It was a perfect pairing of an artist’s vocal and a track. Everybody felt it when you put it on.Former A&M record executive Iris Perkins, “CeCe Peniston”, Unsung, 2013
When Steve Dahl organized Disco Demolition Night, he facetiously looked to “kill” disco (a genre of music that dominated mainstream pop culture throughout the 1970s). Like many pop music subgenres, disco was a product of subcultures (specifically, Black, Latino, and queer). The machismo-driven AOR rock saw disco as producer-driven style and correspondingly damned it as inauthentic and fake. This fetishization of authenticity led many rock audiences to see disco as a prefab commodity rather than “real” music.
But Disco Demolition Night didn’t kill disco music. Instead, it simply changed and evolved, ultimately surviving by adapting accordingly over the following decades. In cities like Detroit, New York City, and Chicago, DJs were pioneering dance music with the emergence of house, which—like disco—was a musical oasis for queer creatives and Black female artists. As music writer Steven E. Flemming, Jr. puts it:
In 1992, disco’s alleged demise was a 13-year-old, caustic memory. A cultural panic fueled by anxiety over the rise of women, black and brown folks, and gays in the record business and across society, the backlash merely served as the catalyst for the transformation—not eradication—of R&B’s most durable subgenre. Disco’s pulsating glamour found a home in the underground, a post-disco and house scene nestled in the discerning spaces of Chicago, New York, Chocolate City-era D.C., and many other hubs where the faithful worshipped at the altar of the dance.
Like disco, house music found its way to the mainstream, with artists like C+C Music Factory and Inner City scoring hits on the pop charts. One of the most significant and enduring examples is 1991’s “Finally” by the Arizona-based CeCe Peniston. The former beauty queen found herself near the top of the Billboard pop charts with the single, and it would become her biggest and most defining hit. Beyond that, it embodied early 1990s dance music in general. Just as “Finally” became Peniston’s signature tune, its parent album—Finally (A&M Records, 1992)—proves to be an essential record for assessing the history of early ’90s dance-pop. Granted, people like Janet Jackson, Madonna, Paula Abdul, and Jody Watley were ruling the dance charts, and to varying degrees, they brought club and DJ culture to mainstream pop music. However, Finally owed so much of its sound to house music.
Peniston’s journey to stardom started when she was working in the background. For example, she sang hooks for artists such as rapper Overweight Pooch (with whom she enjoyed a Top 20 dance hit, “I Like It”, on A&M). Upon hearing Peniston’s powerful croon, former A&M executive Manny Lehman remembers: “I was in my office, listening to [“I Like It”], stopped the music, and I go, ‘Oh my god, who is that?'” (“CeCe Peniston”, Unsung, 2013). After calling producer Felipe “Wax” Delgado, Leman decided to sign her. When he finally met the beautiful Peniston, he was even more enthusiastic about how Peniston’s marketability.
The genesis of “Finally” was notebook poetry that Peniston was tooling around with. In college, she turned to the creative writing style as an outlet for her loneliness. “I was writing poetry at that time. I was in college, and I was like, ‘Dang, I don’t even have a boyfriend’,” she once remarked. When asking herself what she would have said had she met her dream guy, she replied: “Finally”.
The tune is now an iconic piece of dance-pop, and Finally as a whole, is a brilliant and great-sounding album that finds a beautiful marriage between house and dance-pop. It opens with “We Got a Love Thang”, a Top 20 Billboard pop hit (and No. 1 dance hit) for Peniston. Written by DJ E-Smoove, Jeremiah McAllister, and fellow R&B/dance diva Chantay Savage, the track is a brilliant opening to a ’90s disco record. It has the best hallmarks of house-pop: bouncing beats, pounding jazz pianos, sassy horns, enthusiastic vocals, and catchy, inspirational lyrics. Its crossover success fits well into what was happening to queer culture of the early 1990s, too. On his ’90s talk show, Arsenio Hall brought up the queering of pop culture with RuPaul (another pioneering artist of ’90s house-pop), saying: “There seems to be a resurgence of drag or like this freedom that’s going on now, with people coming out, and being themselves”.
