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.
The summer of 1991 was a good time to be Keanu Reeves. Really, anytime is a good time to be Keanu Reeves, but summer ’91 was a banner moment for the man. In July, our boy Neo starred alongside Patrick Swayze in Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break, an actual masterpiece that stands today as the first step in Reeves’ journey to becoming the greatest star in the history of American action cinema. Exactly one week later, Keanu was back in theaters as Ted “Theodore” Logan in the bugnuts sequel Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. That movie didn’t do much business, but it has aged beautifully. In September, Keanu was in Gus Van Sant’s independent-film landmark My Own Private Idaho. I don’t know if we’ve ever seen an actor appear in three better films in a two-month period. Before all that, though, Keanu Reeves had the “Rush Rush” video.
Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush” video was basically a movie. Lucasfilm produced the clip, and there were rumors that George Lucas was the director. (He wasn’t. Instead, the auteur responsible was Stefan Würnitzer, one of the few big-deal music-video directors of his era who never made the leap into feature films.) The video is an extended riff on Rebel Without A Cause, with Reeves and Abdul playing, respectively, James Dean and Natalie Wood’s characters. The clip takes place in the ’50s, a time when Keanu Reeves’ floppy-hair situation would’ve been inconceivable. It’s Paula Abdul’s video, but Keanu Reeves is the real star. And since “Rush Rush” really isn’t that interesting of a song, let’s talk a bit more about that video.
In the “Rush Rush” clip, Paula Abdul has a boyfriend, but she also has a flirty thing going on with Keanu Reeves, who is at the peak of his early gawky, dazed beauty. Abdul’s boyfriend isn’t cool with her being buds with Keanu, and you can understand why he might feel nervous about it. Eventually, the boyfriend and his goon squad catch up to Keanu at Griffith Park Observatory, and they pull out a switchblade and slash his tires. Maybe they’re lucky that Keanu doesn’t John Wick their asses up. But maybe not.
Before long, Keanu and the boyfriend challenge each other to a game of chicken. (This is that same odd chicken variant from Rebel Without A Cause, where they both drive at a cliff instead of towards each other.) Paula Abdul isn’t remotely worried about it; in fact, she drops the flag to start the game. Keanu jumps from his car before it falls, but the boyfriend gets stuck and plummets to his death. Then, when everyone is standing around processing the grisly ending they’ve just witnessed, Paula Abdul and Keanu Reeves find each other, hold hands, and escape through the crowd. The chronology is a little unclear, but I think it’s implied that they go fuck in an empty house. This is some cold-blooded shit. This guy just died and lost his girlfriend to Keanu Reeves in about a 30-second span. I know he was an asshole, but damn. Nobody deserves that.
The video was a big, splashy statement, and it was all over MTV for months. (I didn’t have cable as a kid, but I can still remember catching that video multiple times at other people’s houses.) The big rollout made sense. “Rush Rush” was the first single from Spellbound, Paula Abdul’s sophomore album. Abdul’s debut Forever Your Girl had come out of nowhere and dominated the charts for a solid year. Abdul, a choreographer with no real singing voice, had made one of the most successful debut albums in history. By the time she released “Rush Rush,” she already had four #1 hits.
Forever Your Girl had been produced on the cheap, and it had been nothing but end-to-end dance-pop bangers. With Spellbound, Abdul wanted to prove that she could do different things. “Rush Rush” was the first ballad that Abdul had ever released. Most of Spellbound is dance-pop, and plenty of the tracks would’ve fit just fine on Forever Your Girl, but “Rush Rush” was a knowing departure. Abdul demanded that “Rush Rush” serve as the album’s first single because she wanted to show the world that she could sing other types of songs.
When she recorded Spellbound, Abdul didn’t work with any of the same songwriters and producers who’d been her collaborators on Forever Your Girl. One Spellbound song, the squelchy “U,” was written and produced by Prince. For most of the LP, though, Abdul worked with the members of the Family Stand, an R&B trio from New York. The Family Stand had been putting out records since 1987, and they’d never had a hit in the US. In 1990, though, Soul II Soul’s Nellee Hooper and Jazzie B remixed the Family Stand’s single “Ghetto Heaven,” and it went top-10 in the UK.
