Straightening Up the Narrative on Paula Abdul

Posted June 21, 2015 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Days after her 53rd birthday, we straighten things up inside Paula Abdul’s music world

It’s been over twenty-seven years since Paula Abdul reigned at the very top of the pop charts with her debut LP, Forever Your Girl. No, we haven’t forgotten her brief comeback in the music spotlight while working on American Idol right before exiting — the Randy Jackson collaboration on “Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow.” But that small bleep on the pop radar was nothing compared to her formidable domination in the late 80’s and early 90’s. When Abdul made her debut as a singer with the street-smart pop of “Straight Up,” she quickly became a household name and even whipped up a few comparisons with heavyweight pop icon Janet Jackson. The Jackson influence was hard to shake. Not only had she pulled off the eye-catching, sharp choreography that saturated many of Janet’s music videos, but her vocals were easily interchangeable with the young, coy girl sound that blossomed from Janet’s material. At one singular moment in time, the young and precocious Abdul dethroned Madonna and Janet from the top of the charts.

The Jackson comparison was also deliberate. In 1984, Abdul left her post as a lead choreographer for the Los Angeles Lakers’ Laker Girls to become a choreographer for the former Motown supergroup The Jacksons. Her first major achievement was her work on their “Torture” music video after being discovered by Michael Jackson who was completely enamored by her court side moves. The music video was considered a costly affair, putting the production studio in financial collapse. Making matters worse, Michael and Jermaine didn’t even show up for filming. Abdul would later be appointed to oversee all choreography in The Jacksons’ Victory tour, which subsequently became their last tour with Michael. As the demand for concept videos surged due to the rising culture of MTV, so did Abdul’s assignments. She was summoned to work on Janet’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” also appearing as a friend to the Jackson Family’s leading lady. She also directed “Nasty,” “Control” and the ambitious, high-concept driven “When I Think of You.” The Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis-produced album proved to be the perfect launching pad for Janet, transforming her into a mega superstar comparable to her brother Michael.


Then Abdul took a bite at the big screen, but not by her own admission. She was approached by film director John Landis to choreograph Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America. Although she was still new to the industry, Landis was impressed by the dance scenes in Jackson’s videos and wanted the lead choreographer for Murphy’s film. When he discovered Abdul in person — standing at 5 foot and an inch and appearing too squat and with heavy legs — he almost turned her down. Abdul told Landis that she was very knowledgeable of African dance and bore a ballsy confidence as if she was the perfect fit the job. In actuality, she wasn’t. “This was one of my moments of having to really prove myself, because I was still pretty new in my career as a choreographer,” Abdul told Yahoo in 2014. “When you think about it, back then we didn’t have the Internet, so there was no research you could really do, other than going to the library. I created my own style of what I thought should be right for the movie, and John Landis loved it.” To his day, the jaw-dropping wedding scene remains one of her greatest achievements in the world of film. After Coming to America came assignments on Action Jackson, Tom Hanks’ Big, American Beauty and later the 62nd Academy Awards, for which she received a Emmy nomination.


Her giant leap into music seemed accidental. When questioned by Abdul about her recording career leap, she usually responds as if she’s flabbergasted by it all. “The irony of my life is that I didn’t tell anybody I was gonna try that area,” she said in a 2012 interview with the Hudson Union Society. “I didn’t want anyone to know because I didn’t want to lose my day job as a choreographer, and I would go to table reads for The Tracey Ullman Show [at Fox], go to Warner Brothers studios and be choreographing George Michael’s tour…and then I would secretly go to my recording studio at midnight and record ’til like five in the morning. And then I would park my car at Fox and sleep for two hours. But what happened was my album secretly came out and nobody knew.”

While working on Fox’s Tracy Ullman Show, Abdul learned of her unexpected dose of instant fame as a recording artist. “I remembered [James L.] Brooks was going to visit his family in Northern California, and when he came back from his first hiatus I remember him saying, ‘By the way, I swear to God there’s a girl that has your name that I keep hearing on the radio.’ That is how I found out my song was playing — “Straight Up.” And literally I remember calling my record label and they were screaming it was a hit. And it was a song that my mother found me.”

Written by novice producer and songwriter Elliot Wolff, “Straight Up” became Abdul’s first No. 1 hit — although it was the third released single from Abdul’s debut album Forever Your Girl. At the time, her previous hit, Oliver Leiber‘s “The Way That You Love Me” — a fun New Jack Swing-influenced summer song that resembled the rhythmic attitude of Peebles’ “Mercedes Boy,” was at the time enjoying a good hold on the R&B charts but had failed to crack the Top 40. The farthest it went was number 88. The first single, the L.A. Reid/Babyface-produced “Knocked Out,” was close to reaching the Top 40, stalling at number 41. “Straight Up” and the follow-up single “Forever Your Girl” (also a No. 1 smash) changed Abdul’s fortunes for the better. Wolff also had repeat success with another composition on Abdul. “Cold Blooded” also rocketed to number one pop. By the end of 1989, Abdul’s Forever Your Girl had hit number one on the Billboard album charts and quickly sold up to three million copies. Since then, it has sold twelve million copies. Four numbers ones were also generated, including “Opposites Attract,” which infamously featured an animated tribute to Gene Kelly’s Anchors Aweigh in the concept video.

Looking back, Forever Your Girl stands out as one of the most accomplished pop albums of the ’80s. From start to finish, it plays like an innocent soundtrack of upbeat radio-ready bubblegum pop funk merging with the fierce spunk of the streets. Even forgotten, but likable non-singles like “I Need You” and “One or the Other” set a precedent for bubbling-under-the-radar pop divas to drop an album with comparable jams. Forever Your Girl, when originally released, certainly didn’t receive such TLC. There were a few critics who raved about “Straight Up” as being exceptional; it showed up on The Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop poll that year. But the bulk of critics shunned it by focusing heavily on Abdul’s nasal-driven vocal performance. In the Rolling Stone Album Guide, freelance music critic Paul Evans said that Abdul made history for dropping an album “featuring an embarrassment of hits.” Naturally, he shot at her vocals by calling it “sex-chipmunk singing.” He continued with the low-brow shots: “This was Madonna-cloning at its most plastic.” That review was published in 1992; right when Abdul was most vulnerable. Robert Christgau wasn’t any better: “She’s less imitator than imitation, short on tokens of self-creation.” And mostly every music critic with some form of street cred echoed the same type of haterade. But a lot has changed since the daring ’90s. Surprisingly, the album has been appraised by the generation that gobbled Abdul’s fast-food pop like it was a five-course wine dinner. Slant magazine writer Eric Henderson stated Forever Your Girl was “perfectly respectable” and said it possessed “great, unheralded moments like “State of Attraction.” went so far to give the disc a 4 out of 5 stars, calling the disc a “consistent album with some great dance-pop songs.”

And this music critic knows quite well that although Abdul’s instrument might not have been as bold and daring as her fellow contemporaries, the content inside the album was. Maybe the “ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-bah” tag on “Straight Up” hasn’t aged all that well, but when you hear lines like “he’s a cold hearted snake/Look into his eyes/Uh-oh, he’s been telling lies,” you can tell Abdul is trying to force a woman’s rebuttal to Hall & Oates’ “Maneater.” When Abdul names the fleet of possessions her lover showers her on the verses of “The Way That You Love Me,” she one-ups Janet’s “little things” heard on “What Have You Done for Me Lately.” Most of the songs on Forever Your Girl are well crafted and tailored to fit Abdul in the best way. Had these songs resurrected on a Janet record at the time, even Michael’s, they would have also been hit records. Like her or not, Forever Your Girl was a decent record.

