The Story of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” – Billboard
Written by GRB on 19/10/2023
Armed with just a microphone, a lion-like mane of warm brown curls, and her otherworldly voice, Whitney Houston sauntered onto the Radio City Music Hall stage at the 1990 15th anniversary celebration of Arista Records – ready to bless the packed audience with five minutes of unabashed pop music bliss. She delivered an unforgettable rendition of her ever-enduring pop smash “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Love Me),” the song that became her fourth single to top the Billboard Hot 100.
Of the three songs Whitney performed at the concert, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” was her only selection that wasn’t a cover. This was the song chosen to best represent the contributions of Whitney Houston, the vocalist, artist and brand, to Arista’s legacy. In fact, the performance – which focused on the magnetism of Whitney’s stage presence, proving the single was still a stunner even unplugged – was a victory lap for the song’s success, which had been raging for over two years at that point.
Considering the song stood as the peak of Houston’s oft-derided crossover pop hits — the mid-late ‘80s were a period of Houston’s career where she was accused of “selling out” to the sounds of white pop music — choosing to perform “Somebody” was intentional. Instead of teasing the new jack swing-informed sound of her forthcoming I’m Your Baby Tonight (1990), a performance of “Somebody” cemented the song as bigger and more powerful than any discourse around it. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” was and remains undeniable.
The performance was “a unique demonstration of why [Whitney] was the greatest contemporary singer we have ever experienced in music,” says music industry icon and Houston’s former Arista label head Clive Davis. “It was the most affecting of any of them, the most exhilarating and awesome performance of that song. She took Radio City by storm, the audience screamed for her, she was just raising the level higher than they could have ever imagined.”
Whitney Houston recorded several contenders for the greatest pop song of all time throughout her storied career. While each of them has its own merits – including the ones that did not reach the top of the Hot 100 – the rest still pale in comparison to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” with its singalong chorus, ebullient synths, and towering vocal performance.
The track served as the lead single from her blockbuster sophomore album — Whitney, which spawned four consecutive Hot 100 No. 1 singles (starting with “Somebody”) and helped Houston become the first female artist to debut atop the Billboard 200. Topping charts in virtually every country that had them, the song was the beginning of a new phase of Houston’s career. The Newark, N.J. native was coming off her massively successful Whitney Houston debut album, and it was time to prove that not only was she here to stay, but that she could also compete with the big dogs — and win.
“I wanted to be like, ‘OK, Michael Jackson; OK, Prince; OK, Aretha; OK, whoever’s hot — get back!” says “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” producer Narada Michael Walden. “[Whitney’s] gonna take over everything!”
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” went on to win Houston a Grammy for best female pop vocal performance, sell millions of copies worldwide and (decades later) become her best-performing song on streaming services. Over 35 years after its original release, Billboard talks to the key players behind “Somebody” about how our pick for the Greatest Pop Song of All Time came to be.
Boys Meets Girl and the ‘Dance of Life’
The story of “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” technically begins with the story of another Whitney Houston Hot 100 chart-topper: a love-paranoid slice of jaunty ‘80s pop by the name of “How Will I Know.” Written by Shannon Rubicam and George Merrill – the artists behind pop-rock duo Boy Meets Girl — along with producer Narada Michael Walden, “How Will I Know” served as the third single from Houston’s debut album, and its success earned the songwriting partners new insight into writing more hits for the country’s hottest new star.
“We tried our best not to freak ourselves out because we had to follow [“How Will I Know”] up, and that’s a little challenging because of all your self-doubts,” Rubicam says. “We knew that she could deliver something large.”
