The Number Ones: Paula Abdul’s “Forever Your Girl”

 


According to one of our preferred musical sources:

In retrospect, everything about Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” was unlikely. A Lakers cheerleader becomes a star choreographer and then, with no singing experience, launches herself toward pop stardom. Her first two singles fizzle, and it looks like this new career gambit isn’t going to work out. But one Bay Area radio station starts playing a deep cut from the album, and the label changes plans and puts that track out as a single. That song becomes a smash and briefly turns this choreographer into a towering pop star, who then goes on to a long career as a reality-TV judge.


You can’t plan out that kind of arc for a song, and you can’t count on it, either. “Straight Up” easily could’ve disappeared from history. But in 1989, when the song was riding high on the charts, “Straight Up” felt inevitable. It was so sleek and propulsive and fun that it seemed destined to take over. To someone who was a child at the time, it’s baffling that any record-label person could hear “Straight Up” and not immediately recognize that it was a smash, but that’s the music business for you. Sometimes, smashes have to find their own way.


“Straight Up” didn’t just work as a dance song. It also served as an introduction. Paula Abdul, the singer behind “Straight Up,” wasn’t some anonymous vessel for some producer’s track. She was an instantly likable personality with a crazy backstory. She’d been around show business for her entire life, and she knew how to carry herself with warmth and grace. David Fincher’s video for “Straight Up” got a lot of this across, and Abdul followed that song up with a crazy series of monster hits. Those other songs weren’t as obviously ferocious as “Straight Up,” but they all worked, and they fit with the fully-formed Paula Abdul persona. The big knock on Paula Abdul was that she couldn’t sing. But even if Abdul didn’t have a big voice, she understood what her voice could do. She knew how to pick songs that fit that voice. “Forever Your Girl,” the title track from Abdul’s debut album, fit her style perfectly, and she knew it.



Abdul’s narrator spends all of “Forever Your Girl” reassuring some poor guy that she’d never going to leave him. This guy has heard a rumor that another boy wants to take his place, and he’s in anguish about it. So she tells him that nobody’s going to take her away: “Baby, just remember I gave you my heart/ Ain’t no one gonna tear us apart.” In another singer’s hands, a song like this could sound syrupy, or it could sound condescending. It could be depressing, since it could leave you certain that she was about to dump this chump. Instead, though, Paula Abdul makes it sound like flirting. She’s promising everlasting love to this guy, but she sounds like she’s just teasing him, making a private joke out of the idea that she’s about to leave him.


On “Forever Your Girl,” Paula Abdul is so damn likable that I find myself not caring whether her character will stick with this guy. It sounds like they’re having a good time together now, like the future is a total abstraction. The “forever” part is meaningless. What matters is that moment, and the song’s sinuous silliness makes it work as a snapshot of that moment.


“Forever Your Girl” is a snapshot of a moment — a time when everyone wanted a piece of the Minneapolis funk zeitgeist. By the late ’80s, you probably couldn’t walk through Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport without tripping over a pop star, or an aspiring pop star, who was trying to get at least a few drops of Prince’s juice. A few weeks before “Forever Your Girl” reached #1, Fine Young Cannibals held down the top spot with “She Drives Me Crazy,” a song that the group wanted to record with Prince. They didn’t get Prince, but they did get David Z, one of the many gifted producers who were in Prince’s extended orbit. Like Fine Young Cannibals, Paula Abdul flew out to Minneapolis to record “Forever Your Girl.” She accidentally ended up recording with the son of a songwriting legend.


In 1950, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, two Jewish teenagers living in Los Angeles, started writing R&B songs together. Leiber wrote the lyrics, and Stoller wrote the music. Their songs became hits for Black artists like Charles Brown and Big Mama Thornton and the Robins. In 1956, just as he was taking over the world, Elvis Presley recorded “Hound Dog,” a song that Leiber and Stoller had written for Thornton four years earlier. Leiber and Stoller had more early rock ‘n’ roll hits with Presley, and also with singers like the Coasters, the Drifters, and Ben E. King. They moved to New York and essentially established the Brill Building songwriting system.


In 1959, exactly 30 years before “Forever Your Girl” had its two weeks at #1, Wilbert Harrison sat atop the Hot 100 with his version of “Kansas City,” a song that Leiber and Stoller had written back in 1952. This would turn out to be Leiber and Stoller’s final #1 hit, though we’ll eventually see their work, in sampled form, in this column. When “Kansas City” was at #1, Jerry Leiber’s son Oliver was two years away from being born.


Oliver Leiber didn’t plan on becoming a songwriter, and his father never taught him how to write a song. But thanks to a stay in a Minnesota rehab facility as a young man, Oliver Leiber found himself in Minneapolis just as the Minneapolis sound was taking off. Oliver played drums and guitar, and he gigged around the area in cover bands and eventually toured with Alexander O’Neal, a singer who’d previously been Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’ bandmate in Flyte Tyme, the band that would later become the Time. (Jam and Lewis wrote and produced O’Neal’s highest-charting single, 1987’s “Fake,” which peaked at #25.)


