In 1987, Whitney Houston was faced with the unenviable task of following up a self-titled debut album that spawned three Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles, topped the Billboard 200 for 14 weeks (on its way to eventual RIAA diamond certification) and turned her into a global superstar. Luckily for her, she was returning with a single that would bring her to even greater pop heights.
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” released as a single 30 years ago Tuesday (May 2), took the dance-pop giddiness of her first album’s signature smash, “How Will I Know,” and raised the stakes. The production (courtesy of Narada Michael Walden) is even more effervescent, the vocals stun with range, elasticity and precision, and it’s tied together with an all-timer of a chorus. The song quickly shot to No. 1 — the first of four consecutive Hot 100-toppers to be pulled from that June’s sophomore LP Whitney — and has arguably endured better today than any song from her world-conquering debut.
Here are 10 reasons why the song holds up three decades later, not only as one of Whitney’s best, but as one of the greatest pop songs of the ’80s, or any other era.
1. The drum tease. “Dance” begins with a series of drum claps and programmed pings that date it pretty explicitly to the days of Shep Pettibone and Stock Aitken Waterman, but also do a great job rolling out the red carpet for Whitney — instantly recognizable for what it will become, but not yet laying out any of the song’s signature sonic elements. In the video, the drum intro is dropped several times before the rest of the song is allowed to develop, causing an almost unbearable amount of anticipation — but then the electro-bass line and Whitney’s ecsta-sighs creep in, and it’s clear it’s gonna be well worth the wait.
2. “WOOOOOOOOO!!!” After a couple measures of suspense, release comes in the form of Whitney’s rapturous unofficial countdown to lift-off. It might be the most iconic non-Michael Jackson non-verbal exclamation in ’80s pop, and it’s strongly reminiscent of MJ himself, proving “Dance” as something close to the “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” of the next decade.
3. “When the night falls…” The verses to “Dance” are obviously underplayed and wound-down from the intro, with a scene-change of a modal shift and a distinctly lower register for a lonely and disappointed Houston to lament her daytime ennui. Ironically, it’s not until the night hits that the song really brightens, as Whitney declares “And when the night falls/ My lonely heart calls,” the horns perk up, and a scratching noise that sounds like a sweater being dramatically zipped and unzipped clears the way for the chorus to take off. It’s “Where you think you’re going, baby?“-esque.
4. The chorus harmonies. Obviously, the entire chorus is brilliant — one still reliably galvanizing wedding and bar mitzvah dance floors 30 years later, even if no one screaming along is capable of actually hitting the notes — but the harmonies peeking in over the top of Whitney’s main vocal are what really provide that final chill, like little squiggles of excitement radiating from every direction off the chorus proper. Respect to the song’s five credited background singers, including Kitty Beethoven.
5. “I wanna feel the heaaaaaattt….” The great pop stars never keep their choruses totally static, and when Houston repeats her refrain on the second chorus, she throws in a curveball by dropping the “with somebody” from the end of her “I wanna feel the heat” line, instead just letting the word “heat” linger for what feels like a dozen separate syllables. It feels like Whitney getting caught up in the moment’s bliss, and it’s immaculate right up to the moment she snaps herself out of it by finally (and dramatically) spitting out the closing “t” sound (“Heeeaaaaaaa-ttttuh!”)
6. The panicked bridge. Not one of the song’s most unforgettable segments, but a key element to the song — between the second and third choruses, the song gets unexpectedly tense and minor-sounding, as the backing singers cry “Somebody, Hoooo!!!” (or maybe, given the anxious timbre of their vocals, it should be “Somebody, Who???“) It’s a moment of somewhat startling unease — but then of course, the night starts falling again, and Whitney swoops back in for the final chorus to save the day.
7. The key change. In music history, there have probably been about a half-dozen truly perfect key changes — modulations that take an already soaring pop song and send it right through the ozone layer. “Dance” is undoubtedly one of ’em, its climactic chorus giving it that extra Spinal Tap juice, and it’s probably the moment that puts the song on an ever-so-slightly higher plane than the similarly classic “How Will I Know” — which inexplicably shifts down at the critical late moment, cruelly robbing it of potential transcendence.
8. “DANCE!” The whole outro is inspired, from Whitney’s “When I Think of You”-worthy giggling to her final gasped “DON’TyouwannadanceSAYyouwannadance” run-throughs, but again, the backing vocalists really provide the punctuation, commanding the song’s single-word manifesto in no uncertain terms. By that point, it’s not really like you have a choice anyway.
9. The mash-upability. As perfect as the song’s fireworks-display production is for Whitney’s sky-scraping vocal, the latter’s proved impressive transmutable for other producers over the years — from The KLF pairing her with a medley of TV and movie themes for the prank proto-mashup “Whitney Houston Joins the JAMs” later that year, to Girls on Top improbably finding the humanity in the robo-funk of Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” through their Whitney blend, “I Wanna Dance With Numbers.” You could probably lay it over side four of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and Houston’s peerless vocal would still emerge unscathed.
10. The view of music and love as interchangeable. So many of the greatest pop songs ever treat music, love and dancing as all stemming from the same emotional core, to the point where it’s impossible to consider one without the others — think Madonna’s “Into the Groove,” a dance-club seduction that’s more a love song about the music playing. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” takes that song’s “Tonight I’m gonna dance with someone else” declaration to its logical extreme, demanding a dance-floor release from heartache, unable to properly enjoy the former while suffering from the latter. And over the course of five timeless, euphoric minutes, Houston and Walden prove that when ears, heart and feet all align, there’s no more powerful feeling in the known universe.