Naturally Abdul is dunked with a junk load of criticism for possessing pipes that sounded so reedy, but it wasn’t exactly her fault; every pop singer known to man at the time were duplicating the same type of nuances that Madonna and Thriller-era Michael Jackson had emblazoned in the consciousness of modern pop-rock. Abdul followed suit by buckling on the trend now being shouldered by artists like Pebbles, Debbie Gibson, Cyndi Lauper, Tiffany, Kylie Minogue and Lisa Lisa (of Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam fame). Critics also tried to find their way to dissect the musical and racial anatomy of Abdul as she experienced crossover success in both black and white arenas. It wasn’t an easy task for them. Michael Jackson may have been facing a rare skin disorder which turned him into a white savior, but Abdul was far from being the silly conundrum most persons in the media made her out to be.


In understanding Abdul’s cultural and racial makeup, we learn Abdul was born to Jewish parents. Her Syrian-born father, Harry Abdul, migrated to the United States after being raised in Brazil. Her mom, a concert pianist, is French-Canadian. Many considered her to be bi-racial, a mix of black and white, because of her leanings in pop and R&B. Instead Abdul skill came from just being a connoisseur of art and culture, learning dance moves from timeless legends like Gene Kelly and Bob Fosse. She also had her pulse on the trending contemporary dance style of urban life. Abdul decided to merge the two together to invent her own style of dance, something she called tap-meets-rap. At best, her movements and choreographed work could be described as being gutsy, fast, athletic and street-smart. Being surrounded by those in the Jackson camp only maximized her pulse on diversity. Another important footnote when addressing Abdul’s trail into pop life is just how many rejection letters she received by record labels before getting considered by Virgin Records. At the time, Virgin — a label that began its popularity on the backs of prog rock in the 70s —was enjoying the international crossover successes of Culture Club, but had hit a major bump in the road when the UK New Wave band went on hiatus in 1986. Jeff Ayeroff, former director at Virgin Records and one of the masterminds in green lighting Madonna’s career, found something credible about Abdul’s talent. “She had that Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland thing. She goes ‘I can sing’ and you kinda go, yeah well let’s put you into the studio and see how you can sing and it comes back that she can sing.”

Four years after the release of Forever Your Girl, Abdul dropped her sophomore album Spellbound. Style changes and the need to confront new pressures (particularly in the post-Milli Vanilli era) forced Abdul to take on a different agenda with her next album. A heavy dose of ballads like “Rush Rush” and “Blowing Kisses in the Wind” were used, so were subliminal messages about a change of direction (“The Promise of a New Day”). Productions at Prince’s Paisley Park even gave birth to “U,” a song penned by the Purple One himself. Abdul also had her hand in most of the compositions. But the gravy train was moving slow on Abdul. Her third studio album and final, 1995’s Head over Heels, received mixed reviews and hardly produced any major hits. “My Love Is For Real” failed to reach the Top 20, sliding only to number 28.
Abdul has tried to reinvent herself, even as health challenges have bitten at the core of her work ethic. Despite fighting bulimia while making Head over Heels, battles with RSD and a plane accident that forced her to have multiple neck surgeries, Abdul has tried to return to music. 2008’s “Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow,” a song release on the multi-star compilation produced by fellow American Idol judge Randy Jackson, rose to number 62 on the Hot 100. It was a brief return to music, but was more a shadow of her better days. She jumped back into the musicverse a year later with “I’m Just Here for the Music,” a song noted for being produced by Forever Your Girl creator Oliver Leiber. Despite the funky sampling of the memorable In Deep jam “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” and being a leftover track from Kylie Minogue’s Body Language album, the song only saw little success. It stalled at number 87 pop.

It’s not absolutely sure if Paula will ever return to the top of the charts. She is still trying, despite not reaching the type of acclaim in her heyday. But that’s not stopping the hard-working petite singer and dancer from flexing her strong, solid work ethic. Although American Idol and her very short stint on X-Factor is behind her now, Abdul has since picked up a slot on the judges panel of So You Think You Can Dance. It’s a smart move, since she has had her hand in some of the biggest choreographed scenes to be played in the MTV era. As Janet Jackson readies a big comeback for this year with new music and an international tour, there’s no telling if her one-time choreographer will be trailing behind her. Abdul might be down, but she’s not out.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


Be the first to comment!

Leave a Response


Please support HIFI Magazine
By clicking any of these buttons you help our site to get better