First, Shannon and Rubicam had a false start with a song that Davis and Arista rejected – and that the duo ended up keeping for themselves. Shortly after hitting the top of the Hot 100 with “How Will I Know,” Merrill and Rubicam pitched “Waiting for a Star to Fall,” which Davis passed on, as did other label A&Rs. Belinda Carlisle even recorded a demo for it, but after the song stalled in publishing purgatory, the duo decided to record the song themselves as Boy Meets Girl in 1988 – and it ultimately became the outfit’s biggest hit, peaking at No. 5 on the Hot 100. “I can see why Clive thought it wouldn’t be good for Whitney,” Rubicam muses. “It’s more personal of a song, perhaps a little less universal, and I think it didn’t quite have her kind of melodies and verve.”
Undeterred by the bumpy road for “Star to Fall,” the duo continued to write, eventually stumbling into their next Houston-sung smash. As the title suggests, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” spawned from a moment of solitude. “We lived in Venice, CA, and we started making a habit of going out for a walk around dusk… because there’s something about that dusky hour that makes a person restless and uneasy, or a little isolated and estranged from the world in some ways,” Rubicam explains. “There’s this social pressure, like ‘I should be doing something right now.’”
That feeling of restlessness and isolation led to Rubicam seeing “a visual in my head about going to the club and finding company. Then it morphed into finding someone to love who would love you back and do that dance of life with you.” That general idea carried Rubicam through the first verse, but she found a bit more difficulty with the second verse: “You’ve already got a structure established in the first verse rhythmically and melodically, so you’re sort of doing a crossword puzzle to make the new lyrics fit,” she elaborates.
Rubicam’s method proved successful – and with finishing touches by way of a PPG Wave synth intro (which was “brand new” to the duo, according to Merrill) the demo for “I Wanna Dance Somebody” was ready to be pitched. “I think when we were writing the chorus, we had a really good feeling. We felt confident and certainly enough so to present it to Clive [Davis],” Merrill recounts.
What followed was Merrill having to sprint through LAX to hand-deliver a cassette tape of his and Rubicam’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” demo to Davis before his flight took off.
“We’ve made so many trips to LAX from our house in Venice, so we knew exactly how long it would take,” remembers Rubicam. “So, I headed to an airline that doesn’t exist anymore, it was Transworld Airlines.” Merrill adds, “It’s actually one of my favorite stories of all time, having that moment of running through the airport!”
Clive Davis recalls the encounter similarly: “Sure enough, George met me at TWA, handed me a cassette of the demo with the lyrics to ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody,’ and I heard it on the airplane on my way back to New York.” Once Davis sat with the demo, he heard hit potential in the song’s chorus but felt there was “a lot that could be brought to the fore,” with the addition of a new vocal and track arrangement.
For that, Davis handpicked “How Will I Know” writer-producer Narada Michael Walden to helm the new single. “Once Clive said yes to it, and we heard that Whitney was singing it, Narada was producing it, there’s not very much that could have gone wrong with that combination,” says Rubicam.
The brilliance of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” results from a combination of well-plotted studio precision and the divine ways in which Houston innately understood how to color a record with her inimitable voice. While Rubicam’s lyrics remained relatively unchanged from her and Merrill’s demo, Houston and Narada’s synergy culminated in an immediate pop masterpiece.
Initially drawn to the “happy and infectious” chorus, Walden could “hear what Clive was liking about [the demo],” but he still felt that he needed to “funk it up” to make it the right fit for Houston. “Because I’m a Black cat, I know Whitney’s African-American, and we want our people to be down,” Walden says. “The demo was just too poppy and not grounded in the funk which it needed to be the smash for Whitney. Immediately, I’m listening to it and going, “Whatcha gon’ do, Narada, to Blacken this thing up and funk it up, so that the people in the ghetto and the nightclubs are jamming too?”
To ground his transformation of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” Walden looked to lessons learned from his mentor Quincy Jones. “My philosophy is the outhouse bottom with the penthouse view,” says Walden. “If it’s got nastiness on the bottom, which is really funky, but it’s very pretty on top, that combination is kind of irresistible.”
