Few took former L.A. Lakers' cheerleader/choreographer Paula Abdul too seriously a year ago when she made her album debut on Virgin Records, but 4 million sales later some people are saying she's doing more to change pop music than any woman since Madonna.
What Madonna did for lingerie, Abdul is doing for dancing shoes.
Madonna's early success with the "boy toy" come-ons in her videos showed other pop "wanna-bes" that teens--male and female--were ready for a woman who was as blatantly sexual as rock males like Presley and Jagger once were.
Abdul's success sends out a different message: Stick to those dance lessons.
What makes Abdul's videos so special is the way they display her extraordinary abilities as a dancer--not just simple steps you might cultivate at the local disco, but moves that suggest a more formal, Broadway-like training. Hers is a level of pop-music showmanship largely limited in the past to males--the likes of James Brown, Michael Jackson and, most recently, Bobby Brown.
There's a debate in pop circles on how good a singer Abdul is (most critics would say about C+), but everyone seems to agree that the woman can dance.
The commercial history of her debut album shows the impact that her dancing ability had on establishing her as a pop star in the video age.
Abdul's "Forever Your Girl" album was hurried into completion and released in June of 1988 to capitalize on the industry buzz created by her "Knocked Out" dance track. "Knocked Out" was part of a Virgin Records compilation CD and was distributed in February, 1988 at the Gavin Convention in San Francisco (an annual event attended by radio and record execs). The track quickly gained airplay on urban stations in Northern California. "It was definitely urban radio that broke Paula," said one of her two managers, Larry Frazin. "Urban radio played Paula without ever having seen a video on her."
A sweetly appealing, craft-conscious "Knocked Out" video--in which the L.A.-based singer's dancing ability proved to be her real strength--was released by July, 1988,when the record had risen to No. 3 on the black charts. It was heavily played on the Black Entertainment Television cable channel, while MTV "never touched it," according to Frazin.
Radio reaction to her second single, "The Way That You Love Me," was modest when it was released in July (the song did better when it was re-released two months ago). But in late December both black and pop programmers began playing an album track, "Straight Up," the cut that rapidly started the ball rolling for Abdul.
When the record entered the Top 20 on the pop charts last January, the "Straight Up" video--in which the diminutive performer showed off her flashy tap-dancing skill--was released. MTV put it into heavy rotation and at last Abdul distinguished herself from other dance-floor divas who've attempted to duplicate the success of artists like Madonna and Janet Jackson.
Abbey Konowitch, senior vice president of programming at MTV, attributes much of Abdul's success to old-fashioned star quality.
"Today it's not necessary to have a voice like Anita Baker to become a star," he says. "Thanks to video and concert tours--and the fragmentation of radio--you can rise to the top on a great looking presentation. That's what Paula has. . . . She's the epitome of an MTV success story. We took an ordinary hit record and helped turned it into a star vehicle for her."
Observing that Abdul won four MTV awards this year, Konowitch added, "In 1984, it was Madonna who dominated MTV. Paula doesn't have the unpredictability or danger of a Madonna, but she has incredible dancing ability. Her skill as a choreographer is what makes her unique."
Abdul's co-manager, Larry Tollin, added, "I've heard that several dance-oriented artists have recently been signed to record deals and that choreographers are being teamed with producers in order to create singing careers that didn't previously exist. Every day Paula gets letters from young girls who want to know where she bought the hat she wears in her 'Cold Hearted' video, so the 'wanna-be' factor is definitely there."
"Cold Hearted's" composers--Oliver Lieber and Elliot Wolff--and video director David Fincher are also "being offered huge deals by those who want them to duplicate the kind of success they've had with Paula," Tollin said.
Abdul, 25, is proud of her achievements as a dancer, but doesn't feel they are solely responsible for her current success.
"Dancing is just one of the ingredients that's gotten me to this point," she said in a recent phone interview. "But dance has become more important. Artists are realizing that audiences appreciate an all-around entertainer and that's an area where I've had an effect. But I'd never say that I made it just on videos and the visuals. I admire those MGM stars back in the old days who were singers, dancers and actors. I'm trying to bring all of that back."
