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.
Sometimes, it’s just a pleasure to watch professionals go to work. In terms of subject and style, Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional” is by-the-numbers late-’80s dance-pop. You could easily hear “So Emotional” as yet another funky and brittle synth-jam that aims to overwhelm your senses. The track is a case of artists, songwriters, producers, and record execs catering to a moment — understanding the sort of music that a public wants to hear, and pandering directly to that. This sort of pro forma hitmaking can be rigid and numbing and even depressing. It can suck all the excitement out of pop music, an art form that depends on excitement to survive. But when the people involved in making that hit song are riding hot streaks, when they’re operating at the peak of their game, then those programmatic and formulaic singles can still work like magic. That’s what happens with “So Emotional.”
Everyone who worked on “So Emotional” was on fire at the time: the singer, the songwriters, the producer, the label guy, even the video director. All of them knew exactly what they had to do, and all of them delivered. Title aside, “So Emotional” is a cold and calculating piece of work. It still slaps.
“So Emotional” was the last song that Whitney Houston recorded for Whitney, her sophomore album. Arista Records exec Clive Davis built his legend by playing straight to the middle of the road. In shepherding Whitney Houston’s career, Davis painted his masterpiece. Whitney isn’t exactly a work of surpassing artistic value. It’s a cobbled-together mishmash of singles and potential singles. But Whitney, like the self-titled Whitney Houston album that preceded it, was commercial catnip. Davis pitched Whitney Houston to America as someone who you could love if you were eight or 80, and he succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.
After amassing 10 songs for Whitney, Davis decided that he needed one more uptempo single to really sell the album. So he put in a call to Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, a songwriting team that was in the absolute zone in the late ’80s. Kelly and Steinberg had already written three #1 hits in a few years: Madonna’s “Like A Virgin,” Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” Heart’s “Alone.” (Their work will appear in this column again.) Kelly and Steinberg accepted the assignment, and they did their very best to write a Prince song for Whitney Houston.
In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Kelly straight-up calls the “So Emotional” demo “this real Prince type of thing.” He’s not wrong. Kelly and Steinberg’s demo for “So Emotional” is clipped and brittle synth-funk with squeaky, snarly falsetto vocals and a rigid drum-machine beat that makes me think of Devo. The songwriting is remarkably solid. The melodies hit hard, and they stick. If Whitney Houston had recorded “So Emotional” the way it sounds on the demo, then she might’ve had a very slick little club hit. But Houston wasn’t in the business of making slick little club hits, so she blew it all the way out.
More accurately, Narada Michael Walden blew it all the way out. Walden, the producer of past uptempo Whitney Houston smashes “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” turned “So Emotional” into a Whitney Houston song. (Walden was in the zone, too. He’d also done Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” and Aretha Franklin and George Michael’s “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).” His work will show up in this column again.) Walden played drums on the final version of “So Emotional,” just as he did on most of the songs he produced. Walden’s version of “So Emotional” has digital fireworks exploding all over it: distorto-guitar vrooms, staccato synth-pings, thudding drum hits, hammering handclaps, tiny little keyboard melodies popping up all over the place.
Walden recorded the “So Emotional” backing track with his usual crew of session musicians in Los Angeles, and then he flew to New York to record Houston’s vocals. Houston had come into the studio that day to add embellishments to the songs she’d already recorded, but Walden got her to record “So Emotional” at the beginning of the day, before she’d even warmed up. Maybe that’s why “So Emotional” finds Houston sounding urgent and raw in ways that her other big singles so rarely did.
Or maybe that urgent rawness is just what the song demanded. “So Emotional” isn’t really a song about being emotional, at least in the way that we generally use the term. Instead, it’s a song about being so horny that you can’t think straight. The song’s narrator has some kind of physical past with the “you” of the song, and she feels deprived when she doesn’t get to be with this person again. She’s so hung up that she’s not even looking at the other person as a human being: “I gotta watch you walk in the room, baby/ I gotta watch you walk out/ I like the animal way you move/ And when you talk, I just watch your mouth.”
The song’s narrator has someone else at home, but she’s still addicted to this other person, to the point where it’s almost uncomfortable: “I remember the way that we touched/ I wish I didn’t like it so much.” During this phase of her career, Houston was rarely asked to sell that sort of instinctive lust, but her voice works for it. Like a classic disco diva, Houston sings about raw, anguished need in a weirdly euphoric way. She sounds like she’s enjoying this feeling, or at least marveling at the power of it: “Ain’t it shocking what love can do?”
Houston’s vocal is impeccable, of course. She stays right in the pocket even as she hits big notes. At various points, she sounds like she’s giving subtle little shoutouts to her chart contemporaries. The Prince influence comes through most clearly on the sudden monotone that she uses for the “I just watch your mouth” bit — or maybe that’s Houston imitating Janet Jackson’s imitation of Prince. (She makes it sound like “I just want your mouth,” which is even dirtier.) Meanwhile, the hee at the end of the first verse is pure Michael Jackson. The song doesn’t have a bridge, and it doesn’t really have a moment for one long, glorious showcase note, either. But Houston makes sure to get one hair-raising howl in there anyway, toward the end: “I get so emotion-aaaaaah.”
During her dominant late-’80s run, Houston’s biggest problem was the way she often sounded removed from her own material. She sounded like exactly what she was: A wildly, bafflingly gifted singer who was just singing whatever songs were put in front of her. There’s not a lot of agency in her songs; you don’t always get the sense that she’s singing what’s in her heart. (Mariah Carey, Houston’s eventual competitor, wrote or co-wrote most of her songs, and you could hear the difference.) That remoteness is still there on “So Emotional,” but Houston locks onto the song’s feeling. She doesn’t bring the Prince-level horniness that the song demands, but she at least connects to it.
“So Emotional” is at least a little bit of a rock song, with a generic guitar solo from Corrado Rustici, an Italian prog-rock and jazz-fusion player who’d become one of Walden’s key session guys. The song’s video goes all-in on that aspect. Director Wayne Isham was mostly known for his work with glam-metal stars like Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi, and Whitesnake. Houston was touring when she filmed the video, so Isham stole from himself, using the same gimmick he’d used Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer” video. At first, the video is Houston and her band warming up in an empty arena. (In this case, it’s Stabler Arena in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.) She struts and prances and does some exceedingly simple choreographed steps. She smiles constantly, and she seems completely at home within her own skin. Then, as if by magic, the crowd suddenly appears in the arena, and she doesn’t lose a step. Houston is the same person onstage in front of thousands that she was when she was just with her crew. She’s a star.
And she was a star. With “So Emotional,” Whitney Houston scored her sixth consecutive #1 single — a feat that only the Beatles and the Bee Gees had achieved before her. And Houston wasn’t done. We’ll see her in this column again soon.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Beyoncé quoting from “So Emotional” on her 2003 track “Daddy”:
(Beyoncé will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Sasha Velour’s instantly-famous lip-sync performance of “So Emotional,” from a 2017 episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race:
(RuPaul’s highest-charting single, 1992’s “Supermodel (You Better Work),” peaked at #45.)