The Number Ones

February 11, 1989

The Number Ones: Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up”

Stayed at #1:

3 Weeks

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.

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When Paula Abdul became a judge on American Idol in 2002, a lot of people made a lot of jokes. Why, those jokes went, would someone hire Paula Abdul to judge a singing competition? Even when she was at the peak of her fame, nobody accused Abdul of being a vocal powerhouse. She wasn’t even a trained singer; she was a dancer and choreographer who ascended to pop stardom at a time when dancing ability was almost as important as singing ability. What did Abdul know about singing?

To this strawman who I just invented, I say: Paula Abdul knew a lot about singing. She knew, for instance, that it’s not your voice that matters. She knew that what matters is what you do with that voice. Maybe Abdul couldn’t howl the paint off the ceiling, but she had presence. She had rhythm and composure and sharp instincts, and she knew how to communicate personality through song. For a few years, Abdul was an absolutely dominant pop star, and on a show like American Idol, where the stated goal is to find the next big pop star, that kind of experience matters.

As it turned out, Paula Abdul was a delightful Idol judge, a loopy and loving presence who genuinely seemed to enjoy all the young singers who she was helping to guide and who always came off like she was at least a little bit drunk. After she left Idol in 2009, the show was never anywhere near as fun again. (American Idol will eventually figure into this column.) That stint on Idol, which lasted a lot longer than Paula Abdul’s actual pop stardom, was one more unpredictable turn in a career full of them. For a behind-the-scenes figure like Paula Abdul to become a chart phenomenon, a whole lot of things had to play out in very specific ways. But when “Straight Up” landed at #1 and took Abdul into the stratosphere, she seemed inevitable. Abdul belonged to her moment, and her moment belonged to her.

Paula Abdul grew up around show business; she went to Van Nuys High School in the San Fernando Valley, the alma mater of a whole lot of movie stars, and her mother once worked as the assistant for the great director Billy Wilder. (When Abdul was born, the #1 song in America was Ray Charles’ “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.”) Both of Abdul’s parents were Jewish; her mother was a white lady from Canada, while her father was born in Syria and grew up in Brazil. Abdul was a cheerleader in high school, and she studied broadcasting at Cal State Northridge, hoping to become a sportscaster. Abdul got involved in sports a lot earlier than she planned, though. A friend convinced her to try out for the Laker Girls, the famed cheerleading squad, and she won a spot on the team during her freshman year of college. Less than a year later, Abdul was the Laker Girls’ head choreographer.

Some of the Jackson brothers had Lakers season tickets, and they were impressed enough with the Laker Girls to ask who did their choreography. Abdul may have had an affair with Jackie Jackson, the oldest of the Jacksons, who was married at the time. The Jacksons hired Abdul to choreograph the video for their 1984 single “Torture.” The video didn’t feature Michael or Jermaine, who were too busy to show up for the shoot, but that gig still led Abdul to a whole career as a music-video choreographer. (“Torture” peaked at #17.)

Over the next few years, Paula Abdul worked on a baffling array of music videos. She choreographed for Duran Duran, the Pointer Sisters, Dolly Parton, Debbie Gibson, Warren Zevon. Abdul also got jobs in movies and TV. She choreographed the dystopian cheerleader routines in The Running Man, the weird arm-flapping dance in Can’t Buy Me Love, and the presentation of the princess in Coming To America. She also won an Emmy for her work in The Tracy Ullman Show. Abdul probably had a hand in turning Tom Hanks into a beloved generational figure, since she’s partially responsible for the scene of Hanks and Robert Loggia on the FAO Schwarz piano in Big.

Abdul’s did her most famous choreography work with Janet Jackson. She put together the dances for all the videos from Janet’s 1986 blockbuster Control, including the #1 hit “When I Think Of You.” If you look fast enough, you can see Abdul in most of those videos. When Abdul became a singer a couple of years later, she pretty clearly patterned herself after what Janet was doing on Control, right down to the hairstyle.

Around the same time that she was working on those Janet Jackson videos, Abdul decided that she wanted to become a singer, too. While she was working on ZZ Top’s extremely silly “Velcro Fly” video, she mentioned to Virgin Records exec Jeff Ayeroff that she wanted to record. (“Velcro Fly” peaked at #35.) Ayeroff was into the idea, and he explained his reasoning to the Washington Post a few years later: “Paula’s in our industry. Here’s someone with a personality, and she’s gorgeous, and she can dance. If she can sing, she could be a star. So she went into the studio and cut a demo record, and she could sing.”

The big single from Abdul’s 1988 debut album Forever Your Girl was supposed to be “Knocked Out.” For that one, Virgin paired her up with the surging songwriter/producer team of Babyface and LA Reid, whose work will appear in this column soon enough. Babyface and Reid were the only big-deal producers who worked on Forever Your Girl, and “Knocked Out” is their only track on the album. But “Knocked Out” stalled at #41. Abdul’s next single was the twitchy, jittery dance track “(It’s Just) The Way That You Love Me,” but that one initially peaked at #88. Later on, after Abdul blew up, Virgin re-released “(It’s Just) The Way That You Love Me,” and it peaked at #3. (It’s a 7.)

While Virgin was pushing “(It’s Just) The Way That You Love Me,” the San Francisco radio station KMEL started playing the album track “Straight Up.” This wasn’t the plan, but Virgin adjusted on the fly, fast-tracking a “Straight Up” single release. The song took off, and it made Abdul into a phenomenon. A few weeks after “Straight Up” hit #1, Forever Your Girl, which had been out for months at that point, went platinum. By the end of the year, the album had sold four million copies. Billboard named it the #3 album of 1989; only Bobby Brown and New Kids On The Block moved more units. Forever Your Girl wasn’t a very slick or expensive album, but its strutting, percussive dance-pop touched a nerve. Fully half of the album’s songs became big hits, and Forever Your Girl eventually went platinum seven times over.

