Thirty years ago
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Whitney Houston’s 1987 album, “Whitney.” It was Houston’s second album release; its songs their subsequent videos showcased Houston’s vocal talent and photogenic looks. Few people were aware of the effect those songs and videos would have on popular music history.
By 1987, music videos were several years old, at least, and a staple of pre-teen and teen viewing habits. Audiences who were regular video watchers knew that the audio-visual packages could be put into a few categories: a narrative that related to the song’s lyrics, performance videos that showed the performer onstage, and the avant-garde (even if they wouldn’t use that term) video that seemed to have nothing to do with the song.
In this system, better-looking performers garnered more viewers. And, once in a while, something new happened, and audiences and critics alike were compelled to take notice.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody
Sonically, the song was standard 1980s pop. Hollow-sounding horns, stiff keyboards, and something that sounded like garish castanets, seem to make up the instrumentation. Those arguably questionable elements could not detract from a voice that emoted with force without screaming, and could sing over the instruments to such a degree that they were hardly noticeable after a while.
In addition to its strength, Houston’s voice conveys a young woman’s yearning vulnerability without shrinking from its place in the spotlight. Her voice sounded pliable and warm. She could sing fast notes, long notes, and never seemed overtasked. Houston distinguished herself as one of few female singers who could project above the requisite 1980s keyboard swell.
As the video unfolded, the song that seemed only about dancing was becoming much more.
The story matters
Look deeper. The video is comprised of color and black-and-white scenes. The Houston of everyday life is shown in black-and-white. She is a singer dissatisfied with her emotional life. Her inner self sports a crimped and curly, piled high at the crown wig; wears rainbow eyeshadow and close-fitting, colorful clothes. This version smiles a great deal and displays a sense of humor. A variety of men cavort and dance around her, but they don’t love her and are not suitable.
The video ends with the Houston of the black-and-white footage running down a fashionable street. Thirty years after the song’s release and five years after Houston’s death, it is easy to look back in melancholy and project what we know of the future onto the past.
Houston set the standard for R&B and pop singing. Her legacy is intertwined with what audiences know about the 1980s, and the power of music videos.