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.
It’s not easy for a public figure to switch career paths and remain successful. Paula Abdul has done it twice. In the late ’80s, Abdul was about as famous as a choreographer can be, and she had done about as much as a choreographer could do. Abdul wanted to try her hand as a singer, though she’d never been trained as one. She gave it a shot, and she became bigger than anyone could’ve possibly guessed. Between 1989 and 1991, Abdul was one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. She racked up six #1 hits and two multi-platinum albums. This was a serious run, and when it ended, Abdul took a decade to find her footing again. But then she got there.
These days, Abdul is mostly famous as the supportive loopy-aunt character from American Idol and from a few of the reality competition shows that followed. Idol was such a big deal that it came to dwarf Paula Abdul’s pop-star career. On that show, Abdul was so pleasantly silly that it became a kind of running joke. She was the wacky lady who loved everyone and who often seemed like she was riding a three-martini buzz. But once Abdul finally left Idol, it became retroactively obvious that she’d been hugely important to the show’s whole dynamic. Ellen DeGeneres, brought in specifically to fill that same nice-lady role, was never anything but a distant echo. Paula Abdul had some kind of ineffable magic about her, and most of us only truly realized it after she was gone.
You can say the same thing about Abdul’s pop-star career. As a singer, Paula Abdul didn’t stay on top for long. She dominated the pop charts for three years, and then she was gone. When she was running things, it was pretty easy to take Paula Abdul for granted, to look at her as a Janet Jackson clone with a thin voice and no big ideas. But Paula Abdul had bangers, and she seemed to enjoy pop stardom in ways that few pop stars ever do. Once that run was over, it was a little easier to look back and realize how much fun it had been. “The Promise Of A New Day,” Paula Abdul’s final #1 hit, marks the end of a breezy and pleasant little pop-music era.
“The Promise Of A New Day” was the second single from Spellbound, Paula Abdul’s sophomore album. The first was “Rush Rush,” the ballad that put Abdul at #1 for five weeks. When Abdul released “The Promise Of A New Day” as a single, “Rush Rush” had only just fallen out of the #1 spot. She’d recorded “Rush Rush” with the members of the Family Stand, a New York R&B trio who never had a lot of success with their non-Paula Abdul endeavors. Abdul loved working with the group, and they ended up writing and producing most of the songs on Spellbound, including “The Promise Of A New Day.”
It’s a little wild to look back and realize that Spellbound had an honest-to-god Prince collaboration, “U,” which Abdul never released as a single. That’s a measure of how much Abdul liked working with the Family Stand. The members of the group wrote and produced eight of the 11 songs on Spellbound, including all five of the singles. The Family Stand’s Peter Lord and V. Jeffrey Smith had written “Rush Rush,” and they co-wrote “The Promise Of A New Day” with their bandmate Sandra St. Victor and with Abdul herself. For that one, Abdul had the idea for the title, and the group put the track together, taking her suggestions along the way. Lord and Smith played all the instruments on the track, and Sandra St. Victor did the backing vocals along with Abdul herself. Maybe Paula Abdul thought she’d found her own Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
“Rush Rush” had been a kind of statement. After the huge success of her debut Forever Your Girl, an album that’s nothing but dance-pop jams, Abdul wanted to try her hand at a ballad. “The Promise Of A New Day” is a lot closer to the sound of Forever Your Girl. It’s a hard, percussive electronic track with a loping drum pattern that could pass for new jack swing. But in its own way, “The Promise Of A New Day” is also a statement. The track’s big problem is that it’s not totally clear what statement it’s trying to make.
Lyrically, “The Promise Of A New Day” is almost maddeningly vague. It’s a song that gestures at some kind of broad social message without ever locking in on any particular meaning. Pop stars play that game all the time; the uplifting but meaningless quasi-ballad is practically its own subgenre. But “The Promise Of A New Day” is an especially egregious offender. Like: Maybe it’s about the environment? Or generational change? Or just a generally optimistic idea that the world will keep getting better? This kind of thing drives me nuts — the message song that doesn’t actually have any message at all. But maybe it was just the style of the time.
The 1991 pop charts represent a moment of big optimism in America. The Cold War had ended. So had the Gulf War. The LA riots hadn’t happened yet. A whole lot of people seemed to think that we were looking at some kind of utopian future of constant harmony, that historical struggles were just over. A few big pop songs seemed to support that notion. Jesus Jones had just gotten to #2 with “Right Here, Right Now.” (I swear to god, I haven’t been trying to reference that song in every single column lately; it’s just happened. Anyway, that one is an 8.) Around the same time, German headbangers the Scorpions got to #4 with “Wind Of Change,” a ballad that got all teary-eyed in its welcome of the Western-capitalist new world order. Last year, there was a hit podcast about the rumor that the CIA had actually ghostwritten “Wind Of Change,” and that possibility seemed weirdly plausible. (“Wind Of Change” is a 3.)
“The Promise Of A New Day” doesn’t quite have that same yay, capitalism undercurrent, but it definitely belongs within that same moment, not least because it involves Paula Abdul singing about the winds of change. As in: “Eagle’s calling, and he’s calling your name/ Tides are turning, bringing winds of change/ Why do I feel this way?” (Maybe Paula Abdul feels this way because capitalism has alienated her from her labor.) Abdul sings that we’re one step closer to making love complete, but she doesn’t explore what that means. Her big epiphany is that we need to “see the mistakes in our past” and to realize that “the only promise is a day to live, to give, and share with one another.” If that’s an argument for redistributing wealth, I wish Paula Abdul would be a little more concrete with it. If it’s just meaningless babble, then it’s just meaningless babble.