The album’s third single, the midtempo “Keep ‘n Walkin'”, was also written by another dance-house singer (Kym Sims) alongside Marc Williams and DJ/remixer/producer Steve Hurley. It bore the trademarks of house music but was slowed down considerably, too, allowing Peniston to show off her supple voice as it danced over a frisky saxophone. Plus, Peniston is supported ably by Donell Rush and Savage, who offer saucy backup vocals. The song’s massive success as another Top 20 pop hit meant that audiences weren’t just exposed to Peniston as a 1990s answer to Donna Summer; they got to appreciate Peniston’s sweeter, balladeering talents in their own right as well.
Although Finally is indebted to much to 1970s disco, its fourth single—slow jam “Inside That I Cried”—found inspiration in 1970s soul. It’s a change of pace from what was expected from Peniston since she’d previously unleashed a string of dance singles. The slow, luxurious, and percolating ballad gives her an excellent chance to do some Broadway-style belting. It even has a piercing sax solo by Brandon Fields that grants the tune a jazzy burnish, perfectly capturing what urban contemporary radio sounded like in the early 1990s.
Despite being a minor hit, one of the greatest songs on Finally is the final single: “Crazy Love”. It’s a gliding, summery tune with some beautiful keyboard work. Though not as brisk or high octane as her dancier gems, “Crazy Love” is a swinging composition whose dramatic strings evoke Barry White. (Around this time, fellow dance-soul artists like Lisa Stansfield and Lulu were finding success reviving White’s rumbling R&B.)
Finally’s singles were its best offerings, yet the album cuts were very good, too. Some even looked to DJ club culture as well as urban-pop radio. Though none sported the immediate “Wow!” factor of the radio picks, they were still high-quality and expertly produced inclusions performed joyfully by Peniston. “Lifeline” was the kind of seductive club jam that should have been huge (after all, it sounds a lot like “Finally”). Then, the tracks that close Finally flirt with Peniston’s interest in R&B and soul. She once described herself as “always the R&B person, the balladeer”, and both “I See Love” and “You Win I Win We Lose” are prime examples of fantastic, sophisticated ’90s pop-soul ballads. In a nod to New Jack Swing, Finally closes with the excited “Virtue”, which grinds on a funky groove.
Of course, the centerpiece of the album is the title track. It has been adopted by the queer community, scoring many Pride festivals and popping up on key moments in queer pop culture. (Specifically, it featured in Stephen Elliot’s 1994 drag comedy, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It also appeared as one of the most memorable “Lip Syncs for Your Life” segments on RuPaul’s Drag Race, when New York drag legend Aja was pitted against Nina Bo’nina Brown.) It’s a queer staple and has become a dance standard. Fortunately, Peniston has embraced that legacy, headlining Pride events and performing in gay clubs. Of the song’s queer appeal, she’s surmised: “I really feel like ‘Finally’ has been a part of so many celebrations all over the world which I’m thankful for… I think the LGBT community loves my song because for either men to women it rings true.”
Thirty years later, Finally remains a thrilling record that boasts some of the most memorable dance music of the last five decades. It takes a smart and funky approach to the style and does a lovely job of bringing house music to mainstream audiences. Peniston disproves naysayers (who poopoo dance music as simply assembly line pop pap) by penning the album’s strongest track and winning her audiences over with her distinct and unique voice and personality. She imbues the tracks with fabulous charisma, especially the classic hit tune. Thus, Finally’s impact is still felt decades later when new audiences discover its perennial charms.
“CeCe Peniston,” Unsung. A. Smith & Co. Productions. TV One, 2013.
Flemming, Steven E., “Look What We Got: CeCe Peniston’s Debut Album ‘Finally’ Turns 25 25 | Anniversary Retrospective.” Albumism, 26 January 2017.
Mirana, Czarina interview with CeCe Peniston. 5Mag.com, 1 June 2006.
Terence interview with CeCe Peniston. The Official RnB Junkie, 9 May 2017.