When Paula Abdul first heard the demo version of “Rush Rush,” she didn’t know anything about the Family Stand. Instead, Abdul was sitting with her managers and her A&R reps, listening to demos of songs that songwriters had pitched for her next album. She loved “Rush Rush” right away. Virgin had brought the Family Stand in to produce for a group called Aftershock, who never had much success. (Aftershock’s Family Stand-written single “Going Through The Motions” peaked at #52.) The Aftershock gig led to them pitching songs to Paula Abdul. At first, though, “Rush Rush” was going to be a Family Stand song.
Peter Lord and V. Jeffrey Smith, two of the three members of the Family Stand, wrote “Rush Rush” together. In a Songfacts interview, Lord says that the song came out of a conversation with his bandmate Sandra St. John: “Babyface was one of the top songwriters/producers at that time, and I told her I could write one of his type of hit ballads in my sleep — no disrespect.” In the Bronson book, St. John says that she wanted a chance to sing softly: “Every ballad or uptempo that they write, my part is always ‘Aaaahhhh!’ ‘Rush’ was supposed to be my song because I asked them to write me a song that I could sing real sweet to. Then he played it for Paula, and she fell in love with it, so I ended up screaming again on our next album.”
Abdul was nervous to sing a ballad like “Rush Rush.” Peter Lord produced the song, and he actually stood in the booth with Abdul when she sang it, holding her hand and encouraging her. That first recording was supposed to be a scratch vocal — a reference for a later recording. But everyone liked the vulnerability in Abdul’s voice, so they kept that first vocal. Paula Abdul’s singing gets clowned a lot, but I like the way she sings “Rush Rush.” She can’t do the Mariah Carey-style ululations that were already popular at the time, but she delivers “Rush Rush” with a wounded, wide-open tenderness, and she really sells those high notes. All the reverb on her voice probably helps, too.
But “Rush Rush” is simply not much of a song. It’s a synthy slow-dance jam, and almost every instrument on the track sounds electronic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but on “Rush Rush,” it all sounds perilously thin, like it’ll blow away if a gust of wind comes along. Abdul’s best songs all move. “Rush Rush” never does.
The “Rush Rush” lyrics are pretty funny. I like the opening lines: “You’re the whisper of a summer breeze/ You’re the kiss that puts my soul at ease/ What I’m saying is I’m into you.” (That clarification is great. Evidently, Abdul’s narrator doesn’t think that this other person will be able to decipher a line as poetic as “you’re the kiss that puts my soul at ease.”) A few of the lyrics only just barely qualify as innuendo. That bit about “I can feel you all through me” would be pretty brazen even if Abdul didn’t follow it up with “no one else has touched me so deep, so deep, so deep inside.” (A year later, Abdul would marry Emilio Estevez. So part of the subtext of “Rush Rush,” whether it’s intentional or not, is “damn, Emilio Estevez has a big dick.”)
Lyrically, then, “Rush Rush” is a deeply horny song. Musically, though, it’s not substantial enough to work as a love song or a sex song. The melodies don’t stick. The production is brittle plastic. Abdul never brings the same level of personality that she had on her fast songs. “Rush Rush” still stands as Paula Abdul’s biggest chart hit; it topped both the Hot 100 and the Adult Contemporary chart for five weeks that summer. But that success probably has something to do with the goodwill from Paula Abdul’s first album, and it probably also has something to do with Keanu Reeves in that video. By the time “Rush Rush” fell from the #1 spot, both Point Break and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey were in theaters.
“Rush Rush” doesn’t conjure the same fond memories as a song like “Straight Up,” and Spellbound wasn’t as big a hit as Forever Your Girl. But Paula Abdul hadn’t yet lost her magic touch. She’ll be in this column again soon.
BONUS BEATS: On its outro, Nicki Minaj’s 2014 track “Grand Piano” interpolates the violin bit from “Rush Rush.” Here’s that song:
(Nicki Minaj will eventually appear in this column.)