Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is an iconic song that was born in the in-between spaces of life.
Written by Shannon Rubicam and George Merrill, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” became a global hit following its release in 1987, quickly becoming one of the powerhouse vocalist’s most identifiable songs.
The inspiration arose from a pure place. Rubicam and Merrill were married at the time and living in Venice Beach, California when they got a call from the chairman of Houston’s record label Arista Records, Clive Davis, asking to write a song for Houston’s second album, following the success they had with the first hit they wrote for her, “How Will I Know” that appeared on her 1985 self-titled debut album. “I was noticing that time of day between daytime and evening—twilight time—and that general restlessness that I think probably afflict everybody, but I was noting it for myself,” Rubicam tells American Songwriter, recalling how she, her then-husband and their daughter would often walk down to the beach in the evening to release the weight of the day. “We’d all get that feeling of not quite ready for the day to end, not ready for it to be dark. It’s like the energy of the changing of the tides coming in and going out,” she continues. “There’s a little bit of churning going on and I think that’s also a vibrational, emotional level that happens also. I was noticing that feeling.”
Rubicam channeled that distinct feeling into the songwriting process, conveying the restless feeling of a single woman wanting to go out into the world and form meaningful connections with strangers, which is reflected in lyrics, so when the night falls/My lonely heart calls/Oh, I wanna dance with somebody/I wanna feel the heat with somebody/Yeah, I wanna dance with somebody/With somebody who loves me.
“[I was] thinking that if you were single, you would be wanting to go out and be with people or find something to do,” Rubicam explains. “And then it became in my mind going out to a club and worrying about being alone and not wanting to be alone, wanting to be with other people and find somebody who loves you.”
That’s when Merrill stepped in with the beginning stages of the melody, introducing minor chords at the beginning of the track and during the first verse in an effort to “set up a big, bright chorus,” he describes. “It’s all so simple. It’s very human what [Shannon] brought up, it’s a very common, human thing that we all go through. As Shannon presented that idea, I wanted to set that up musically.”
Another important element is the way the lyrics explore the shadow side of a sense of longing that Houston sings so exuberantly about—Rubicam intentional about injecting the “tension” that comes with desiring something that may be out of reach.
“There’s that expression of a little anxiety and doubt and longing in the verse. Then there’s a little bit of musical tension in that, and maybe a shadow behind it,” Rubicam analyzes. “Then it launches into this really bright chorus where not only you could take it as ‘I want to go out and hit the dance floor and have a really fun time and express myself,’ but there is also that longing that you would meet somebody and there would be that authentic connection. The ‘somebody who loves me’ is that longing for connection and support from another human. You just have a really supportive time and connection as a group.”
Crafting the melody
While Rubicam took lead on the lyrics, Merrill pulled them into focus with the melody. Rubicam says that they had the chorus lines “right off the bat” and attributes Merrill with being able to “identify” the important aspects of the song and then crafting the melody around it. Merrill reveals that the demo originally featured an uptempo, pop-rock melody with a strong guitar and synthesizer at the song’s opening. “We all know as songwriters there’s a rhythm and a phrase. I’m looking for the rhythm in it and cohesion,” he explains of his process. “I think ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ was that way. It was just very clear. I don’t think there was a lot of mucking around for us, we just launched in. We really sat down to write brightness on that song. That was the idea.”
After Davis received the demo, he presented it to Houston. She cut it for her 1987 self-titled sophomore album and it was produced by Narada Michael Walden, the same producer behind “How Will I Know.”
Initially, Walden couldn’t wrap his head around Houston recording “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” as he believed it sounded like a country song. But after playing a game of tennis, he got the idea to add the Calypso, island music-esque flavor, which took the song to a new level and made it what it is today.
“It’s so playful and so fun. It felt like Whitney had this wonderful vessel to just play around with it. That was really such an honor for us in that regard because when we heard it back, it was the epitome of playfulness and fun,” raves Merrill, noting that Walden “enhanced” the song with Houston’s vocal ad-libbing and his deep voice reprising the word “dance” as she sings don’t cha wanna dance with me baby. “When you’re talking about Whitney, she doesn’t have any vocal limitations. She can just take it as far as she wants to,” praises Rubicam.
The song struck a chord with audiences around the world, hitting No. 1 in multiple countries, including the Billboard Hot 100, and has been certified six times platinum in the U.S. by the RIAA. The song earned Houston her second win in the category of Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 1988 Grammy Awards. It also re-entered the charts in 2012 and 2013 following Houston’s death in 2012 at the age of 48, peaking inside the top 30 on the Hot 100. The pair got to meet the legendary singer briefly backstage at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in 1986 while on The Greatest Love World Tour where Rubicam recounts that they “jumped up and down and hugged each other” over the success of the song.
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is now serving as the title of a new biopic about Houston’s life and career, starring English actress Naomi Ackie in the lead role, alongside Stanley Tucci, Ashton Sanders Tamara Tunie, and others. Rubicam says they were “surprised and flabbergasted” upon hearing that the song they wrote was chosen as the title for the film. Rubicam believes the song is a symbol of Houston’s power and resilience in living under the harsh spotlight of fame. “I realized that it was a theme for Whitney certainly. She had lived in such a stratosphere at such a young age, and, of course, she was looking for love,” Rubicam expresses. “I can only begin to imagine perhaps the mistrust you might have had of people, why they’re approaching you, what their motivations are. She certainly suffered some of the fallout for that. I can’t speak to how she actually felt, but I know that her position in life made her vulnerable and that she would have wanted somebody to have her back and to love her in that way whom she also loved.”
Defining an Era
Merrill asserts that the success of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” “defined an era” for them as songwriters, while Rubicam says it “definitely changed our lives” and gave them “confidence” as songwriters. Love is a common theme between “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and “How Will I Know,” the writers crediting Houston for being able to translate that feeling across the world. “This took things to such another level,” Merrill professes. “The good fortune that we had to work with who we did in order to get it to where it was, that whole journey of all the people that we met along the way and the relationships that were formed, it changed us.”
“There is this abiding continual sense of gratitude to Whitney and everybody who was involved in her success and the success of those songs that just never goes away,” Rubicam proclaims. “I’ll just say thank you, Whitney. I feel her presence and what she brought into our lives, and that there was a connection even though we didn’t know each other. So I always feel that.”
I Wanna Dance With Somebody is in theaters now.
Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns