In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Who had the idea to start using parentheses in pop-song titles? It’s been going on since time immemorial, and it’s almost always been stupid. You’d think that a pop song — a tiny little two-to-five-minute burst of emotion and energy and information, designed for mass consumption — would thrive on a clean presentation. But no. People just want to keep gumming those titles up, making them busier. People add phrases that don’t need to be added, or they throw parentheses around word-clusters that never needed them. The whole convention is a nightmare.
It’s one thing if you’re the Beastie Boys and you’re clearly clowning on the entire idea of song-title parentheses with a song like “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!).” (That song, incidentally, peaked at #7. It’s an 8.) It’s another thing entirely if you’re BJ Thomas and you’re seriously putting a syntactic boondoggle like “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” out on the market. BJ Thomas once literally tweeted “fuck you” at me personally, and I still feel more insulted by that song title.
Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” is a rare beast. It’s a song where the title is completely justified in using those parentheses. On the surface, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” is a dance song. You hear it, and your brain processes euphoric brightness — the digital handclaps, the 808 thuds, the wobbling synth-bass, the transparently fake horns, Whitney Houston’s fluorescent howl of a voice. But “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” isn’t just about getting people’s asses out on the floor, though it’s plenty effective at that. It’s about finding love, and Houston sings it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t have it. It’s a sad song that sounds happy — that classic Motown trick that almost always works. On “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” it absolutely works.
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” is pure formula. With Whitney Houston’s 1985 self-titled debut, Clive Davis’ Arista label had made a shining blockbuster of a record. When it came time to record the follow-up, Arista reassembled pretty much the entire team that had made the first album. “How Will I Know,” the best and brightest of that album’s three #1 singles, was the dance-pop sensation that truly turned Houston into a mainstream pop star. For “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” just about everyone involved in that song came back: Writers George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam, producer Narada Michael Walden, video director Brian Grant, video choreographer Arlene Phillips. It’s a the pop-song version of a blockbuster sequel.
Davis asked Merrill and Rubicam, the married songwriting duo who also recorded as Boy Meets Girl, to come up with another uptempo track for Houston’s second album. Inspired by something Rubicam had seen while Houston was playing an outdoor show at LA’s Greek Theater, the couple wrote a song called “Waiting For A Star To Fall.” Whitney Houston’s team passed on the song, so Boy Meets Girl recorded the song themselves, releasing it as a single in 1988. “Waiting For A Star To Fall” eventually peaked at #5. (It’s a 7.)
A #5 single just wasn’t going to be good enough for Whitney Houston’s album. She needed chart-toppers and nothing but chart-toppers. That’s ultimately what she got. Merrill and Rubicam got to work on another song to pitch to Clive Davis. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Rubicam says that she and Merrill wrote “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” specifically with lovesick single people in mind: “It wasn’t ‘I wanna go down to the disco and dance,’ really. It was ‘I wanna do that dance of life with somebody.’ That was the thought.” (I’ve never seen “that dance of life” used as a euphemism before, but I like it.)
Merrill and Rubicam recorded a demo, with Rubicam singing lead. Merrill hand-delivered Clive Davis the tape as he was about to board a plane. Merrill told Davis that he and Rubicam wanted to use it as a Boy Meets Girl song if Davis wasn’t going to use it for Houston. Davis listened right away and immediately decreed that “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” would not be a Boy Meets Girl song.
The Merrill/Rubicam demo sounds like a weird little synth-rock joint. The bones are there, but it doesn’t have the bubbly propulsion that Whitney Houston would bring to it. Producer Narada Michael Walden didn’t like the demo at all. In that Bronson book, Walden says, “It reminded me of a rodeo song with Olivia Newton-John singing. I love Olivia Newton-John, but for Whitney Houston, I felt… there’s gotta be some way I can make it… funkier.” In 1987, Walden was on fire as a producer; earlier that year, he’d landed back-to-back #1 hits with Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” and the parentheses-abusing Aretha Franklin/George Michael duet “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).” Making “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” into something funkier was well within his skill set.
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” really is funky. Walden brought in his usual lineup of studio musicians, including synth-bassist and future American Idol judge Randy Jackson. Walden also played drums himself, which presumably involved a whole lot of programming. With those musicians, Walden made “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” ripple and undulate. All the little things he adds to the arrangement — the brilliantly bogus horn-stabs, the bloopy bassline, the sudden eruption of handclaps just before the chorus hits — bring out the song’s buoyancy. (I always loved the doofy dudes chanting “dance” on the bridge, too.) Walden was clearly more interested in the dance part of the song than in the loneliness, but that contrast between music and lyrics is one of the things that makes “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” the triumph that it is.
Still, the main thing that makes the song is Whitney Houston herself. Houston was always a showy singer, and most of her ballads were really just excuses for her to get off some vocal acrobatics. On her uptempo tracks, though, she knew how to serve the song. There are highlight-reel moments all over “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”: The whooping falsetto ad-libs, the way she turns the word “heat” into a yelp, the churchy rasp that she lets on “love that burns hot enough to last,” the upward climb of that last “my loneliness calls” before the key change. But Houston never veers off of the melody or loses track of what the song is supposed to be doing. She stays laser-focused.
Really, a lot of Houston’s best bits on “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” aren’t even about what she can do with her voice. They’re pure personality: The whoo as the song first kicks in, the giggle on the breakdown, the “now get with this” aside. Walden has said that the vamp on the breakdown — “Don’tyouwannadance Sayyouwannadance don’tyouwannadance!” — was Houston’s idea. Houston never bothers to sell the sad parts of the song, the stuff about loneliness calling. She knows she doesn’t need to. The song comes from the perspective of someone who wants to find joy in companionship, in bodies moving. The vocal comes from someone who’s already achieved that goal. It’s aspirational.
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” came out as a single exactly a month before Arista released the Whitney album, and the song did everything it needed to do. It’s still one of the most widely beloved and instantly recognizable Whitney Houston hits, and god knows there are a lot of those. The track also got the world good and ready for that album. When Whitney came out in June, it debuted at #1 on the Billboard album charts. Back in the pre-SoundScan era, that simply never happened. Before Whitney, only four albums had ever started off at #1: Elton John’s Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy and Rock Of The Westies, Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life, and Bruce Springsteen’s Live/1975-85. Whitney Houston was the first woman ever to pull that feat off. And the Whitney album had legs, too. We’ll see a whole lot more of it in this column.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s David Byrne doing a joyous, revelatory cover of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” on his 2007 DVD Live From Austin, TX:
(David Byrne has never charted on the Hot 100 as a solo artist, but his highest-charting single as a member of Talking Heads, 1983’s “Burning Down The House,” peaked at #9. It’s a 9.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: The Dutch dance-pop singer Natalie Lia Rose heavily interpolated “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” on her 2015 Jeremih collab “Somebody.” Here’s the video:
(“Somebody,” Natalie Lia Rose’s highest-charting single, peaked at #10. It’s a 7. Jeremih’s two highest-charting singles, 2009’s “Birthday Sex” and the 2010 50 Cent collab “Down On Me,” both peaked at #4. “Birthday Sex” is a 7, and “Down On Me” is an 8.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Fall Out Boy’s better-than-anticipated cover of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” which they released as a Spotify Single in 2018:
(Fall Out Boy’s highest-charting single, 2007’s “This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race” peaked at #2. It’s a 4.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Illuminati Hotties lovely small-stakes 2019 cover of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” the rare version of the song that really dials into the longing of the lyrics:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In the 2019 movie Isn’t It Romantic, there’s a whole setpiece built around Rebel Wilson singing “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” at karaoke. Here’s that part: