In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Latin freestyle was a beautiful little blip of a genre, a collision of styles and influences that made for some extremely fun and fizzy late-’80s pop music. But even at its peak, Latin freestyle never reached its full pop-crossover potential. Instead, something weird happened: A lot of the genre’s stars had their biggest hits with songs that weren’t really Latin freestyle. Freestyle raised a lot of people’s profiles, but in order to nudge their way to #1, some of those artists had to switch their style up. That’s what happened with Lisa Lisa And Cult Jam’s second and final #1 hit.
“Head To Toe,” Lisa Lisa And Cult Jam’s first chart-topper, was a fusion of freestyle and classic ’60s pop. Full Force, the Brooklyn group who wrote and produced the song, admitted as much. Lisa Lisa’s base was in freestyle, but “Head To Toe” also took a ton of inspiration from ’60s-era Motown hits. In her pre-fame days, a teenage Lisa Velez had sung Motown songs in a traveling group, so that stuff came easily to her. In 1987, when covers of oldies-radio staples regularly topped the charts, maybe that Motown-esque quality was what pushed Lisa Lisa to #1 twice.
Writing about “Head To Toe” a few weeks ago, I said that the song still worked as a freestyle track, and some readers, like my friend and fellow chart historian Chris Molanphy, disagreed. Chris argued that “Head To Toe” was more of a straight-up Motown pastiche; I think the track still works as freestyle because it keeps that electro-percussive beat. But wherever you draw the genre lines, when Lisa Lisa And Cult Jam returned to #1 later in 1987, they went full-on fake-Motown. “Lost In Emotion” was lost in nostalgia.
In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Full Force leader Bowlegged Lou confirms that “Lost In Emotion” was the group’s attempt to write a Motown-style song, and he even pinpoints the exact inspirations. One day, Lou was listening to a greatest-hits album from early Motown star and former Number Ones artist Mary Wells. Two of Wells’ 1962 hits, “Two Lovers” and “You Beat Me To The Punch,” appeared back-to-back on the collection, and those two songs became the backbone of “Lost In Emotion.” (“Two Lovers” peaked at #7. It’s an 8. “You Beat Me To The Punch” peaked at #9. It’s a 9.)
In the Bronson book, Lou says, “We didn’t steal the riffs; all we did was get the flavoring of it.” He’s not wrong. Full Force did everything they could to take the old Motown style of arrangement and to update it for the ’80s big-pop era. They took the sound of a real xylophone, for instance, and ran it through a Yamaha synth. Full Force understood the Motown style — the delicate balance between lush orchestration and sunny simplicity. A whole lot of people were trying to come up with Motown-style tracks in the ’80s, and most of those attempts were outright failures. Full Force actually figured out how to juice up the Motown house style without losing what was great about it in the first place.
The thin and tinny gloss of ’80s percussion was light years removed from the raw simplicity of those Motown tracks, the feeling that happens when you’re just hearing a few musicians in a room together. But Full Force understood how to make the difference work for them. Motown hits were dance songs built around big four-four beats, and “Lost In Emotion” keeps that insistence. It’s also full of fun little flourishes like the bloopy synth-drums and the slap-bass breakdown. Some of those touches, like the tootling sax solo, are a little clumsy in their pastiche, but most of them turn ’80s-style slickness into an advantage. More than their peers, Full Force could make ’60s structures work in an ’80s dance-pop setting. They made it sound easy.
As a singer, Lisa Velez was never quite as polished as Mary Wells, but her voice had the same kind of breezy, innocent confidence. She’s able to broadcast personality all over the place, and on “Lost In Emotion,” she pushes the dizzy sweetness home. “Lost In Emotion” is a song about being drunk on feelings to the point where you’re saying stuff that you probably shouldn’t say: “Just how true are the rumors I am hearing about the crush you have on me?/ Oh baby, I’m blind ’cause I just don’t see it, but I wanna believe what they see.” It’s charming, adorable high-school shit, and Velez, barely out of high school herself, sells it. I don’t really like Velez’s one weird little Frankie Valli-style high note, but her offhanded, shrugging deliver of the “que sera, que sera” bit on the chorus is perfect.
“Lost In Emotion” is a simple, bubbly song that works. It evokes oldies-radio feelings without being entirely beholden to oldies-radio aesthetics. It keeps up a buoyant mood without ever pandering too hard. These are all difficult things to pull off. But “Lost In Emotion” is also slight. It doesn’t have the sheer, hungry force of previous Lisa Lisa jams like “I Wonder If I Take You Home” or “Can You Feel The Beat” or even “Head To Toe.” “Lost In Emotion” is a breezy, likable little jam, but it’s not more than that. I like hearing it when it’s on, but then I forget all about it. And given that Lisa Lisa blew up as part of a forward-thinking musical movement, it’s a bit of a bummer that her second and final #1 hit is so fundamentally retro.
The “Lost In Emotion” video is retro, too, but nothing about it bums me out. Director Jon Small, who made a lot of Billy Joel videos, films Lisa Lisa at New York’s 116th Street Carnival, and it’s mostly just her bopping along and being charming. Lisa Lisa has said that she refused to do a lot of fancy performance stuff in the video, that she wanted it to just be fun. Mission accomplished. The bit at the end where she has to be coaxed onstage is great.
“Lost In Emotion” was the last top-10 hit for Lisa Lisa And Cult Jam. The group came back in 1989 with the album Straight To The Sky, and its weirdly muted lead single “Little Jacky Wants To Be A Star” peaked at #27. Where the first two Cult Jam albums went platinum, Straight To The Sky and 1991’s Straight Outta Hell’s Kitchen were relative flops. (The group’s clubby 1991 single “Let The Beat Hit ‘Em” reached #37, and that was the last time they charted.) Cult Jam broke up shortly after Straight Outta Hell’s Kitchen came out.
After Cult Jam ended, Lisa Lisa went solo, dropping a few dance-pop singles that didn’t do too well. Later on, Lisa Velez played the mom on Taina, a Nickelodeon sitcom that started in 2001 and only lasted one season. She had a single with Pitbull in 2009, but that didn’t go anywhere either. (Pitbull will eventually appear in this column.) A couple of years ago, she signed on with Snoop Dogg’s management company, and it’ll be cool if anything comes out of that. (Snoop Dogg will also be in this column one day.) But even if Lisa Lisa never makes a big pop comeback, she’ll be fine. There’s a thriving freestyle-nostalgia circuit, and big package shows full of ’80s hitmakers always seem to draw big crowds on the East Coast and in California. I’ve never been to any of those shows, but I bet they’re fun as hell.
Lisa Lisa’s career might’ve slowed down after “Lost In Emotion,” but her collaborators in Full Force were just getting started. Full Force played the bullies in the 1990 movie House Party, and they’re great in it; I’ll never understand why they didn’t do much acting after that. Full Force also remained successful as pop songwriters and producers for way longer than you might expect. In 1988, the group wrote and produced a couple of freestyle-adjacent top-10 hits for the British ex-model Samantha Fox. (“Naughty Girls (Need Love Too)” peaked at #3. It’s an 8. “I Wanna Have Some Fun” peaked at #8. It’s a 7.) Full Force worked with James Brown and Patti LaBelle and La Toya Jackson. They sang backup on a couple of Bob Dylan songs that didn’t get released until years later. They stayed in the mix.
Full Force remained busy long after their big pop moment faded. For a hot minute, they were even playing in the same sandbox as Max Martin. In 1998, Full Force wrote and produced the Backstreet Boys’ single “All I Have To Give,” which peaked at #5. (It’s a 5.) Even in the 21st century, Full Force worked with people like Rihanna and the Black Eyed Peas, artists that’ll eventually appear in this column. They’ve had a hell of a run. Full Force’s work probably won’t appear in this column again, but I wouldn’t count them out.
BONUS BEATS: There aren’t any big, notable covers or samples of “Lost In Emotion,” but other Lisa Lisa And Cult Jam jams have had much longer lives. Consider, for instance, the 1985 freestyle banger “Can You Feel The Beat.” That song wasn’t a big hit; it peaked at #69. But 19 years later, in 2004, the Queens duo Nina Sky interpolated “Can You Feel The Beat” on “Move Ya Body,” a monster freestyle/dancehall hybrid. Nicole and Natalie Albino, the two twin sisters in Nina Sky, weren’t even born when “Can You Feel The Beat” came out, but they still paid homage. Here’s the “Move Ya Body” video:
(“Move Ya Body” peaked at #4. It’s a 10.)
THE NUMBER TWOS: Prince’s sticky, slippery, hecka slammin’ Sheena Easton collab “U Got The Look” peaked at #2 behind “Lost In Emotion.” It walked in. I woke up. I’ve never seen a pretty song look so tough. It’s a 10.