Some artists cannot help but redefine the genre they’re in, and Whitney Houston was one of those artists through and through. With a career spanning over four decades, there’s hardly a club or bar in the world that hasn’t, at some point, been graced with the Sound of Houston’s iconic voice and even now, twelve years after her passing, her legacy is stronger than ever.
In celebration of that legacy, we wanted to take a closer look at one of her most enduring and beloved tracks – “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” – and the story behind it.
The Sound of the 1980s
Let’s face it: few songs can so readily and easily conjure up the Sound of the 1980s as this one. Used in countless films and TV shows, this song is packed with nostalgia in every note. From keyboard-driven synths to that classic pop/disco melody, every moment conjures up the culture and music scene of the time. Even the lyrics speak to the euphoric Sound of early disco – a celebration of pure dancefloor fun.
But that feeling of nostalgia may well be more intentional than most people assume. Bringing together many popular musical tropes of the time, it’s undeniable that “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” was seeking to capture the spirit of its genre. Some even criticized the song for feeling like a mashup of previous hits, accusing the writers of playing it safe and not taking too many chances.
What the critics couldn’t have known, however, was how well the track would outlive similar contemporary hits, inspiring future musicians. No hit single ever truly reinvents the wheel, but Houston’s song took that Sound and did something few other tracks could achieve.
Creating A Classic
People are still determining when they’re working on a hit. For writers Shannon Rubicam and George Merrill, the moment of doubt came when they first showed the song to producer Narada Michael Walden, who was, by all accounts, unimpressed – particularly given that this was to be Houston’s next single.
Initially hearing the track, he felt it was too “country and western” – more appropriate for Olivia Newton-John than Whitney’s soulful, gospel-inspired Sound. That all changed the moment Houston recorded the vocals.
“Houston just knocked it out of the park,” said Walden, “and then I knew we had a good record.
Whitney's Lasting Legacy
Ultimately, it should come as no surprise that Houston brought the magic. You don’t get a nickname like ‘The Voice’ for nothing, and her unique Sound elevates this song.
Looking back on this track and Houston’s broader career, it’s hard to imagine a modern pop world without her inspiration. There are few singers with Houston’s technical prowess, but she also brought something more to her vocals, a genuine emotion that still feels relevant today.
Right now, somewhere in the world, people are dancing to this song with as much joy and passion as they did when it first came out in 1986, and they’ll still be dancing for many years to come.