“What is this remix of ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun?’ ”
I know. The first time I heard it play, I was an idiot. Bright synths and drum machines were blasting over speakers in the Michigan League at a school-sanctioned East Quad social event, and when I tried to figure out this unfamiliar song, my friend gave me this glare she delights in giving me, one that makes me question how I’m even smart enough to dress myself in the morning, before she decided to enlighten my world.
“This is Whitney Houston.”
I don’t know how I went so far in my life without hearing “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” but in the year since I’ve heard it, I’ve been converted. I’m ready to say that it’s at least Top 5, if not the greatest song of all time.
It may not seem so obvious at first. In fact, you might think this whole column is a joke. I don’t blame you — Whitney Houston’s big hit sounds a little bit derivative, not just of her own work (“How Will I Know”) , but of other iconic ’80s artists like Cyndi Lauper or even Madonna. Its sound, with its funky artificial bassline and perky keyboard fanfares, is the kind of music that defined the whole era, and it’s not your fault if you think of it as just one of many old ’80s hits.
But the genius of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is how perfectly it combines the best of both ballads and pop hits. Pretty much all of your standard “greatest song of all time” picks have an enormous crescendo — something like “Stairway to Heaven,” “All My Friends” or “Hey Jude.” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” has that huge build-up, but it sees no need to start slow. It’s a fiery, irresistible pop song from start to finish.
It starts with a mere 10 seconds of warm-up. Someone turns on the drum machines, the bass enters and Houston tests out her voice with a few breathy yeahs. Then, already satisfied, Houston opens the door of our old farmhouse world and reveals her own personal Oz, colored attractively with the best production that money can buy. While every other artist is shooting off Roman candles, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is a big city fireworks display. Like the work of idolized queens like Beyoncé or Rihanna today, Houston is entirely unattainable on this song. We can’t sing like her; we can’t get our hands on her producers or songwriters. We have no access whatsoever to the talent she’s working with, but she deigns to let us in by singing about what we’re all feeling.
Then Houston takes us down, just for a moment, in the first verse. Not enough that anybody stops dancing, but she pulls it back just for a little bit. Importantly, there’s never a dull moment in this song, but it still needs an ounce of ebb and flow, lest its listeners burn to a crisp right on the dancefloor. But she quickly lights it up again, giving voice to all our passions as she sings the chorus, overwhelming our bodies and our brains with her search for someone special — “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” And every time she goes back to the chorus it just gets more and more powerful, like Houston finds renewed energy and focus whenever she reminds herself of her goal — “Somebody Who Loves Me.”
The key, though, is right after the bridge — that moment of confusion and uncertainty when the roller coaster slows to a crawl as it tips over its highest point. The final chorus hits and it’s one of the most ecstatic highs in the history of pop music. Her voice gets even higher, more frantic, like Houston’s going to break herself down and collapse on this dance floor as she pushes herself to the finale or else she’s not going to finish the song at all. The music starts to wind down, but the singer’s not done yet. You hear Houston’s gospel roots as she hysterically shouts “Don’t you wanna dance!? Say you wanna dance! Don’t you wanna dance!?” because she sees the truth in her mind and knows it to be undeniably true: all that matters as she performs on this night is finding someone to connect with, someone who truly understands her.
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is a universal epic that somehow runs under five minutes. It’s a world-shaking, breathtaking display of force, both vocally and emotionally. This song is the greatest because it gives everybody everything that we need, focusing on nothing more than human connections and the love we find through music. If the biggest songs ever peak at a 10 out of 10, “I Wanna Dance” starts at 11 and somehow finds a way to turn it up to 99.
Look, I know that from “How Will I Know” to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” to “Vogue” to “Drunk in Love,” you can draw all sorts of comparisons to this song. It’s not groundbreaking. It doesn’t have the mind-expanding poetry of Dylan or the constant striving for something greater that you hear in Springsteen or the political awareness of Kendrick Lamar, but nine nights out of 10 Whitney Houston still reigns supreme with this single. I’m not trying to diss any of those other artists — they’ve all made complex, world-changing music and frankly, their work as a whole is much more impressive than Houston’s. But “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” so simply cuts to the core of everything that we need as music fans. It’s not the social commentary of political protest, but Houston can see into the hearts of all its listeners, and she uses her voice to immortalize our collective burning passion — we all wanna dance with someone who loves us.