It’s just as easy to say Paula Abdul’s success wouldn’t have happened without Janet Jackson as it is to say Janet Jackson’s success wouldn’t have happened without Paula Abdul, and there are a couple of factors at play here. The first and most obvious one is that Jackson’s breakthrough album, 1986’s Control, featured several videos choreographed by Abdul. At that time Abdul was only known as a cheerleader for the Magic-era Los Angeles Lakers. Consequently, without Jackson’s dance/pop breakthrough, I don’t think Abdul would have ever decided to record an album. Her first hit singles rode the coattails of Jackson’s sound as hard as records by Pebbles, Karyn White, Jody Watley and a million lesser copycats did during the same period.
So even though she’s now best-known as the slightly loopy (OK, very loopy) judge on Fox’s American Idol, there was a time when Paula Abdul was the most popular female singer in America. Although her reign at the top of the charts was quick (1989-1992), the singles were plentiful. Greatest Hits: Straight Up!, at 18 tracks, is a bit overstuffed, but look at it this way: With this album in your possession, you will never have to own anything by Paula Abdul ever again. This is, of course, assuming you want anything by her to begin with.
Quite possibly, the biggest irony about Abdul is the fact that if she were to appear on Idol as a contestant, she wouldn’t even get through the audition phase. She was blessed (cursed?) with a nasal chirp of a voice that was by far the weakest of her contemporaries; you’re not picking up her record to be blown away by the vocals. I hate to make the comparison again…but unlike Jackson (who has appeared to develop her relationship with producers Jam/Lewis to the point where they can be considered equal creative partners), Abdul lives and dies by her songs and production. This is why the quality of this hits compilation falls off as soon as she finds success and decides to be an artist as much as a videogenic dance diva.
There’s only one essential Abdul single, and that’s obviously “Straight Up”, the third single from her debut album Forever Your Girl and the track that became the first of her six (six!!) number ones. It’s Abdul at her most aggressive, challenging a lover’s true intentions. But beyond the lyrics, everything about the song is tough—from the staccato drums to the droning guitar that pops up in the chorus. Not only did this song introduce a new phrase into the pop lexicon, but it stands as one of that era’s defining songs.
Nothing else in her career comes close (although the similar “Cold Hearted” comes close—it loses points when separated from its risqué video). Actually, most of the rest of Abdul’s music finds her in cutesy, cheerleader mode. “Forever Your Girl” (presented, as are most songs, in a remixed single version) is all perky synth horns and fluttering eyelashes. “Knocked Out” is an L.A. Reid/Babyface track from the late ‘80s stretch in which they defined R&B. Even the Grammy-winning potato/po-tah-to duet “Opposites Attract” retains some of its poppy charm—even though I still wince during the parts where MC Skat Kat rhymes. The best tracks here are well-constructed pop/R&B. It’s slight, but fun to listen to in a way that many of today’s pop tunes are not.
Another thing about the best tracks here: they’re almost all from her first album. Aside from a couple of stray tracks (the wistful ballad “Will You Marry Me?” and the big-band meets pop-funk “Ain’t Never Gonna Give You Up”, featuring Color Me Badd), the quality of Abdul’s music flew rapidly into ye olde toilet after that album. The first thing Abdul should have remembered is that people who can’t sing probably shouldn’t sing ballads. “Rush Rush” and “Blowing Kisses in the Wind” are so processed (not to mention so bland) that they’re almost plain to listen to. The up-tempo music gets a little more experimental—she sneaks some social commentary into “The Promise of a New Day”, and gets Israeli singer Ofra Haza to guest on “My Love Is For Real”. However, the production of these songs does nothing but highlight Abdul’s vocal shortcomings.
In case you need to be reminded that one of reality TV’s most interesting train wrecks was America’s pop sweetheart at one point (or if you just need something to file with your Rick Astley and Bobby Brown records), this is a worthwhile pickup, provided you don’t already have the 2000 Greatest Hits (which contains 14 of these 18 tracks and very similar artwork). Most of you, however, will be perfectly content without it.
// Notes from the Road
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