead, organizers went with a 2019 EDM banger.
“Think about it, there must be higher love,” Whitney Houston implored to the crowd and the millions of people watching the seismic shift moment in American history on television as the event concluded with Kygo’s recent remix of Houston’s 1990 “Higher Love” cover. The Kygo and Whitney version of Steve Winwood’s enduring 1986 chart-topping classic was a major hit upon its release two summers ago, giving Houston her first posthumous Billboard Hot 100 hit and popping up everywhere from festival sets to Ford commercials.
Buoyant, poppy and familiar, the song checked every “dance crossover” box, with Kygo freshening up the cover with tropical synths lighter than a mango White Claw and a shimmery chorus composed of Houston’s chopped vocals.
With Houston’s New Jack-oriented 1990 version, the sage wisdom of Winwood’s lyrics become gospel — and not just because she added a gospel choir — and with Kygo’s touch, that gospel slapped on some kandi bracelets and became accessible to both a new generation of music listeners and people well outside the confines of the “dance music community.” It was a song that crossed the metaphorical aisle, a classic hit with a diva treatment dressed up in the regalia of modern pop.
And indeed the song served its purpose in its use during Saturday’s climactic moment of political theater. Certainly every element of this event was intended to send a message: Biden coming out wearing a mask? They’re taking COVID seriously. Harris walking onstage while bookended by two jumbotrons reading “the people have chosen empathy”? They care about the thoughts and feelings of their fellow humans and want the world to know that in winning, at least 50 percent of the nation has agreed that it does too.
And in closing the show with an emphatic yet sonically accessible decree that “there must be higher love”? Those messages of healing and unity espoused by Biden and Harris in their remarks to the American people, they really mean them.
Indeed, after Biden shared his vision of “a nation united, a nation strengthened. A nation healed,” “Higher Love” backed up the message, particularly for those who know all the words. The song’s lyrical meat exists primarily in its two first verses: “Think about it, there must be a higher love/ Down in the heart or hidden in the stars above/ Without it, life is wasted time/ Look inside your heart, and I’ll look inside mine.”
Certainly for those celebrating Biden’s victory, this is a life moment in which to get swept away in euphoric celebration, while looking in your heart and connecting with your fellow Americans via the love you find there. When we got the news on Saturday morning, those of us happy with the results called our moms, called each other, cried as we did it. Some may call the song’s sentiment a schmaltzy platitude at best and a cotton candy veil over the inherent darkness of politics at worst. But really, just give us a moment here.
“Things look so bad everywhere,” the song continues, “In this whole world, what is fair?/ We walk the line and try to see fallin’ behind in what could be/ Oh bring me a higher love.” I mean, come on: Few sentiments could so effectively summarize the weary travails of the American collective consciousness during the past four years.
Wherever and whoever you are in the United States, it’s likely that you’ve been exhausted. Exhausted from the vitriol, the divisiveness, the fire hose of troubling news that’s been directed at our neocortexes for what has felt like every waking hour of every goddamn day for the past four years. No matter where your political allegiances lie, it seems that most Americans are tired, stressed, a bit numb, exceptionally tender and at least slightly afraid of people who didn’t vote the same way they did. We side-eyed our cousins during the holidays and existed within political echo chambers of our own creation via social media every time we took our phones from our pockets. We’re burnt out.
As we thus deal with the nervous system comedown of living through what has regularly felt like a very dangerous time, there is psychological salve to be had by just indulging in a bit of schmaltz.
Dance music has in ways always been a microcosm of America itself, with extraordinarily diverse factions existing under the same label. “Dance people aren’t even a people,” Diplo once told me. “You can’t put them in any bucket. It’s too diverse. Today we have everybody from a little kid in Russia making dubstep to Black Coffee making amazing techno in South Africa, to Daft Punk smoking cigarettes somewhere talking about what they’re gonna do next to a kid in Texas making some EDM rock and roll.”
Indeed, hard techno is as different from mainstage EDM as Baltimore is from Boise, yet both fall under the “dance” umbrella. A lot of people in the dance world have a certain amount of disdain for dance-pop crossovers, and a lot of people who love dance-pop crossovers have never heard of The Loft. And yet we coexist, united by a love of dancing, music created by a particular set of technology-forward instruments and a widely agreed upon value system of peace, love, unity and respect.
But as the legacy of systemic racism undermines the American credo of liberty and justice for all, so too does the racial inequality of the dance scene undermine the sentiments of PLUR. Dance music was founded by Black artists, who saw the music they created become co-opted by white producers as the industry was taken over and corporatized by white men. As the nation faces the reckoning of how it has treated people of color since white colonists landed on the shore, so too has dance music’s own racist legacy forced the community to do its own soul searching in regards to where the music came from and who is now in control.
It is perhaps it’s a lot to extrapolate from a Kygo song played from the loudspeakers over a parking lot in Delaware on a Saturday night in November. We would have found meaning in Mellencamp too.
But in a moment where, with the world watching, they could have played any song, organizers went with a dance hit that speaks to the power of love, of looking in your heart and inspecting what’s there. They went with a song that moves people, from EDM kids to minivan moms to folks old and young likely hearing the track for the first time. And as it played, it helped usher in what we can only hope will be a new era of American life — one upholding the song’s message that when you really think about it, there must be higher love.