In the popular culture of today, Paula Abdul is remembered for her tenure as the zany but kind-hearted judge on American Idol for its first eight seasons, a highly respected choreographer from the music video era, and the dance-pop hits she scored in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s before disappearing from the pop music landscape. Last week marked the 30th anniversary of her debut studio album that launched her into pop stardom as the original pop princess (some say she was almost the Britney Spears of her era)—Forever Your Girl. Feel old yet?
Abdul’s Miss America personality and dance moves propelled the album to record-breaking success—at the time, it was the most successful debut album of all-time, and the first time an artist had scored 4 number-one hits from a debut album on the Billboard Hot 100. Abdul started her career as the head choreographer for the Laker Girls before making her first breakthrough when she was discovered by the Jacksons (she would then choreograph Janet’s “Nasty” and “Control” music videos) before becoming a highly sought after dancer and choreographer at the height of the music video era. Before long, she was signed to the newly formed Virgin Records by Jeff Ayeroff, who had worked in marketing at A&M Records with Janet. “She said, ‘I can sing, you know. I want to do an album,’” Ayeroff recalled later. “Here’s someone with a personality and she’s gorgeous, and she can dance. If she can sing, she could be a star.” But, not surprisingly, Abdul finding her footing as a pop star was never that simple.
As much as we remember Paula Abdul’s greatest hits with a nostalgic grin, remembering all the words and where we were when those songs were popular, we cannot deny that she is not as well remembered as her peers, Janet Jackson and Madonna. Pop stars tend to be best remembered for being either transgressive, era-defining stars or nostalgic one-hit wonders. Abdul landed somewhere between those two extremes—she had the performance power and a high-powered label to back her up, but that wasn’t enough for her to survive the pop star formula. Unlike Janet or Madonna, she was never interested in pushing boundaries, generating controversy or using her songs as a form of autobiography, and historically, female pop stars haven’t been taken seriously when they just want to sing and dance (see also: La Toya Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Lindsay Lohan, Miranda Cosgrove, etc.) To make matters worse, several producers, critics and label executives recall that, despite her amount of number-one hits, Abdul’s vocal ability was not extraordinary—producers Babyface and L.A. Reid recall that it took an unusually long time to record her vocal for Forever Your Girl’s lead single, “Knocked Out”—and looking back, Abdul’s discography is a nostalgic nod to a particular era in pop that lived and died in the late ‘80s (in a so-corny-it’s-good kind of way), but pop listeners identify with this kind of recording artist who only wants to sing and dance with little other depth. Why do you think more than one Paula Abdul hit has been used as a lip sync song on RuPaul’s Drag Race? Cheesy pop has its own place in people’s hearts, and for a while there, Abdul made up for what she lacked in vocals or uniqueness with performance ability and the dance moves to prove it.
Despite the significant commercial success she achieved with Forever Your Girl, critics started calling Abdul merely a Janet Jackson knockoff or wannabe, and the fact that she had worked with and choreographed Jackson right before breaking into the music industry as a solo artist didn’t help her case. While her producers worked hard at building her own persona with songs like the title track (which drew inspiration from Madonna’s “Borderline”), it was Abdul who sought out the songs that she would be best remembered for, such as “Cold Hearted” and, most importantly, “Straight Up.” Abdul recalled the first time she heard the “Straight Up” demo, saying there was something “crazy good” about it that she just had to hear it again. The track would become Abdul’s most iconic and signature song (the music video is one of my all-time favorites), but it turns out she had to fight her record executives to include it on the album, most of whom thought it was garbage. Today, its sound is distinctly ’80s and just as catchy and fun now as it was then, making it hard to understand why anyone at the record company might have found the song laughable. The overtly campy and cliché lyrical content was most probably what turned people off, but it was those very campy and cliché lyrics for which Abdul would be remembered best for, which could retroactively make us think of her as a try-hard wannabe who didn’t survive the industry, or a talented girl in her own right who did what she thought sounded right for the time and just wanted to sing and dance, ignoring the necessity of pop star politics.
Forever Your Girl didn’t succeed because of the label pushing it or Abdul—it succeeded by relying on good old-fashioned radio play, and the album sold 7 million copies in the United States alone. Paula Abdul was officially a pop star and became controversial in her own way, being taken to court by singer Yvette Marine, who sued the Virgin label in 1991 alleging that it was her vocals that were used on Abdul’s final single from Forever Your Girl, “Opposites Attract.” The lawsuit led to the widespread discussion of singers and their labels lying about vocals (still a decade away from the advent of auto-tune)—Abdul was branded the latest lip sync scandal, which didn’t help the case for her already criticized vocal ability. The court case made headlines just in time for her second studio album, Spellbound, which eventually hit number one (setting a record at the time for the lowest-selling album to do so), and brought Abdul two additional number-one singles: “Rush, Rush” and “The Promise of a New Day.” But the album also started to shine a new light on Abdul as both a recording artist and performer, since she was starting to leave the bubblegum pop sound and image from Forever Your Girl behind.
