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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"I Want to Know What Love Is," a power ballad that's more than a cut above

Foreigner put lyrics first en route to creating one of the greatest love anthems in all of popular music.

I've been on the record on this blog before saying that I'm not generally a fan of power ballads. There's a triteness to most of them when I hear them that turns me away.

However, even in their saccharine or simple lyrics, some of them are able to break through. One of those that has definitely broken through to leave an impression on me is one of the most popular and enduring power ballads of the 80s: Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is." The combination of a few key elements — including an excellent backing choir — leaves me impressed with the song with nearly every listen.

From the beginning of the track, Foreigner do something very few acts in the popular world do: they let the melody dictate the meter. Rather than adhering to a typical metric structure, in which sections are made up of clean blocks of four or eight measures of 4/4, Lou Gramm's vocal line in the verse yields a pattern of two bars of 4/4, then one of 2/4, then two more of 4/4. The 2/4 measure feels like a lengthening of the section — fitting given Gramm's opening lyrics: "I've gotta take a little time / A little time to think things over." Between the extra beats and the long pause at the end of the vocal phrase, it truly feels like something is weighing heavily on Gramm's mind. The further 2/4 measure leading into the pre-chorus ("In my life, there's been heartache and pain...") only further solidifies this feeling.

As for Gramm's lyrics themselves, they're on the simpler side, but I enjoy their perspective. The idea of wanting to know what love is feels simultaneously more desperate, more caring, and more sincere than simply asking for someone's love. When directed toward a particular individual — as Gramm does, directing his ode to the lover he is so grateful to have found — the perspective becomes even stronger. The chorus' climactic and prolonged statement of the title, and the impact thereof, also leads to a retrospective understanding of connections between it and prior sections. I particularly enjoy the imagery of the second verse, so I'll examine it retrospectively to demonstrate what I mean.

Now this mountain I must climb
Feels like a world upon my shoulders
Through the clouds I see love shine
It keeps me warm as life grows colder

Love shining through as it does in the third line links to the exaltation of finding and experiencing true love as is embodied in the chorus. The chorus' release is only made so impactful by what precedes it, linking it to the aforementioned pre-chorus as well as the first two verses. Back in the second verse, the "mountain [Gramm] must climb" is the "heartache and pain," referenced in the pre-chorus, which he has seemingly conquered in order to 1) move past it in the short term and 2) feel love in the long term with the help of his (new) partner.

Of course, in the moment, most listeners (usually including yours truly) aren't thinking about prior lyrics — they're focusing on what's currently playing. In the case of the chorus, they're likely enjoying my favorite sonic element in the entire song: the contribution of the New Jersey Mass Choir, which is affiliated with the Gospel Music Workshop of America. There's something about a gospel choir, between its size and its layers of harmony, that enables them to capture the most intense emotions more than any other vocal performers. On "I Want to Know What Love Is," their stylings more than augment Gramm's soulful chorus exclamations, making the lyrics' emotion quite tangible in a way that only increases my appreciation for the song.

I finish a listen of "I Want to Know What Love Is" impressed by many of its parts, but I'm ultimately even more amazed by the greater sum they create. That's a feeling I take away from only the songs I regard most highly... and for a power ballad to earn that respect from me really means Foreigner did a whole lot of things right in making it.

1 Comment

Mermaids &Monsters
Mermaids &Monsters
Mar 25, 2023

Has this song been translated to every language on Earth yet?

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