Jesse Johnson, another former Time member, was putting together a new group called Ta Mara And The Seen, and he brought in Leiber as the group’s guitarist. The band’s one crossover hit, 1985’s “Everybody Dance,” peaked at #24. (Jesse Johnson and the future New Power Generation member Ta Mara co-wrote that song. Years later, they also co-wrote Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl deep cut “I Need You.”)



Eventually, a manager linked Leiber up with Paul Peterson, a musician who used the stage name St. Paul. Peterson had been in the Time and the Prince-affiliated group the Family, and he’d left to go solo. When St. Paul made his self-titled solo debut in 1987, the lead single was “Rich Man,” a song that Peterson and Leiber wrote together. The song didn’t go anywhere, but Peterson went to Los Angeles to shoot its video. Paula Abdul choreographed that video. While she was working on it, she mentioned that she loved its sound. Abdul had done Janet Jackson’s videos, and she essentially patterned her career after the hard dance-funk of Jackson’s Control album. While working on that video, she told Peterson that she was about to become a singer and that “Rich Man” was the kind of song she wanted to record.



Peterson mentioned that he had a demo tape, and Abdul flipped for “(It’s Just) The Way That You Love Me,” a song that Oliver Leiber had written. Even though nobody at her label had ever heard of Oliver Leiber, Abdul flew out to Minneapolis to record the track with him. Abdul and Leiber worked together closely. Years later, talking to Songfacts, Leiber said, “Paula’s first experience in the studio with a pair of hit producers that I won’t mention had been very, very discouraging. They had basically told her, ‘You can’t sing, you can go home, we’re gonna finish this song without you.’ Like, you suck, get outta here, we’ll finish this somehow.” (Those two hit producers were LA Reid and Babyface, whose work will eventually appear in this column and who wrote and produced Abdul’s debut single “Knocked Out,” which peaked at #41.)


Leiber, knowing that Abdul needed encouragement, helped coax better vocals out of her. She and her label liked the results enough that they released “(It’s Just) The Way That You Love Me” as Abdul’s second single. That song peaked at #88; Virgin abandoned its promotional push once “Straight Up” started to take off. Later on, the label re-released “(It’s Just) The Way That You Love Me,” and it peaked at #3. (It’s a 7.)



While they worked together, Leiber also played Abdul a beat that he’d made a few years earlier, while he was showing his roommates how to program a sequencer. Abdul liked the track, so Leiber wrote a song on top of it. He’d started writing a song called “Small Town Girl” about a girl from North Dakota who he’d been dating. Paula Abdul was not a small town girl, so Leiber changed the song, writing “Forever Your Girl” with Abdul specifically in mind.


“Forever Your Girl” isn’t a world-stopping smash like “Straight Up,” but it’s still a jam. The song is bright and bubbly and uptempo. I never thought of it as a Minneapolis funk track before learning of Leiber’s background, but it makes sense. The busy synthetic bass and the glimmering keyboard and the squawking sax all sound like lightweight versions of what Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were doing with Janet Jackson a couple of years earlier. The track is pleasantly cluttered, and all the pieces of its beat ripple and flutter together with a dizzy sense of syncopation. Abdul sounds like a ray of sunshine on the track, and her delivery is playfully conversational; I really like the “even if he promised me the world bit” and the back-and-forth with the male backup singer. It’s just a fun song.


“Forever Your Girl” sounds nothing like Prince, and as far as I can tell, Oliver Leiber never worked directly with Prince. But Prince helped build a whole network of Minneapolis stars and producers, and those producers built their own little networks. The fact that Oliver Leiber had a #1 hit in 1989 feels less like a measure of what Leiber’s father had done decades earlier and more like a measure of what Prince was doing in Minneapolis in the ’80s. Leiber’s work will appear in this column again.


For the “Forever Your Girl” video, Paula Abdul worked, once again, with her regular collaborator David Fincher. (I really want to make a joke about how Paula Abdul was the original Brad Pitt, but if we’re following that logic, then previous Fincher collaborator and Number Ones artist Rick Springfield was really the original Brad Pitt, and that’s less funny.) In the “Forever Your Girl” video, Abdul plays a choreographer working with a group of kids. One of those kids is an eight-year-old Elijah Wood. (He’s the corporate-suit kid.) Wood was already a child actor and model at the time. Later that year, he made his feature-film debut in Back To The Future Part II, playing one of the kids perplexed by the video game in the Café ’80s.



The video itself isn’t terribly visually striking, but it gives Abdul’s personality a chance to shine through. She also tap-dances, as she’d done in “Straight Up.” This time, though, she taps along with the song itself, which seems totally natural in the video and which works as further evidence that Paula Abdul knew what she was doing. We’ll see her in this column again soon.


GRADE: 7/10

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