To many younger audiences, Paula Abdul will always be the supportive judge on American Idol. The kind, if kooky, aunt who refused to say anything mean to wannabe popstars, no matter how hopeless their ambitions were. Her stint on the singing competition show was a fascinating second chapter in a career that started with massive expectations and promise. From 1988 to 1992, Paula Abdul was one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. The former choreographer and Laker Girl parlayed her charm, beauty, and incredible dancing skills into an improbable pop superstardom; for a time, she was a legit threat to ruling pop queens Madonna and Janet Jackson. Her debut album, 1988’s Forever Your Girl took its time to hit number one on the Billboard album charts (over a year), but it would go on to sell over ten million copies, spinning off an impressive five top five singles, four of them being consecutive number-one hits.
The triumph of Forever Your Girl set the stage for Abdul’s pop career, but it was understandably a daunting act to follow. Abdul’s early success occurred in the late 1980s when her brand of dance-pop was popular. She was also a significant figure on MTV – she was not only beautiful but arguably pop music’s greatest hoofer. Years of being an in-demand choreographer (she worked with an illustrious list of artists, including Janet Jackson, for her Control album) meant that she was a master at the medium, far more qualified than many of her peers. Critics may have been divided on her vocal skills, but her performing prowess was undeniable.
But like many artists, particularly dance-pop ones, Abdul was intent on proving herself as genuine and gifted. For her second album, she would look to the formula that made Forever Your Girl such a massive hit and build on that. Spellbound is a dance-pop record that looks to Forever Your Girl as a loose template. Instead of creating a copycat sequel, Abdul wrestled with the idea of making mainstream teen-pop music that was also a signal of artistic growth. “The intent I had for the second album was not to repeat what I did for Forever Your Girl,” she stated. Though much of the sounds on Spellbound signaled a change, Abdul was careful to maintain that the album was “different, but not radically so.” In a TV & Movie Screen interview, she explained, “I don’t want to deviate from what’s been successful for me.”
There may have also been pressure for the singer to prove she was a capable vocalist after being sued by Yvette Marine, who claimed that her vocals were used on Forever Your Girl. Though Abdul prevailed, the case could not have been easy, given that dance-pop divas like Abdul are regularly dismissed as merely pretty frontwomen for their producers’ talents.
For Spellbound, Abdul looked to new producers and songwriters. Though pros like Oliver Leiber, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, L.A. Reid, Daryl Simmons, Curtis Williams, and Elliot Wolff were excellent for Abdul and primarily responsible for the success of Forever Your Girl, Abdul looked to funkier, more ambitious collaborators to craft Spellbound. Working with the funk/soul collective, the Family Stand, and veterans Don Was and Prince, Abdul succeeded in maturing her sound from the bubbly bubblegum-pop of Forever Your Girl to something more thoughtful and ambitious.
What Abdul and her collaborators accomplish on Spellbound is bring a certain amount of eccentricity and artistic weirdness to what is still squarely middle-of-the-road dance-pop. The Family Stand knew their client and understood the record couldn’t stray too far from what was popular on the pop charts. So, to make Spellbound a legitimate exercise in creative growth, they looked to clubs and dance culture to give the record a sheen of legitimacy and street cred. Though Abdul was a student and disciple of Madonna, she didn’t come from the club culture in the same way, so she lacked that history. The Family Stand would concoct one for her: by bringing elements of house, rave, and soul, the band would make a compelling case for Abdul’s artistic maturity. Despite the wispiness of her voice, she would acquit herself remarkably well in her new musical setting.
Part of the marketing that went into selling Spellbound wasn’t simply musical but visual. So much of pop music – especially pop music of the early 1990s – was about visuals. One way Abdul could distance herself from the fresh, youthful images of Forever Your Girl was to adopt a more mature, glamorous persona. For the album art, Abdul posed for photographer Robert Lobetta, who recast Abdul as a classic Hollywood vamp. Black plumes framed Abdul’s photogenic face, adding to the camp glamour; Abdul wore extravagant eyelash extensions. The late/great Margo Chase came up with the fanciful lettering. The cover art looked like a deft combination of high art and camp, connoting and alluding to Hollywood glamor and drag culture. (Though she was shut out of the Grammys, Spellbound won a Grammy for Best Recordings Package for the album’s art director, Melanie Nissen.)
The visuals extended to the music videos, showcasing Abdul’s best performance qualities: her megawatt charisma in front of a camera and her extraordinary dancing abilities. Virgin Records were savvy in their choice of Spellbound‘s first single. Instead of putting out one of the dance singles, Virgin released the dewy pop ballad “Rush, Rush”. Released a month before the album’s May bow, “Rush, Rush” surprised Abdul fans who were used to hearing her chirp dance-pop ditties. The song was important for Abdul because it indicated musical maturity and refuted the rumors about her singing abilities. Director Stefan Würnitzer paid homage to Nicholas Ray’s 1955 classic Rebel Without a Cause for the video. Starring a very young Keanu Reeves, Abdul was a tribute to Natalie Wood. The music video clip was not only a creative way to sell the single but also Abdul’s fledgling steps into film acting.
Buoyed by the video, “Rush, Rush” was a big hit for Abdul, her fifth number-one pop hit. The song is a lush pop ballad with luxurious synths and keyboards and a beguiling performance by Abdul, who does some of her best singing on the record. Though her tone is light and slight (she has a very limited instrument), Abdul does have an affecting timber, pretty and sweet, like pink candyfloss.
