The Curious Meaning of ‘Saving All My Love for You’ by Whitney Houston

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Saving All My Love for You’ is one of those songs which few people probably realise is actually a cover version. Several of Whitney Houston’s most famous songs – including ‘The Greatest Love of All’ and ‘I Will Always Love You’ – were first recorded by other artists, even if her version has become equally, if not more, famous.

But ‘Saving All My Love for You’ is perhaps the really surprising one. And this song’s meaning is also full of surprises. Often viewed as a paean to true love and fidelity, it’s actually a story about a secret love that cannot be made public because … well, let’s take a closer look at the song’s lyrics, first.

‘Saving All My Love for You’: song meaning

The clue to the true meaning of Houston’s song (even if it was not originally her song – but we’ll return to that issue in a moment) is found right from the beginning of the song, in its opening line. Addressing her lover, the singer tells us that they share only ‘stolen’ moments together when nobody else is around.

It has to be this way, because her male lover has a wife and children, and they need him to be with them most of the time. The singer doesn’t like taking second place behind his family all the time, and would probably rather not be in love with him, but she doesn’t want anyone else. So when they are apart, she is loyal to him, and saves up all of her love for when they can be together.

She lives on her own and struggles with loneliness as a result. Her friends try to persuade her to find a man who isn’t already married to someone else. But whenever she tries this, she is emotionally overwhelmed by it, because she’d rather be at home and miserable than out trying to meet new people – new people who will never replace her lover in her affections.

After the first two verses, we get a sense that she is being ‘strung along’ and fed a lie by her married lover. He used to talk about leaving his wife and children and the two of them running away together so they could be together properly. Love (and Percy Shelley would doubtless agree) would provide the moral justification for breaking ‘free’ of his family and absolving himself of his filial responsibilities.

He kept telling her to be patient and wait a short while longer, but she now realises that it was a dream, a wild ambition that they would never actually make a reality.

The song ends with the singer telling us that she needs to get dressed up ready for her cheating lover’s arrival at her place (well, they can’t very well meet at his home, can they?) so they can snatch a few more stolen hours together. She is feeling in the mood, and her spirits are improving. She is happy to cast aside her doubts and lose herself in the moment with him again.

‘Saving All My Love for You’: analysis

How should we interpret ‘Saving All My Love for You’? The song is often viewed as a paean to love and fidelity, and in an odd way, it is exactly that, although perhaps not for the reasons that many people think.

Those who merely hang on to the song’s title and the soulful way Whitney Houston sings the lyrics – Houston’s singing, in turn, transforming it into one of the finest soul tracks of the 1980s – might be led to believe this is another song about two lovers who have found each other and are pledging their lives together.

Instead, the ‘hook’ or ‘crux’ of ‘Saving All My Love for You’ – and arguably the detail which, along with Houston’s masterly rendition of the song’s conflicted emotional heart, raises it among many similar songs – is the fact that these are two lovers who, we suspect, will never be together. Because, as the first verse has it, the singer’s lover has a family, who ‘need him’ with them.

Nevertheless, ‘Saving All My Love for You’ is a song which celebrates fidelity, albeit a faithfulness that is, we might say, decidedly misplaced. For the singer is faithful to her unfaithful lover, and although she knows she’d be better off finding some unattached eligible bachelor to give her love to, she also knows that we cannot always control who we fall in love with.

There’s an air of the forbidden, perhaps, or of wanting what one cannot have; there’s also the idea of two lovers meeting each other after one of them has already settled down with someone they are not in love with – or at least, not any more.

Such a sentiment was hardly new in soul music in the mid-1980s, when Whitney Houston recorded the track. There was Billy Paul’s ‘Me and Mrs Jones’ back in 1972. And in fact, ‘Saving All My Love for You’ is itself a track that dates originally from the 1970s: it was written by the songwriting powerhouse of Michael Masser and Gerry Goffin, and originally recorded by the married couple Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. for their album Marilyn & Billy in 1978.

But it was Whitney Houston’s 1985 cover version of the song which brought it to a much larger audience. Thereafter, soulful songs about unfaithful lovers seemed to be everywhere in the charts, from Atlantic Starr’s ‘Secret Lovers’ (1985) to the underrated Princess classic, ‘I’ll Keep on Loving You’ (1986). The latter is definitely worth listening to, especially the hauntingly beautiful 12” extended version.

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