With her second album and era, Abdul was trying her hand at more adult and socially conscious themes, mimicking the success Janet saw with Rhythm Nation. But it didn’t fit Abdul’s image, whatever it was at that point (a cross between dance-pop princess and Janet-level dancer and performer, maybe). Critics immediately pounced on her performance of “Vibeology” at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, criticizing her “unflattering” outfit and her supposedly shaky attempt at live vocals. Abdul would later recall the performance and outfit on her 2007 reality series Hey Paula, saying her bedazzled leotard made her look fat and nearly ended her career. That comment alone makes what came next in Paula Abdul’s career not shocking in the least: after Spellbound, she took time off to recover from her high-profile divorce from Emilio Estevez—and seek treatment for bulimia. She stated years later that she first developed the eating disorder as a teenager and it only intensified once she became a star, feeling an overwhelming need to stay thin: “I thought, ‘God I’m not perfect. I’m going to disappoint people.’ That’s what I thought. It became a living hell for me. I wanted to get help. I wanted to be free from weighing myself on the scales. Whether I was sticking my head in the toilet or exercising for hours a day, I was spitting out the food – and the feelings.”
Abdul re-emerged with a third studio album in 1995, Head Over Heels—four years since her last album, but it might as well have been fourteen years. The album became her lowest-selling release, peaking at only number 18 on the Billboard 200 chart in the United States (a significant drop when your last albums both hit number one), which left Abdul surrounded by the reality that her audience had withered and her label wasn’t about to give her the time to find a new one. It’s a shame, really; several tracks on Head Over Heels delivered strong vocals and a matured sound, most notably “My Love is For Real,” an upbeat ‘90s R&B-pop tune that sounds like Vanessa Williams meets Janet Jackson, but still more unique than most tracks found on Spellbound. But the break in between her second and third albums, combined with her apparent inability to compete with the groundbreaking success of artists like Janet and Madonna, was too much for Abdul to survive the pop music game, and Head Over Heels would be her final studio album. Gemma Corfield, former Virgin Records A&R vice president who worked closely with Abdul her entire career, said “she wasn’t as cutting edge … a lot of hipper artists had come up in between. You have to change with the times to stay current, and maybe she wasn’t current; obviously she wasn’t. Her kids, her fans had gone on to the next thing.” In 1997, Abdul co-wrote a song called “Spinning Around” with record producer and composer Kara DioGuardi (who she would later appear with on the judging panel of American Idol in 2009) which was originally intended to be her comeback single from a new album, but the plan never materialized and the song was later given to Kylie Minogue.
Abdul saw renewed success as one of the original judges on American Idol in the 2000s, where she became the television personality and pop culture figure for which we generally remember her best today. She continued to be the subject of controversy on Idol: in 2005, she was accused of having an affair with season two contestant Corey Clark and coaching him on how to succeed in the competition. There were also reports of erratic behavior on set leading to widespread rumors of drug use, which she generally laughed off in interviews. But even though her success as a recording artist seemed short-lived, it appears as though she was popular enough to get herself a fan bigger than them all, who was actually more of a stalker—Paula Goodspeed, who was such a huge fan of Abdul from a young age that she legally changed her name to Paula at age 16 and modeled her career aspirations off of her. She became known to the public in 2006 when she auditioned for the fifth season of Idol, but Abdul was already well aware of the woman—and the producers insisted that she be allowed to audition for the series for the drama that it may have ensued (despite how visibly spooked and uncomfortable Abdul looked when she was in the same room as Goodspeed). The woman would later commit suicide outside of Abdul’s home in Los Angeles in 2008, reportedly sending flowers to Abdul prior to her death. If Paula Abdul’s place in contemporary popular culture hadn’t yet been solidified with her short-lived success as a pop star who was “just here for the music” (as she sang in her last original song of the same name in 2009), her role as a television personality rumored to be on drugs with a crazy stalker who would commit suicide outside of her home would definitely do the trick. And regardless of the controversies, Abdul’s hits continue to resonate with listeners for a variety of reasons, not to mention her role as mentor on the judging panels of reality competition shows that would allow other pop singers to find the same success, such as Jennifer Lopez and most recently Katy Perry. In addition to Idol, Abdul has since appeared as a judge on the first season of the American X Factor, two seasons of So You Think You Can Dance, and the short-lived Live to Dance (where she was also executive producer). As Corfield put: “She’s done well and made a career for herself, so she’s got the last laugh, probably.”
30 years later, Forever Your Girl is still an enjoyable dance-pop album whose sound nostalgically brings the listener back to that era of pop music, reminding us that just about anyone can make a good pop song or two with the dance moves to bring it together and a label to back you up. Even if the music may sound dated in many ways, the title definitely aged well given the high quality of the album and the ultimate length of her music career: with a list of hits that are still fun to listen to and a pop career that wouldn’t last long, Paula Abdul truly does remain forever our girl.