“Straight Up,” the song that launched all of that, wasn’t supposed to be a Paula Abdul song. Writer and producer Elliot Wolff had been working with another singer who’d signed to Virgin, and he’d written the song with her in mind. But Virgin dropped that singer before releasing her album, and the “Straight Up” demo found its way to Abdul. The demo apparently sounded like shit, but she loved the song, and she said that she had to have it.

Elliot Wolff wasn’t a big name. He’d grown up outside DC, and he’d worked as a touring keyboardist for Peaches & Herb and then for Chaka Khan. In 1983, Wolff wrote a minor R&B-radio hit called “Super Love,” the debut single from a pre-New Edition Johnny Gill, but that one hadn’t even made the Hot 100. Abdul went to Wolff’s apartment to record “Straight Up,” and she was surprised to find out that he was a twitchy little white nerd. Abdul actually recorded “Straight Up” in Wolff’s shower. Talking to People a few days ago, Abdul said, “In the early masters that were released, you could actually hear someone banging from the next apartment, going, ‘Shut up!'” (Elliot Wolff’s work will appear in this column again.)

Even if Wolff didn’t specifically tailor “Straight Up” to Paula Abdul’s voice, it’s the song that she was put on earth to sing. “Straight Up” fit the 1989 zeitgeist. The song isn’t exactly new jack swing, since that term implies something rooted in R&B, and Abdul was never an R&B singer. But the song’s got that syncopated drum-machine swingbeat, and it’s close enough that the song reached #2 on the R&B charts. Wolff clearly had a great sense of timing. There’s some great hesitation in the drum programming on “Straight Up.” It’s got all these electronic elements falling all over each other, but they all hit at the exact right moment.

“Straight Up” has hooks on top of hooks. There are so many catchy little things going on in the song — the deliriously fake horn-blats, the vrooming synth just before the chorus, the power-chord guitars buried in the mix. The drums sound huge, and they fall all over each other, barely leaving any room for Abdul’s voice. But Abdul still projects a ton of personality onto the song. She almost has a rapper’s phrasing. She doesn’t hit big notes, but she jumps on and off the beat with total assurance. On the verses, Abdul almost sounds like she’s doing a call-and-response duet with the keyboard riff. On the chorus, the “oh oh oh” backup vocals set her off perfectly. And on the bridge, Abdul really just crushes it. The “ah-buh-buh-buh-bye buh-buh-buh-buh-bye” bit is so silly and so perfect, and it immediately etches itself into your brain. Really, everything about the bridge is perfect; I love the way the drums get even bigger and more urgent.

Lyrically, “Straight Up” is a slight song, but that’s not a complaint. The slightness works. Abdul’s character wants to know whether the person she’s dating is really in love or whether it’s just a short-term thing. At certain points of the song, Abdul sounds stressed and desperate. Most of the time, though, she’s clearly having fun. It probably doesn’t ultimately matter that much whether this person is going to love her forever or whether she’s caught in a hit-and-run. It’s almost like asking these questions is just Abdul’s way of flirting.

“Straight Up” is a hard, physical song, and that’s the aspect that the song’s near-masterpiece music video emphasizes. For the “Straight Up” video, Abdul worked with David Fincher, who’d also made her video for “(It’s Just) The Way That You Love Me” and who was still about a decade away from being recognized as one of the best filmmakers in Hollywood. Fincher’s “Straight Up” video is flashy but simple. It opens with Abdul tap-dancing, not singing, and its stark black-and-white color scheme always draws attention to the way Abdul moves.

The “Straight Up” video has a lot of little bits of information that grab your attention. Arsenio Hall, whose late-night show had only just started airing and who was dating Abdul at the time, makes an appearance, and he looks the coolest that he has ever looked. Djimon Hounsou, still years away from movie stardom, is in there, too; I’m pretty sure he’s the dancer who does that amazing move where he flips in mid-air, loses his hat, and then does the splits to pick his hat back up again. But the center of attention is always Paula Abdul. Abdul clearly knew what to do in a music video, and she does as much with an eye-roll as with a whole lot of kicks and spins.

Abdul came along during a time when many of the best and biggest pop stars — Michael Jackson, Prince, Bobby Brown — were all incredible dancers. The fact that she was an incredible dancer was a selling point. So was her whole backstory. But without a song like “Straight Up,” Abdul never could’ve broken through. “Straight Up” is the sort of fizzy pop-music brilliance that you cannot ignore, and it made Paula Abdul, however briefly, into a chart titan. We will see her again in this column soon.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: Near the end of the 1993 dance-rap hit “Come Baby Come,” K7 and his backup guys do the “doot-doo you love me” bit from “Straight Up.” Here’s the “Come Baby Come” video:

(“Come Baby Come” peaked at #18.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the refreshingly mostly-non-ironic “Straight Up” cover that Luna contributed to the 2007 compilation Guilty By Association:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: On his 2011 single “Work Out,” J. Cole sings a bit of “Straight Up.” Here’s the “Work Out” video:

(“Work Out” peaked at #13. J. Cole’s highest-charting single, the 2021 21 Savage/Morray collab “My Life,” peaked at #2. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Me First And The Gimme Gimmes’ 2014 punk cover of “Straight Up”:

THE NUMBER TWOS: Tone Lōc’s “Wild Thing” — the first rap song ever to get that high on the Hot 100 — peaked at #2 behind “Straight Up.” It’s an 8.

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