The Number Ones

September 2, 1989

The Number Ones: Paula Abdul’s “Cold Hearted”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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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You can’t engineer an album that’ll be guaranteed to spin off multiple hit songs, especially if you’re a debuting artist. There’s no marketing plan to ensure that an album will catch on, that a bunch of its songs will land on the charts. Pop-chart success is a matter of timing, of tiny shifts in the cultural zeitgeist that can’t be predicted and maybe can’t even be perceived in the moment. You can work and plan and strategize all day, and the odds say that your record will probably still end up as a forgotten relic.

What you can do is make sure that every song on your album slaps. That much is within your control. That might matter, and it might not. But let’s say you do have one song that sneaks through and finds an audience and blows up. In that scenario, you’ll be in a much better position if you’ve got a few more songs that could, at least theoretically, become the highlight of some people’s nights. Paula Abdul’s pop star reign wasn’t long, and people made jokes about it for years afterwards, but she understood that fundamental truth.

It took a while for Abdul’s debut album Forever Your Girl to get off the ground. After the dizzy success of “Straight Up,” though, people figured out that Paula Abdul had made an album full of bangers. After “Straight Up” and “Forever Your Girl” both reached #1, Paula Abdul still had more. If “Straight Up” hadn’t gone anywhere, then “Cold Hearted” easily could’ve been just the second-to-last song on some choreographer’s flop album. Instead, “Cold Hearted” became Paula Abdul’s third straight #1 hit.

“Cold Hearted” came from Elliot Wolff, the same gawky white guy who’d written and produced “Straight Up.” Wolff and Abdul only made two songs together, and those two songs were “Straight Up” and “Cold Hearted.” When Abdul’s label bosses at Virgin heard “Straight Up,” they asked Wolff for another song, and Wolff wrote “Cold Hearted” quickly, specifically for Abdul. Working on “Cold Hearted,” Wolff tried to write from a woman’s perspective, and he apparently did well enough that people believed for years that Abdul had written “Cold Hearted” about John Stamos, the actor who she briefly dated.

Stamos has played up those rumors himself, but the timelines don’t match up; “Cold Hearted” was already out in the world when Abdul and Stamos got together. As it is, Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” is, as far as I can tell, the most successful vengeful-ex pop song ever written about a Full House cast member. (“You Oughta Know” didn’t make the Hot 100 by itself, but it was the B-side of Morissette’s “You Learn” single, which peaked at #6 in 1996. “You Learn” is a 7, and “You Oughta Know” woulda gotten a higher number.)

In retrospect, it’s crazy that Abdul and Wolfe didn’t work together more; they clearly had something together. “Cold Hearted,” like “Straight Up” before it, capitalizes on everything that Abdul does well as a singer: the energy, the rhythm, the general sense of presence. The song never jerks Abdul out of her comfort zone or exposes her as a less-than-great vocalist. “Cold Hearted” is a hard-impact herky-jerk dance-pop song, which puts it right in Abdul’s sweet spot. Almost everything about the track works — the bright and glimmering little synth-hooks, the hard-splat drum-machine sounds, the dramatic string section that comes blasting in during the bridge. (Those strings aren’t real. Wolff played all the synths and did all the drum programming on the song, and the only other musician who plays on the song is the session guitarist Dann Huff.)

On “Cold Hearted Snake,” Abdul’s narrator tells another girl about this guy who’s complete asshole, who she’ll never be able to trust. The lyrics lay it on thick. This guy is a cold-hearted snake; look into his eyes. Uh-oh, he’s been telling lies. The world’s a candy store, and he’s been trick-or-treating. When it comes to true love, girl, with him there’s no one home.

This is one of the many pop songs about how you should not fuck someone that really just only makes the person sound overwhelmingly attractive. The song’s words are so operatic that they make this cold-hearted snake sound like an object of total obsession. Abdul’s narrator never says anything about her own history with the cold-hearted snake, so you get the feeling that she’s still at least a little bit into him, not least because of her panting delivery.

On “Cold Hearted,” Abdul never sounds angry or severe. Instead, she delivers the song with a flirty sense of exhilaration. She’s having fun with it. The one part of the song that Abdul can’t sell is the rat-tat-tat quasi-rap bridge, where she monotones a whole bunch of half-stuttered near-gibberish that I’ve never been able to fully decipher, though I do love the way she ends it: “Take a take a nother nother look into his eyes and you will only see a rep! Tile!” Then, a few seconds later, she’s hissing like a snake herself. That’s some good pop-music silliness.