So, Walden recruited Randy Jackson — of later American Idol fame — on synth bass, “lined up all different kinds of keyboards,” and employed a very particular approach to recording Whitney’s vocals. Just as Merrill and Rubicam had a new understanding of Houston’s abilities after working on “How Will I Know,” Walden understood that a post-debut Houston would have limited in-studio time because of her grueling promotional schedule. To work around those limitations, Walden and his crew would record the entire song sans Houston’s vocals, so she could easily envision what the end product would sound like.
Following Houston’s debut album — which mostly relied on ballads for its singles, “How Will I Know” aside — Walden knew that “Somebody” had to prove that she could dominate with uptempo pop, and also fit alongside the most forward-thinking pop auteurs of the time.
“Music had made a shift with synthesizers and drum machines,” reflects Walden. “The LinnDrum machines were all the new rage with the hippest cats like Prince, who was smacking us with Purple Rain and sounds we’ve never heard before. Then you have Quincy, who would hire the most death-defying brains to make Michael Jackson’s new sounds. The competition was really high to mastermind a new sound for Whitney.”
With the help of an illustrious crew that included Walter Afanasieff, Corrado Rustici, Preston Glass, Marc Russo and Greg Gonaway, Walden remodeled the original demo in the image of a funky horn-laden anthem of human connection, which could get play in every corner of the world. Nonetheless, two of the most recognizable elements of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” were far from predetermined. The track bursts open with explosive horns that are quite unlike typical analog brass, or even routine synth horns. Walden says the unique horn sounds were the result of an engineer “playing around” with a synth overdub that he had requested. “It was synth horns, but with a glizz on it that made it like something we’ve never done before,” he says. “We glizz the bass, we never glizz the horns!”
Of course, it is Houston’s voice that makes “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” such a transcendent song. During the recording process, Walden was very particular about how Houston’s vocals were cut so that only the best possible takes were used to make the final version of the song. He would have her record the end of the song first, to ensure that the most vocally demanding portions of the track had Houston working at full capacity.
“I would focus her on [the ending] to keep the energy high,” he explains. “Once we got the ending done, now let’s go back and look at that first verse. Now we can get a bit more methodical and technical… I’ve learned this with soul singers: If you get too technical too early, you suck the spirit out of them.” Houston took a few notes from Rubicam’s demo and expanded them into a freewheeling showcase of vocal fortitude. “[Whitney was] a true recording artist, because she just found her way into making a song her own when she liked it,” says Rubicam.
In letting Houston get her fire out at her own pace, Walden helped foster an environment where she led with her spirit, which eventually resulted in her stumbling into the now-iconic “Say you wanna dance, don’t you wanna dance” vamp following the final chorus – the ultimate nod to her amalgamation of gospel, funk, soul and pop. That energy mainly came from a studio session the previous day, during which Houston had the pleasure of stacking her own harmonies for the very first time, boosting her with a new level of fire to finish recording her “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” vocals.
“You’re hearing an excited Whitney on [that song],” Walden gushes.
“When We Saw the Video… That’s When We Knew”
As undeniable as the song is on its own, the success of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is also highly indebted to its music video, which was helmed by “How Will I Know” music video director Brian Grant. In fact, Walden, Rubicam and Merrill all heard the final cut of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” while watching the song’s Totally ‘80s music video for the first time. “When we saw the video and how dazzling she was, just captivating the camera, that’s when we knew ‘She’s going No. 1 with this’ — it was just so powerful,” remembers Walden.
To bring “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” from record to video, Grant was tasked with the challenge of outdoing his clip for “How Will I Know” — Houston’s closest-sounding hit to “Somebody” and an MTV Video Music Award winner for best female video. He first had to tackle the hilariously ironic fact that his star could not, in fact, dance. Instead, he opted for “lots of little scenarios as if you’re turning a page in a magazine.” Even though the individual scenarios – which included Houston bopping along in a cloud of confetti and jamming out in front of a graffitied wall while decked out in a black leather biker jacket — had “nothing to do with the song,” Grant says, he “just wanted to shoot Whitney from lots of different ways, and give her lots of different looks and surround her with dancers who could do most of the dancing.”
