In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines a song that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Haddaway’s “What Is Love,” which spent seven weeks at No. 1 on the Eurochart Hot 100 in summer 1993 and eventually hit No. 1 in 13 countries.
What is love? Countless musicians have asked the question in one form or another—it’s basically the central thesis of every love song. Yet a Trinidadian-German singer named Nestor Alexander Haddaway monopolized it in 1993 with a Europop banger that more than 20 years later remains relentlessly catchy and far more profound than it ever had any right to be. Following up the existential wonder of that signature line with a plea of “Baby, don’t hurt me / Don’t hurt me no more,” Haddaway cut straight to the core of unassuming ’90s clubgoers while they sweated up dance floors around the world.
It’s impossible to mention “What Is Love” without an aggressive head nod or four to Chris Kattan and Will Ferrell’s near-cult-status film A Night At The Roxbury, released in 1998 and based off a series of Saturday Night Live sketches that began in 1996. The skits feature the two as Doug and Steve Butabi, two perpetually unsmooth brothers whose endless pursuit of women at clubs (usually with a guest host as their companion) is marked by their signature head-bopping in unison to Haddaway’s hit track. However, while there’s no doubt the subsequent film version and that iconic dance move breathed new life into “What Is Love” that persists today, to fully credit the Butabi brothers for the song’s longevity is a disservice to Haddaway’s work. “What Is Love” gave A Night At The Roxbury its near-cult status, not the other way around.
Haddaway was born in 1965 in Trinidad. When he was 9 he moved to the Washington, D.C. area, where, after growing up to the sounds of Louis Armstrong, he became inspired at 14 to play trumpet and subsequently start his first musical group, Chances. After dropping out of college, he moved to Cologne, Germany in 1987. For a few years he worked in bars and found some success as a marketer in forming his own company, Energy, in which he organized fashion shows and photo shoots. Eventually, he caught his break in 1992 when German label Coconut Records signed him on, but remained something of a vagabond even as “What Is Love” catapulted him to fame. “I can’t say I really call any place home,” Haddaway told the LA Times in a rare 1994 interview. “I can’t say that will change. Maybe it’s because I’m always looking for some kind of excitement.” In its infancy, the success of “What Is Love” understandably appeared to excite Haddaway. His loaded question and the infectious beats surrounding it were sticking to people, and he felt he was just scratching the surface of both his and the song’s potential.
Written and produced by Dee Dee Halligan (real name Tony Hendrik) and Junior Torello (real name Karin Hartmann-Eisenblätter) of Coconut Records, “What Is Love” appeared on Haddaway’s debut The Album. It peaked at No. 11 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, and Americans eventually labeled Haddaway as a one-hit wonder because they never really heard from him again. Across the Atlantic though, the artist produced a number of respectable followup hits, including “Life,” “I Miss You,” “Rock My Heart,” and “Fly Away.” The latter three never scraped their way onto a U.S. chart but did make respective splashes around Europe, even if the ripples died quicker each time. Likely due to head-bopping fatigue from the formula Haddaway, Halligan, and Torello stuck to after the success of “What Is Love,” the songs yielded diminishing returns, never quite recapturing the purity of the breakout hit that preceded them.
In these follow-ups, Haddaway essentially re-framed the same existential question using a thesaurus and a new beat. The extended title of “Life” is “Life (Everybody Needs Somebody To Love),” and along with “I Miss You,” “Rock My Heart,” and “Fly Away,” it again covers the paralyzing fears associated with every stage of love—finding it, being in it, losing it, and wondering if it’ll ever be captured again. Given the volatile emotional peaks and valleys that love and loss can send one through, it’s fitting that professionally, Haddaway’s biggest strength early in his career was also his biggest weakness. He never seemed to find a complete answer to his powerful question, so he kept asking it, entrenching himself as a man who couldn’t quite move on. He clearly fell on some hard luck in the dating world and was able to turn that unbridled longing into some upbeat discotheque jams. For better or for worse, it’s exactly that contrast between heavy message and poppy sound in his music and persona that made his original hit so ripe for humor.
For all the fun the comedy world has had with “What Is Love,” Haddaway has never seemed to be in on the joke, or even acknowledge it exists. When asked in a 1998 interview by The A.V. Club if Haddaway had seen his movie, Kattan remarked, “I have no idea. We never even heard from him about using the song in the sketch. Not even a thank-you note.” This painted the singer as somewhat of a poor sport, although it’s hard to fault the man for seemingly avoiding discussion of his most popular work through the lens of a long-running gag he never asked for. On the rare occasions he has spoken to the media about the song itself, he’s taken its origins very seriously. “People always ask me about what I meant,” he wrote in a recent email 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.” The song has never been laughter to Haddaway—far from it. It means something to him, and the more it takes on a mystical quality thanks to A Night At The Roxbury, the more he seems unwilling to acknowledge its humorous pop-culture status.
Now 50, Haddaway continues to put out new music, even though other artists keep revisiting his most famous track time and time again. “What Is Love” has been sampled, remixed, and covered many times since 1993, with notable recent entries including Eminem and Lil Wayne’s sample on “No Love” off Eminem’s Recovery in 2010 and Kiesza’s piano/synth cover in 2014. While the former cranks up the feeling of being snubbed to aggressive new heights, the latter strips Haddaway’s track down completely into a soft, vulnerable ballad highlighting the sadness of his lyrics. It’s easy to ride the poppy, feel-good wave the original song’s beats provide, but hiding in plain sight right next to it it is a painful experiential crisis. By essentially begging people to lose themselves in a blissful, so-very-’90s brand of eurodance while simultaneously lamenting over a love unrequited, “What Is Love” makes a case for itself as the ultimate happy sad song.
As the title itself is one of the most searched terms on Google, it’s not difficult to understand why the song strikes a chord. The tragic longing that Haddaway describes is downright universal. With that in mind, it’s a bizarre yet delicious fact that due to a set of arbitrary factors—Kattan and Ferrell’s buffoonery and Google’s algorithms for surfacing relevant content included—perhaps life’s most torturous and baffling question yields a cheesy ’90s club banger as the first result when entered into a search bar. Haddaway never could have imagined such a status for the song when he originally recorded it, but even shortly after its success he seemed aware that the popularity could pigeonhole him as an artist. “I avoid being conventional—I hate the thought of it,” he said in his 1994 LA Times interview. “Being typed as a dance-music artist is a death sentence.” And yet, despite insisting that people “wait until my next album. You’ll see a different side of me,” 1995’s The Drive was more of the same dance music, and anything else he tried was never even close to as popular as “What Is Love.”
If it seems outrageous that a Trinidadian dude who lived in Washington, D.C. as a teenager and then moved to Germany to churn out Europop hits for ever-diminishing returns would be the poster boy for a key component of the human condition, well, to put it simply, why not him? It may actually make perfect sense that such a citizen of the world and perceived one-hit wonder would sincerely capture the existential angst of an ever-pressing question. SNL was quick to approach “What Is Love” from the energy of its sound and tack physical humor onto it, but Haddaway has never displayed anything other than an inside-out view of the song. He set out with pure intentions to discuss what love really is, letting the popular style of music in that particular time and place inform how people would digest the conversation.
That the song continues to hold a lofty status today, whether boosted by laughs or not, speaks to the genuine nature of its singer. “It was already in my head a long time,” he told Flavorwire. “From the lyrics and the quest from people to look for it. Once I heard the music [Halligan and Torello’s beats], it was clear to me that this would go on for a long time.” Haddaway served up his emotions on a platter when he recorded “What Is Love.” Many years later, they’re still keeping us satiated and hungry at the same time.