I seem to think I first heard Howard Jones on WXCI, my local college station when I was in high school. There was probably a very brief window of time where Jones’ “New Song” was getting played on that station alongside the other 80’s new wave “British invasion” bands. By the time “What Is Love?” started working its way up the charts, I think it was pretty clear to the WXCI DJs that Mr. Jones was more of a pop artist than an alternative pop artist – if only because his lyrical content was considerably brighter and his hooks somewhat cleaner.
Brian Eno recently delivered a fascinating talk at Red Bull Academy that addresses a number of topics insight-fully, but I found it especially notable for his discussion of pop vis a vis “niche” music. Abba would be pop for the sake of this discussion and the Velvet Underground would be niche. He discusses how when somebody is doing something new, we don’t always look for quality. Indeed, when stuff is especially new, there’s no way to gauge relative quality because there’s nothing else to compare it to. There are certain segments of the population that gravitate towards the new/niche and others that gravitate to the more polished/pop. There are, of course, other segments of society, too – this is not an either/or proposition.
Anyhow, by the time Howard Jones started creating pop music on synthesizer, there had already been several years of successful synth-pop music. Jones had the wherewithal to combine the elements that had made many of those songs hits with his own knack for creating musical hooks and penning ebullient lyrics. His songs might sound more dated than some of the more groundbreaking synth-pop (Heaven 17 for example), but his many of his songs fit the tenor of the time perfectly.
This song sounds rather dated to me now in 2013, but I remember being very fond of it back in the mid-80’s. My wife remembers enjoying it back in the day, but it recently came up on shuffle while we were driving and she commented “wow, I never realized how annoying that song is.” I think its the melisma in the repeated “What is Lo-o-o-o-o-o-ove” sections of the chorus that got to her, since the rest of the song is mildly inoffensive at worst.