Grant pulled from a few classic MGM musicals to inform the video, but his main goal was properly capturing the effervescence of both the track and Whitney’s vocal. He knew the song itself was dynamic enough because of how the dancers reacted to the music. “There’s something about the way they dance when they know they’ve got something really good,” he explains. “There’s an enthusiasm that you see in the dancers. We just knew it was gonna be a hit. I didn’t know how big a hit, but it was gonna be one.”
Davis specifically tapped Grant to direct the “Somebody” music video, and the Arista boss remained involved in the creative process down to the final cut of the music video. According to Grant, Davis wasn’t too enamored with the initial cut of the music video, urging for a more dream-like version of the clip. To satisfy him, Grant shot a brief clip of Whitney finishing up a performance and then daydreaming of the proper pop video that comprised the original cut. Although he says he “could be wrong” about his hunch, Grant suggests that changes to the music video were spurred by flak Davis was receiving for making Houston’s image “too white.” Of course, “I Wanna Dance Somebody” topped the charts just one year before Houston was infamously booed at the 1988 Soul Train Music Awards.
Davis, for his part, continues to point to the inimitable power of Whitney’s live performance as proof that her music and voice transcended such debates. “She was simply unique,” he says.
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” Forever
Upon release, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” catapulted Houston to an even higher level of pop stardom. The song became her highest Hot 100 debut in the 1980s (No. 38), reached the top of the chart in six weeks and spent nine cumulative weeks in the top 10 (more than any other single that year), while also topping the Hot 100 Airplay, Adult Contemporary and Dance/Club Play charts, and even hitting No. 2 on R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. Worldwide, the song went No. 1 in 14 different countries and has proven to be one of Houston’s most enduring hits, re-entering charts around the world following her untimely 2012 passing, including the Hot 100 at No. 35. Grant recalls hearing the song nearly every hour in Britain once news broke of Houston’s passing.
The song remained a fixture on virtually every setlist Houston performed until her death, a testament to both how much she enjoyed singing the track, and the endless ways in which she and bandleader (and close friend) Rickey Minor were able to transform the song for different live settings. For many of Houston’s performances of the song in the early ‘90s, Minor crafted a “more orchestral and lush overture,” in which “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is teased for a few minutes before “the curtain drops and [the band] starts playing” a version of the song closer to the studio recording. “She had a particular love for this song because it really catapulted her to stardom,” reflects Minor. “It just opened up a whole new era of music.”
36 years after such a tornado of a song and video were unleashed upon the world, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” remains one of the most seminal pop songs in history; the song’s title even became the subheading of the 2022 musical biopic based on Houston’s life and career. This year (Jul. 10), “Somebody” became Houston’s first and only song to amass over one billion streams on Spotify, just the second ’80s song by a solo female artist to do so (following Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”). According to Luminate, “Somebody” still rakes in over two million official on-demand U.S. streams per week. Being named the greatest pop song of the Hot 100 era by Billboard also serves as new validation for its creators about the everlasting legacy the song has built — Walden answers a question about when he knew the song had been cemented in pop culture by replying: “Having this interview and answering this question.”
As for Merrill and Rubicam, they believe that the song has remained so magnetic because “everybody wants that feeling of connection,” citing events as disparate as New York City Pride parades and mid-lockdown Italian nights amid the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic as moments where they’ve seen the song give people the solace they’re searching for. The songwriting partners declined to specify how much they generate from “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” annually, but they do say that the song has helped sustain two separate households for two decades and counting.
From its inception to its enduring reign as one of the most beloved and recognizable pop songs of all time, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” remains synonymous with a uniquely human craving for connection and love. “I think it’s really just the feeling that keeps carrying it through another decade, which is amazing,” Rubicam says. “That’s what it’s about, and it’s more than we ever imagined.”