Perhaps with something to prove, Abdul recorded several ballads for the Spellbound project. Along with the smash hit “Rush, Rush”, she enjoyed another top ten hit with the dramatic “Blowing Kisses in the Wind”, which pushes her vocals more than ever. Abdul adopts a giggly, lovelorn persona on the record’s final single, the top 20 hit, “Will You Marry Me?” (which features Stevie Wonder on harmonica). Go for the international version. You can also hear her rendition of “Goodnight My Love (Pleasant Dreams)”, recorded for For Our Children, an all-star charity album to raise money for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Abdul does an admirable job of emoting in all of these songs, and the emphasis zeroes in on her pretty vocals instead of catchy beats (though the songs are still impeccably produced pop). Throughout her career, Abdul faced criticism for her voice, and she pointed out, “I don’t profess to be this incredible singer.” She says, “But I think I’m a good singer.”
In the summer of 1991, a few months after Spellbound’s release, Abdul released the second single, “Promise of a New Day”. It starts with a bang, drums bursting through, quickly followed by pipes, before Abdul’s vocals debut, and we hear a new, slightly stronger voice from the singer. Though her tone is slightly nasal, she sings in an attractive lower register that, with the sleek and glossy production, creates a stylish, chic pop song. The chorus is an earworm, with the background vocalists chanting behind Abdul. Again, to get the full effect, we need to see the video – a particularly flamboyant project in which Abdul dances in front of a green screen, projecting various shots of Hawaii, including verdant pineapple fields, lush forests, and flocks of pink parrots taking flight. Abdul is gorgeous, far more sensual than in the videos from her Forever Your Girl era, particularly when she’s striking seductive poses at a waterfall, drenched tastefully.
Abdul’s efforts were rewarded with her second number-one single from the album when “Promise of a New Day” shot up the charts, becoming her sixth number-one consecutive hit. With the album also peaking at number one, Abdul was able to stave off the dreaded sophomore slump.
Because Abdul was looking for more legitimacy and street cred, she and her producers looked to house and club culture to add excitement to the album. Forever Your Girl was a dance record (only one ballad on the album, a b-side), yet it was far removed from the clubs (though its remixes became massive standards in dance clubs). Abdul also embraced house sounds for Spellbound, particularly with the odd single “Vibeology”, a nonsensical song that worked on a grinding, bass-heavy groove. Her chirpy voice is mangled and fed through various studio filters, rending her a synthetic instrument, like much of the music surrounding her voice. The song’s roots in house and club culture also are visualized in the music video, which takes some visual cues from Madonna’s “Vogue” video. When “Vibeology” was released, Abdul recognized and appreciated the love it received from clubs, saying, “Clubs in the United States are really grasping onto it because it’s a lot of fun to dance to.” (Abdul knew what she was talking about; the track landed in the top 20 and number two on the dance single sales charts.)
What’s so remarkable about Spellbound is that though the singles are great, the rest of the tracks are fantastic, too. In her quest to make a powerful second album, she and her collaborators worked hard to avoid stuffing it with filler. The tracks feature impressive pairings, including Abdul’s work with Prince and Don Was. By the mid-1990s, pop stars lined up outside Paisley Park to be granted a song by His Royal Badness. Abdul was one of the lucky ones deigned worthy of a Prince tune, which raises the artistic bar on an album.
For Spellbound, the musician penned “U”, a military-style dance song with a tight, marching beat. “Prince had contacted me,” Abdul recounted, “and he said he wrote a song for me.” She then shared her self-doubts about covering such a legendary artist, saying, “You get a song he submitted to you, with him singing it, I hear it, and I think, ‘It’s so perfect for Prince. I don’t know if I can do it justice.'” Abdul’s take on the song is dutifully sexy and clipped. She sounds like one of his many female proteges like Vanity or Apollonia and does a credible job of fitting into the Minneapolis Sound.
The other high-profile association is Abdul’s teaming up with Don Was, who has worked with some of the best and most respected artists in the music business, like the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, and Iggy Pop. For Spellbound, Was produced Abdul’s version of John Hiatt’s “Alright Tonight”, which was a calypso-style number. It’s the one song on the album that stands out as incongruous from the rest of the tracks. Was’ work conjures some escapist magic, and the background vocals are stellar, summoning up feelings of both the church and the islands. Abdul is suitably cheery and vivacious, despite the angst of Hiatt’s lyrics which run counter to Was’ instrumentation or Abdul’s singing. Yet, despite it sounding so odd, the song works. It’s not a dance number or a pop ballad, but it fits, showing off another aspect of Abdul’s talents that weren’t readily visible with Forever Your Girl. Was, like the Family Stand, sought to create a fuller, richer sound for Abdul so that she could transcend any suggestions that she was pop fluff. Though “Alright Tonight” isn’t the head stuff he did with Dylan, it still marked a noticeable change in Abdul’s scope and reach.
It’s that reach that is so impressive when listening to Spellbound. Because Forever Your Girl was such a huge smash, it would have been easy – maybe even prudent – to follow that record’s blueprint when creating a follow-up. Instead, Abdul confounded her critics and her detractors by looking to expand on her pop hooks and catchy melodies and look for stranger, more esoteric sounds to festoon her state-of-the-art dance-pop.