The Humanist Viewpoint Informing “What Is Love?” by Howard Jones

Before he became a British synth-pop icon in the mid-1980s, Howard Jones worked out his material in pubs as a “one-man band,” using his keyboards to bring his songs to those intimate audiences. “That’s where the real research and development was going on, in front of a live audience,” Jones tells American Songwriter. “Then I got so excited by people reacting to it that I took my equipment back home, set it up in the front room, and worked on more things. But I was doing three or four shows a week with that one-man band, and there was more playing going on in the real world than at home.”

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Staying True to Himself

One of the songs he was working on was “What Is Love?” (co-written with Bill Bryant), which would become the second single from his 1984 debut album Human’s Lib. It was not your standard romantic pop tune. In fact, Jones notes he doesn’t really write love songs, and this one certainly was not that.

“I’ve got nothing against great love songs,” Jones asserts. “They’re brilliant. But for me, that wouldn’t have been very true to who I was. I wanted to write about other things. How do you navigate life? It’s so hard to be a human being and stay sane, stay alright, and stay positive. How do you do it? Let’s explore that in these songs.”

I love you whether or not you love me
I love you even if you think that I don’t
Sometimes, I find you doubt my love for you but I don’t mind
Why should I mind? Why should I mind?
What is love anyway
Does anybody love anybody anyway

Challenging the Idea of Romantic Love

“The song is questioning the idea of romantic love—is it going to be the thing that makes you eternally happy for the rest of your life? The idea of the perfect partnership?” Jones explains. “Well no, it’s a challenge to that. My favorite lines are in the third verse – maybe love is letting people be just what they want to be. And the doors should always be left unlocked, and you should never trap somebody in love. People have got to feel that they could move on if they wanted to, otherwise it’s a negative thing. I was exploring all those kinds of ideas at that time in my life. And also, I love you whether or not you love me, and we don’t always get it back. We can love somebody and it’s not coming back to you. That has to be dealt with as well and talked about and thought about.”

Although the song maintains a somewhat positive approach lyrically, the track is a bit moody and features a short but dissonant synth break in the middle that contrasts with the rest of the song. “It goes absolutely mental, that solo in the middle,” Jones says, adding it was the idea of his producer Rupert Hine, who worked on his first two albums. “And having the fanfare introduction. It only comes once.”

No More than Four Takes

There are also dramatic, cascading vocal harmonies that become more layered with each successive chorus, although absent in the first chorus. One of Hine’s strategies to capture Jones’ singing was to only allow him four takes for each song. “He would never let me do loads [of takes],” Jones recalls. “He would always [say], ‘You’ve got to be in the moment. You’ve got to deliver it for four takes, and I’ll chop those together.’ And he would chop them together. Then when I listened back, he got it. So right because the vocal isn’t always like the most perfectly in tune, but it expresses the emotion. So you don’t squeeze all the emotion out by singing it over and over and over and over again.”

His second single, “What Is Love?” became Jones’ biggest in the UK, reaching No. 2 over there, while hitting No. 33 in America (six other Jones songs would chart higher). But one could easily make the argument it is his most recognizable track after “Things Can Only Get Better,” which has benefited from placement in series like Watchmen and Stranger Things. “What Is Love?” has nearly 17 million Spotify listens, plus 16 million more for the extended mix. The video is not on Jones’ YouTube channel, but on a fan account it has accumulated nearly 290,000 views. Numerous artists including Duncan Sheik have covered it over the years.

“What Is Love?” stood out from similar songs from like-minded artists at the time because of its more thoughtful, nuanced perspective on the concept of love, as well as the richness of the music itself. Jones may have been a one-man band on most of his first two albums, but he created a full sound and explored a variety of styles and ideas. His classical background no doubt played into that, and he performed this song live five years ago with an orchestra that gave it an extra dimension. The single originally arrived at the beginning of a recording and touring career that has spanned four decades.

Howard Jones, ABC, and Haircut 100 hit the road in America for shows scheduled from August 14 to September 6.

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Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images for IEBA

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