Abdul, who was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley with her older sister Wendy, studied dance on a scholarship with the Bella Lewitzky Company and now has acting and directing aspirations. But she was acting and singing in front of audiences at age 7.
"I staged Christmas shows before I even knew what choreography was," she said. "Creating dance moves . . . that always came so naturally to me. That's always been my niche."
Her early heroes were Gene Kelly, Broadway choreographers Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett, and Michael Jackson, whom Abdul "would love to collaborate with on a project."
"Some people talk about me being a sex symbol, but that's just hype," she said. "I've never been packaged and sold like that. Because of the excitement that's been created by the videos, I'm being recognized as an innovator and I think that's wonderful."
Will Abdul wield the same kind of "wanna-be" influence as Madonna?
"Clearly, Paula will be influential," said Ed Eckstine, general manager of Wing Records, a label that has R&B;/pop singers such as Vanessa Williams and Sharon Bryant on its roster. "Paula Abdul won't be remembered as a great vocalist, but she will have made her mark, thanks to video."
Billy Bass, senior vice president of Tabu Records--the label that songwriter/producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are signed to--credits video with making Abdul a major player. "The technology that's available in the '80s is what it took to make her success happen," Bass said.
Abdul's sure-footed ascent will undoubtedly inspire others to adopt a similar dance-oriented emphasis, he said, and Abdul is ". . . easier to copy than an Aretha Franklin. To emulate Aretha, you've got to have help from God."
Also confident about Abdul's long-range impact is Lenny Beer, editor-in-chief of the weekly music trade magazine Hits. "Paula has incredible presence," he said. "She's the one with the magic this year. She may only be an average singer, but the camera loves her and she's going to be a real multimedia star. Movies have got to be the next logical step."
Criticism that focuses on Abdul's singing ability ignores an obvious point, according to Beer: "This business operates on the magic factor. And that's what Paula has."
While people talk about her future influence in terms of Madonna, the performer to whom she is currently compared most frequently is Janet Jackson.
Wing Records' Eckstine suggested that Abdul and her record producers "took Janet's 'Control' vibe and carried it to the next level by putting more of a pop twist on it," while MTV's Konowitch said, "The songs on Janet's 'Control' album were stronger, but video helped Paula take hers to the maximum level. None of what Paula has achieved would have been possible without her great videos."
The irony behind the comparisons is that it was Abdul who choreographed Jackson's "Control" videos.
Said co-manager Tollin, "There is a natural competition between them. Paula helped put Janet on the map, but there's room for them both." Abdul herself downplays the competition aspect, saying, "I've choreographed a lot of artists"--including Duran Duran, ZZ Top and George Michael--"but Janet was a choreographer's dream because she really put her trust in me and she worked hard."
The experience gave Abdul a taste of what it felt like to be a trend-setter: "I remember going to nightclubs in New York and seeing people copying the dance moves from the 'Control' videos. It felt good to have that kind of impact."
Jeff Ayeroff, co-managing director of Virgin Records, is often cited as a key force in Abdul's smoothly orchestrated climb.
The executive vice president of creative services at Warner Bros. Records during Madonna's early days at the company (she's on the Warners-affiliated Sire label), Ayeroff compared Abdul and her soft-edged accessibility to Madonna: "Madonna is an outlaw. It's like comparing the cheerleader to the cheerleader gone awry. Paula and Madonna use their sexuality in diametrically different ways.
"Part of Paula's mystique is that she isn't bland and all-American. . . . Not with a name like 'Abdul.' She's beautiful with a pan-ethnic mystique. Blacks think she's black. Jews think she's Jewish. Mexicans think she's Mexican. And everyone wants to claim her," said Ayeroff about the singer/dancer, who is of Syrian/Brazilian/French-Canadian descent.
"People underestimate how hard it is to be Paula Abdul and to do what she does," he said. "No, she doesn't sing like Aretha. Can Aretha dance like Paula? I think Paula's a good singer, but it's naive to think that success in this business is solely based on that. You have to consider things like style and presentation.
"I loved Jerry Lee Lewis and I was as impressed with the way he flung his hair back when he played the piano as I was by his music. Roy Orbison was my favorite singer and I am as passionate about Paula as I was about Roy. And what she's achieved will not be easily duplicated by anyone else."