“Cold Hearted” is a sleek and empty and gleeful piece of dance-pop, and it’s got the sort of chorus that bounces around in your head for hours. But to the extent that “Cold Hearted” is remembered today, it’s mostly for the video. If you were a preteen boy watching MTV on your couch one turn-of-the-decade afternoon, then the “Cold Hearted” clip was the kind of thing where you might hold the remote tight in your hand, ready to immediately flip to whatever other channel if your parents walked into the room. (I didn’t even have cable as a kid, and I still have a memory of doing this. Maybe I was at my aunt’s house? No idea.)

The “Cold Hearted” clip was Paula Abdul’s pivot out of cute and into hot. The plot is pretty simple: A bunch of skeptical record execs are going to see a dance rehearsal. Abdul and her dancers then perform for them, and the whole thing turns out to be extremely sexy, to the point where those execs are both turned on and scandalized. When a sweaty Abdul asks them what they thought, they don’t know how to answer.

David Fincher, the future auteur who’d already worked on Abdul’s videos for “Straight Up” and “Forever Your Girl,” directed the “Cold Hearted” clip, and the video has the grainy commercial sheen of so many of the things that Fincher directed in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Alien 3 included. But the real auteur behind “Cold Hearted” is presumably Paula Abdul herself. Abdul put serious choreography work into “Cold Hearted,” putting herself and her dancers into situations where they had to find the most intricate and theatrical and physically demanding ways to simulate fucking.

For all its glasses-fogging horniness, the “Cold Hearted” video is also a sweet little homage to a beloved elder. Bob Fosse, who’d been one of Abdul’s main inspirations and who’d said some nice things about Abdul’s choreography, had died in 1987. Abdul based the “Cold Hearted” video closely on the “Take Off With Us” scene from Fosse’s 1979 film All That Jazz, right down to the German cop’s hat that Sandahl Bergman wore in Fosse’s movie. (If anything, Abdul’s whole fishnet-dress situation is a good sight less revealing that Bergman’s outfit.) Maybe Abdul made the connection because of all the snake-hissing noises in “Take Off With Us.” Bob Fosse really loved snake-hissing noises.

After making two massive hits with Paula Abdul, you would think that Elliot Wolff would become a go-top pop producer and songwriter, but it never really happened. Wolff co-wrote “Heart Of Stone,” a 1990 single that Taylor Dayne took to #12. He worked with people like Color Me Badd, the Corrs, and Blossom star Joey Lawrence in that brief little window when it seemed like Joey Lawrence might be a viable pop star. But Wolff never made any big hits after “Cold Hearted,” and now he never will. In 2016, Wolff went out on a camping trip by himself in New Mexico’s Santa Fe National Forest, and he went missing. His body was found in the Pecos River weeks later. Elliot Wolff was 60 when he died.

Sadly, Elliot Wolff’s work will not appear in this column again. But we’ll see Paula Abdul in the column soon. The next time we see her, she won’t be alone.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: The “Cold Hearted” 12″ single has two remixes from Hank and Keith Shocklee, two of the members of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad production crew. Both of them are really good. Here’s the spartan “Cold Hearted (Chillin’ Bass Dub),” which I think bangs especially hard:

But if you prefer “Cold Hearted (Quiverin’),” then I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong. Here’s that:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the supremely fun “Cold Hearted” cover that the deeply underrated Ohio underground rock band Scrawl released on their 1991 EP Bloodsucker:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: On a 2016 episode of Lip Sync Battle, the Step Up star Jenna Dewan took on her then-husband Channing Tatum. This was the episode where Tatum lip-synced Beyoncé’s “Girls (Who Run The World)” with Beyoncé, which is tough competition. But Dewan did a pretty amazing job restaging the “Cold Hearted” video, and Abdul herself showed up at the end. Here’s that:

(The other song from that segment, Idina Menzel’s 2014 hit “Let It Go,” peaked at #5. It’s a 9. Lip Sync Battle host LL Cool J’s two highest-charting singles, the 1995 Boyz II Men collab “Hey Lover” and the 1996 Total collab “Loungin’,” both peaked at #3. “Hey Lover” is a 4, and “Loungin’” is a 6. As a guest-rapper, LL will eventually appear in this column.)

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