“What is love?” may be the most complex question in all of pop music history. Long before I came to my own conclusions about matters of the heart, I thought love — at least from where Eurodance sensation Haddaway stood — was all about giving in to blood-sucking dominatrices, dancing your way through scary places, and risking electrocution. Or, at least that’s what the “What Is Love” video suggested to me as a child. As it turns out, that’s not so far off. “Baby don’t hurt me no more” is Too Real.
Though “What Is Love” has become synonymous with Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan’s hapless attempts at club-going on Saturday Night Live and in the 1998 movie spinoff A Night at the Roxbury, there’s something truly sad about the song. We laugh now at how dated its beats sound, or at the mere thought of Ferrell and Kattan’s Butabi brothers bobbing their heads in those shiny suits, but Haddaway hit a nerve with people who wanted to dance away the pain.
“What Is Love” was a No. 1 hit in 13 countries. In America, it peaked at No. 11 on the Hot 100 in 1993, but the song grew more culturally relevant throughout the decade, thanks to its Roxbury ties. More than 20 years since its release, “What Is Love” ranks alongside Ace of Base’s “The Sign,” The Real McCoy’s “Another Night,” and La Bouche’s “Be My Lover” as one of the greatest Eurodance singles to ever reach the American pop charts. There’s something kind of beautiful about a song that ponders the meaning of love and ultimately comes away begging for mercy, bringing pleasure — laughter, kitsch, rapture on the dance floor — to its listeners. Still, I wondered what the song was intended to convey. So I emailed Haddaway to ask him, simply, “What is love?”
“People always ask me about what I meant,” he writes to Flavorwire. “I meant that ‘what is love’ needs to be defined by everyone by his own definition. It’s unique and individual. For me, it has to do with trust, honesty, and dedication.”
Now 50, Haddaway lives in Austria and spends time in Germany, where he moved from Maryland in the late ’80s and began pursuing a career in dance music. The Trinidad-born singer has always been bigger in Germany, but in 2013, he scored a Top 20 dance hit in America once again with “Up and Up.” If you’ve come to think of Haddaway as frozen in mid-’90s dance music trends, I’d suggest not ruining that leather-vested wonderland for yourself by listening to the Auto-Tuned EDM banger. (He’ll have more music out later this year.)
Still, “What Is Love” remains the centerpiece of Haddaway’s legacy by wider estimations of pop culture. It’s hard for him to have qualms about a song that lived in his own mind before finding a permanent home in a hit single.
“It was already in my head a long time [before he heard Dee Dee Halligan and Junior Torello’s repetitive synth melody], from the lyrics and the quest from people to look for it,” he says. “Once I heard the music, it was clear to me that this would go on for a long time. I’m gracious that it happened and has made me happy, and that I’ve wanted to perform it to this day.”