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The Meaning Behind Foreigner's 1984 Pop Power Ballad "What Love Is"

Jun 03, 2023

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by Tina Benitez-Eves August 4, 2023, 12:20 pm

Love is often fleeting. It’s an ebb and flow, and the desire for something lasting was something Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones felt impelled to set to words. The lead single off the band’s fifth album, Agent Provocateur, “I Want to Know What Love Is” became Foreigner’s biggest hit, reaching No. 1 in the U.S. and U.K. and remains one of the band’s enduring classics.

The Meaning

At the time of writing the song, Jones was reflecting on failed relationships and wanted something more enduring.

[RELATED: Behind the Band Name: Foreigner]

By the time he had finished writing the lyrics, Jones had penned a sermon on the tribulations of relationships, and the introspection and patience often needed in order for the right love to arrive.

I’ve gotta take a little timeA little time to think things overI better read between the linesIn case I need it when I’m older

This mountain, I must climbFeels like a world upon my shouldersThrough the clouds, I see love shineKeeps me warm as life grows colder

In my life, there’s been heartache and painI don’t know if I can face it againCan’t stop now, I’ve traveled so farTo change this lonely life

“‘I Want To Know What Love Is’ started off on more of a personal level,” said Jones. “I’d been through a lot of relationships that eventually failed, and still searching for something that could really endure. And that sort of took a life of its own as well. It became more of a universal feeling. I adjusted that during the recording of it, and ended up putting a gospel choir on it, and realized suddenly that I’d written almost a spiritual song, almost a gospel song. “

Jones added, “Sometimes, you feel like you had nothing to do with it, really. You’re just putting it down on paper, or coming up with a melody that will bring the meaning of the song out, bring the emotion out in the song.”

[RELATED: 5 Deep Cuts From Foreigner]

Love Is…

Midway through the song, love comes when it’s least expected.

Gotta take a little timeLittle time to look around meI’ve got nowhere left to hideLooks like love has finally found me

By 1985, “I Want to Know What Love Is” hit No. 1, knocking the Band Aid classic “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” from the top of the UK Singles Chart, and bumping Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” from the top of the Billboard Hot 100.

Wynonna Judd and Mariah Carey

“I Want to Know What Love Is” has been covered by Gloria Gaynor, Rita Coolidge, Julio Iglesias, Kenny Chesney, and Tina Arena, among others throughout the decades.

In 2004, Wynonna Judd recorded her own version of the song for her album What the World Needs Now Is Love, while Mariah Carey shared her rendition of the Foreigner hit on her 2009 album, Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel.

Photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images

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