A Biased Defense of Steve Winwood’s Higher Love,” in Response to a Biased Criticism of Steve Winwood’s Higher Love”

10 January 2021 ☼ Pop MusicSong ReviewCommentaryArtist: Steve Winwood

I wanted to write the JJBSQ review first to make it clear that I have my biases, that sometimes my music writing is nothing but biases, that sometimes I give a song a chance solely out of Aww Look at the Songwriting Bros Making Music in Less than Promising Circumstances. And if you’re going to pay me the compliment of reading me, I should at least be honest with you about my various biases. They’re not going away, after all; there’s no way for me to wipe my mental slate clean and approach music with no preconceptions whatsoever.

I was thinking about this after reading Tom Breihan’s take on Steve Winwood’s Higher Love” for his Stereogum Number Ones column. I read Breihan’s column regularly; I know I’m not the only one; and this wasn’t the first time I reacted to a negative reaction of his—after regularly grading songs at 9 or 10 out of 10, he gave Higher Love” a 4—with HOW DARE YOU, SIR.

There’s no real inventiveness to the song, no sense of play,” Breihan sniffs. I was not yet ten when I first heard Higher Love,” and though it wasn’t by any means the song that introduced me to pop music—I was already watching more MTV than my mother liked, and listening to No Jacket Required and True Blue on my yellow Sony Walkman, yes really—“Higher Love” is the first song I remember being interested in its form and structure, the fact that it was more playful than the very standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus pop song. I’ve always heard the song as having three sections: the first and most traditional verse-prechorus-chorus, then the second that begins with I will wait for it” and flows into a synth instrumental, and then the third that begins with I can light the night up with my soul on fire,” that eventually leads into Chaka Khan singing the chorus solo and Winwood ad-libbing in between her lines. It’s not exactly freeform, but compared to most of what was on the radio my dad played while driving my brother and me to school in 1986, it was a lot looser and more surprising.

So that’s my bias at play in this particular case. Here’s Breihan’s:

There’s a certain form of music that I’ll always think of, fairly or not, as white man’s overbite music. White man’s overbite music isn’t exactly a genre, though it has plenty of overlap with beer-commercial blues-rock. Instead, white man’s overbite music is more of a vibe. It’s good-time music for squares with money—music for office Christmas parties and for weddings where the main course is plasticy, thin-sliced heat-lamp ham. It’s music made to play on overhead speakers at Infiniti dealerships, music that upper-level State Department employees put on their Spotify playlists, music that plays just before the commercial break on Morning Joe. For reasons that don’t even necessarily have much to do with the music itself, I have nothing but coldness in my heart for white man’s overbite music.

Which brings to my own mind the question of how to respond critically to a bias, in this case. For a long time there seemed, at least as far as English-language pop music went, that there was a pervading bias (towards rock, with guitars, played by white men, etc., etc.) that mistook itself for artistic integrity, and part of the role of the poptimists” was to point out that the bias was ossifying, shutting out other forms of music. But no one worth their salt pretends to have no biases. The question is whether you, the critic, can step away from your own biases long enough to reevaluate your initial opinion. One of my weaknesses as a critic is that I don’t actually listen to a lot of different music; I don’t make sure to take a lot of opportunities to be surprised.

It’s a strength of Breihan’s writing that he confesses to his biases, and yet his writing suffers when he does it. Compare the unease that pervades the Higher Love” review to some of his best Number Ones columns: on Van Halen’s Jump”, the Kingsmen’s Louie Louie” (the one Brett Gurewitz commissioned), or the newest one, Janet Jackson’s When I Think of You”. In those Breihan’s happily telling a story, not laboring to justify his bias in sociological terms.

Going back and re-listening to Higher Love” after reading his column, I was willing to concede pretty quickly that the song was not as inventive as my 1986 self thought it, and that Winwood’s voice is the song’s weak point. (It’s aged a lot better than Valerie,” though. This version doesn’t suffer quite as badly, but a 2010 remastered version I found on Spotify is shockingly tinny by today’s standards.) But neither of those points has much to do with the category of white man’s overbite music,” which Breihan carries all the way through the review even though the definition doesn’t hang together (unless Infiniti drivers are historically terrible judges of wedding catering firms?) or new information surfaces (Winwood, described as the very image of yuppified boomer-pop stardom,” turns out to have a decidedly blue-collar origin story). As if Breihan feels uncomfortable just staying that Steve Winwood’s voice annoys him, or feels that just saying that Steve Winwood’s voice annoys him isn’t enough, and so he tries to place Higher Love” in the larger, now intensely unpopular context of white musicians using black styles to get popular. But even that doesn’t quite work: Breihan doesn’t provide any evidence that Steve Winwood ever screwed over Chaka Khan or Nile Rodgers. I tried looking for such evidence separately, and didn’t find it. (If you know of it, by all means tell me.)

The problem with mistaking a bias for a virtue, which we all do, all the time—I’ve definitely done it—isn’t the existence of the bias itself. It’s that if you think your bias is virtuous, you’ve got all the less incentive to poke at it and try to temporarily set it aside. I listen to way too much Q-pop and try to justify it by claiming I’m giving needed publicity to an underappreciated (and underfunded) pop scene, and the attempts don’t always work. Breihan tries to put his own bias at the service of writing a historical wrong, and his argument ends up suffering for it.