But Paula Abdul always had a way of making meaningless babble sound pretty good. “The Promise Of A New Day” has a big beat and a shimmery keyboard hook. Abdul locks in nicely with all the frantic keyboard plinking, and she finds a note of bittersweet warmth in her delivery. The chorus is just the title repeated a few times — lazy writing, but I like the way Abdul sings it in a contemplative sigh. She’s also got a nice give-and-take with Sandra St. Victor’s backing vocals. When St. Victor is singing behind her, Abdul’s chirp sounds fuller and more developed. When they’re going back and forth with each other, they seem friendly. “The Promise Of A New Day” isn’t a terribly memorable song, and it’s definitely not one of Abdul’s best, but it’s still likable enough.
The video, on the other hand, is a blazing disaster. Abdul goes for a kids’-table kind of environmentalism with the clip, and it shows her and her backup dancers frolicking through beaches and waterfalls and verdant fields. But the directing team Big TV! wanted to shoot the clip in Hawaii, and Abdul wasn’t there for the main shoot. Instead, she filmed her parts on a soundstage, and the video used clumsy compositing to put her in those natural locations, which lends a hyper-artificial glow to the whole thing. Also, Big TV! used weird lens effects to stretch Abdul out, which just made the whole thing harder to watch. All of Abdul’s previous #1 hits had cool, memorable videos, and those videos had been crucial to her success. But the “Promise Of A New Day” clip is just a wet fart.
After “The Promise Of A New Day” clip fell from #1, Paula Abdul only returned once more to the top 10. Apparently, the original plan was to follow “The Promise Of A New Day” with “Vibeology,” a daffy and fizzy house track. A week before “The Promise Of A New Day” topped the Hot 100, Abdul performed “Vibeology” at the VMAs, starting out the performance in a big zoot suit and a fake mustache. But nobody liked that performance, so Abdul instead released the plinky love song “Blowing Kisses In The Wind” as the follow-up, and it peaked at #6. (It’s a 6.)
Abdul eventually did release “Vibeology” as a single, and it peaked at #16. The last Spellbound single was called “Will You Marry Me?,” and it had Stevie Wonder on harmonica. Abdul released that one just after she announced that she was engaged to Emilio Estevez. That song peaked at #19. Eventually, Spellbound went triple platinum — nowhere near as big a hit as Forever Your Girl, but not exactly a sophomore slump, either.
The Abdul/Estevez union only lasted a couple of years, and in 1994, Abdul took time off, checking into an in-patient clinic to get control of her bulimia. When Abdul returned to the public eye, she was admirably forthright about her history with the eating disorder. By the time she released her 1995 album Head Over Heels, though, the world had moved on. Lead single “My Love Is For Real” was a cool twist on Abdul’s sound, combining her voice with some mythic howling from the Israeli singer Ofra Haza. But the song peaked at #28, and the album stalled out at gold.
After Head Over Heels, Abdul couldn’t even get an album out. She released a couple of dance-workout videos and starred in a made-for-ABC movie called Touched By Evil. She choreographed the cheerleading scenes in American Beauty. In the late ’90s, hoping for a comeback, Abdul co-wrote a dance-pop song called “Spinning Around.” But since Abdul couldn’t find the right situation to release the track herself, Kylie Minogue released “Spinning Around,” and it became a UK chart-topper. (In the US, Kylie Minogue’s highest-charting single is her 1988 version of “The Loco-Motion,” which peaked at #3. It’s a 6.)
But then Paula Abdul turned up on American Idol, the new Fox version of the British hit Pop Idol. A whole lot of people my age saw her and thought, “Whoa, weird, Paula Abdul’s on this show?” At the time, Abdul was by far the most famous of the three judges. Idol almost immediately defied all expectations and became the most popular show in America, and it remained a ratings bonanza for many years. (Eventually, Idol will figure heavily into this column.) Abdul was on Idol for eight seasons. From there, she’s spent time on a bunch of similar shows: Live To Dance, The X Factor, So You Think You Can Dance. Along the way, she went through a public battle with prescription-drug dependency, and she seems to be fine now.
Abdul still hasn’t released an album since Head Over Heels in 1995, but she made occasional returns to the pop charts in her Idol era. In 2008, for instance, Abdul and her fellow Idol judge Randy Jackson got to #62 with “Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow.” A year later, she peaked at #87 with the one-off single “I’m Just Here For The Music.”
In the past few years, Paula Abdul has toured with New Kids On The Block and done a Vegas residency, and she could probably cake up on the nostalgia circuit whenever she wants. But she’s still in the reality-TV world for now. Earlier this year, for instance, Abdul was a panelist on something called The Masked Dancer. I have no idea why a show like that might need to exist, but I’m glad that Paula Abdul is getting paid. We won’t see Abdul in this column again, but I think she’ll find ways to stay in the public sphere for as long as she might possibly want.
BONUS BEATS: In Living Color always prided itself on being mean, but the “Promise Of A New Day” parody “Promise Of A Thin Me” was really shitty and harsh, even by that show’s standards. On a 1991 episode, Kelly Coffield Park impersonated Paula Abdul and mostly made fun of her for being fat, which is a wild thing to consider now. Paula Abdul was and is in better shape than most of us could ever hope to be, but that was the early ’90s for you. Here’s that sketch:
(Jennifer Lopez, one of the backup Fly Girls in that video, will eventually appear in this column.)