Paula Abdul’s career is a strange and patchy mess. A former Laker Girl who graduated to an Emmy-winning career as a choreographer, Abdul parlayed her pop music connections into a multi-platinum pop music career. From 1988 to 1992 Abdul was one of the biggest pop divas in the music industry, scoring ten top 20 pop hits, six of which went number one. Her debut album Forever Your Girl (1988) was a smash hit that sold over 12 million copies world wide. Her sophomore effort, Spellbound (1991) was almost as successful, selling over 7 million copies worldwide. Then Abdul’s pop music career – a seemingly unstoppable force suddenly stopped. She stepped away from the music industry, battled some health issues, and tried her hand at acting. By the time she was ready to reacquaint herself with the music industry, it had changed greatly. Her third album, Head Over Heels dropped in 1995 – a time when shiny, sparkly dance music lost its favor for more hip-hop inflected pop music. Abdul’s cheif colleagues, Madonna and Janet Jackson were able to adapt to 1995-era pop music, but Abdul seemed like a creature from the past. Head Over Heels was a dogged attempt at being contemporary and up-to-date. After its failure, Abdul all but left the music business until joining the panel of judges on American Idol in 2002. And a star was reborn. Abdul’s second bat at fame consisted of her judging struggling and up-and-coming singers (many of whom were better singers than Abdul ever was), while her public image changed from a sexy pop diva to the wacky, slightly-loopy nurturing salve to Simon Cowell’s mean, barbed critic. Once she was known as a Madonna wannabe, now she’s famous for being the female answer to Ed McMahon.
Head Over Heels is a time capsule of pop music in 1995, but it also shows just how difficult it is for a past-her-prime pop star to remain relevant. Taking cues from Janet Jackson, a woman she once taught how to dance and who she would model her career after, Head Over Heels sounds like a dogged and game effort to recreate Jackson’s blockbuster 1993 album janet. Jackson faced a similarly-changed music landscape in 1993 which moved away from the thick-heavy beats of late 80s/early 90s dance-pop to grunge music and hip-hop. So she smartly toned down some of the more military-style clipped beats of her sound and injected some sexier, rougher tones. janet. was a huge hit and Jackson was rewarded with an album that sold over 20 million copies.
Abdul wasn’t as lucky. Head Over Heels peaked at a solid, if unspectacular number 18 on the album chart, eventually going gold (which in the current pop market, even Jackson can’t reach). The album was Abdul’s way of growing and adapting to mid 90s urban dance-pop. And she certainly did her best. First, she assembled a crowd of songwriters – a whopping twenty-three songwriters were involved in putting together an album that had 14 tracks. The folks tapped to produce the album also comprised of a large and unsteady group. The result was a patchwork quilt of disparate styles, all trying to mold Abdul from chirpy pop thrush into a sensual sex goddess, which was a Sisyphean task.
It’s not that Abdul isn’t sexy – she is. But the problem is the voice. Abdul’s voice, at its best, is an extremely limited instrument, one with little range, and a strange, tinny sound that sounds as if she’s singing from the back of her throat. It’s also a tiny voice, so when she’s trying to sing the sexier numbers on Head Over Heels, there’s an unintended ickiness because it sounds at times, as if a kid is warbling some of the lewd lyrics. Not that Head Over Heels sounds anything like Madonna’s Erotica, because it doesn’t. This is the kind of sexy that may raise an eyebrow or two if the music is played on top 40. The effect is a bit like playing grownup.
The album did have some bright spots – the singles, were predictably solid – “Crazy Cool,” the set’s second single was a decent stab at a summer pop hit. It managed to grow up Abdul’s perky signature sound without alienating her (dwindling) fan base. It’s all rumbly bass and wah-wah guitars and there’s even some charming nonsensical psychedelia, too. The lyrics were silly and dumb, but that’s okay – so what if we have to hear Abdul’s yearning – if strained – vocals pine about “sexy feelings” that come over her as she compares her lover to a “long, cool glass of lemonade.” And if the more sexed up lyrics weren’t enough to herald in the new Paula Abdul, the song’s video has our diva tarted up, slithering on a stripper’s pole, or riding a mechanical bull and dousing herself with beer froth. It all screams calculation and effort, right down to Abdul’s smokey eye makeup and very 90s Rachael haircut, but all is seemingly forgiven because Abdul is giving it her all.
The other song on the album that deserved to be a hit “My Love Is for Real,” which almost became a hit. It was Abdul’s first single in three years, and was supposed to welcome her back to the pop charts, but the welcome was rather muted. A shame, because song’s an underrated bit of urban-pop heaven. With haunting guest vocals by Israeli pop diva Ofra Haza, “My Love Is for Real” is a mischmash of world music cliches – Middle Eastern instruments like sitars clashing gloriously with pre-programmed percussion and drum machines. It’s all colonial nonsense, but it works. The song is well-written with a catchy beat, and Abdul herself delivers a performance as close to smoldering as she can manage (though truth be told, Haza steals the show). The song should’ve been a big hit (it climbed up to a so-so number 28), and its failure essentially sealed the album’s fate.
But the problem is most of the album is just a hodgepodge of pop cliches circa 1995. There’s watered-down New Jack Swing, brushes of big bang swing (which was making an improbable – but thankfully brief – comeback in the 1990s), by-the-numbers pop-soul, ersatz Latin flourishes, and spirited if deflated stabs at house. Though the producers craft material that works to fit into a wide variety of radio formats, the effect isn’t diverse or wide-ranging, just haphazard and fitful. But all of that could be forgiven, if it wasn’t for the inclusion of the ballads. Abdul can sound kicky and fun during a high-octane dance number, one that hides her massive vocal flaws with a cascading waterfall of synths, keyboards, and drum machines. But Abdul’s pitchy keening is hard to listen through. On “If I Were Your Girl,” the singer seems hopelessly out of her depth, trying to play the part of the soulful balladeer, but she has too few vocal resources.
The failure of Head Over Heels essentially put an end to Abdul’s pop music career. From 1996 to 2002, Abdul slid unsteadily into b-list territory. During that time she was credited with co-penning a few singles for other artists (most notably for Kylie Minogue’s number one hit “Spinning Around”), she also attempted an acting career, and went back to choreographing for films. Then American Idol premiered and Abdul became more famous than ever, judging up-and-coming pop talent. Her heightened profile suggested a return to music, and there were a few one-off singles, but it seems like Head Over Heels is a definite close to an exciting, if too-brief, pop career.