I figured that a journey into the mind of Paula Abdul would be a wild ride, but I had no idea to what extent before she took the stage Saturday night at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood, New Jersey. Her current tour is called Straight Up Paula!, and I have no doubt that what she delivered was a pure expression of her humanity and creativity in many of their manifestations. She did plenty of the kind of dancing and ostensible singing that made her, briefly, a commercial juggernaut (1988's Forever Your Girl was, for a time, the highest selling debut album and it spawned four No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100). But she also told stories about her life (some of them with dubious veracity), performed skits, jumped from a ladder, duetted with a cartoon cat on the screen behind her, offered visual representations of dreams that inspired her choreography, and played with an illuminated puppet that symbolized her childhood self (see above). Who else could have come up with this? Who would have?
Straight Up Paula! is equal parts pop concert and one-woman show. It is the latter not in the sense that Abdul was the only person onstage (on Saturday, she was accompanied by six backup dancers, although no band members onstage, so I assume she sang to tracks), but that it features several monologues in which Abdul tells the story of her life, from what was apparently a difficult childbirth to her years as a pop star and then a judge on American Idol to this very moment. Saturday’s performance often reminded me of the final act in a Made episode, in which the subject gets to show off the skills she has accrued in her training.
Much of it played out on the giant screen behind her. The show opened with an overture that featured a bigger-than-life-size, onscreen Paula literally dancing around her achievements, then falling helplessly in a horizontal position as words like “EATING DISORDER RUMORS” and “MEDIA DRAMA” floated upward, and then finally fluttering down vertically with her arms out in a Christlike fashion as words signifying her pop cultural resurrection (“AMERICAN IDOL JUDGE” and then, in slightly smaller letters, “SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE JUDGE”) flooded the screen.
On-screen skits also included a montage of her fighting with Simon Cowell on American Idol, a recreation of the assembly of her “masterpiece” MC Skat Kat (with whom she shared a duet in the single version/video of Forever Your Girl’s “Opposites Attract” and again onstage that night) that went through his physical features piece by piece (his shoulders, hands, suspenders, and fade), and a reenactment of her audition for the cheer squad of the L.A. Lakers, in which she repeatedly was cut from the lineup only to reenter by slightly altering her appearance and name (third time was the charm, as it always is).
This retelling mostly played out on screen and was interrupted by the real live Paula also dressed as a cheerleader and performing her debut single, “Knocked Out” (a tight example of L.A. Reid and Babyface’s uptempo late ’80s sound a la Pebbles’s “Mercedes Boy” and Sheena Easton’s “The Lover in Me”). When at the end of this very long skit, the disembodied voice of the person in charge of the auditions announced, “You’re definitely a Los Angeles Lakers girl,” the crowd went wild.
The audience of course skewed older. It looked just like a crowd you’d see in a Jersey mall—sartorially spartan and as Middle America-looking as the Eastern seaboard gets. I assumed most people in the crowd were aunts and/or uncles. I’d estimate that the Bergen Performing Arts Center was filled somewhere between 50 and 75 of its capacity of 1,367 (according to Wikipedia). The venue’s stage is about the size of that of an adequately funded high school, with rec-room beige walls and reds on its velveteen seats and balcony that were clearly once fiery but now just seem tired.
My sister, with whom I enjoyed Abdul’s music in my youth, and I sat in the third row on the right. This was close enough that during the sing-along portion of “Straight Up,” Abdul was able to make eye contact with me as she sang the chorus’s line, “...Are ya really gonna love me forever?” and I felt obligated to respond to her call: “Oh oh oh,” I mouthed. (I mean, sure I wanted to, but the way her eyes burned into me made it clear that I had to.) We were so close to the stage that we were surrounded by Abdul enthusiasts (I’m not sure if her fandom has a name, but regardless I think it should be Abdulthisasts). Many rocked laminates on lanyards that signified purchased VIP status, which includes a meet-and-greet with Abdul and access to her soundcheck.
Some knew the details of the previous night’s show in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. A muscly guy with cropped hair, who wore a T-shirt signed by Paula (“I’m forever your girl!”), showed off his memorization of MC Skat Kat’s verses by gesticulating broadly as he rapped along during “Opposites Attract.” Another man screamed “YES!!” when the opening 808s of “Rush Rush” thumped in. I saw a man wearing a sequined vest and a top hat that had color copies of the booklets of Abdul’s CDs fastened to the crown. The woman behind me, who had Chrissie Hynde’s hair and half of her eye makeup, exclaimed, “Oh my God!” after Abdul completed “Coldhearted.” She looked like she’d just experienced the thrill of her life.
Abdul did her usual Fosse-like choreography, and I think she mostly sang along to her songs. It was so hard to discern what was sung and what was lipped that I decided that Paula Abdul in 2018 is now post-lip sync. She’s long sung along to tracks (see her 1991 performance of “Vibeology” at the VMAs and hear two distinct vocal lines, one live and one canned) and really hasn’t she been through enough at this point? In any event, she looked and sounded much like she did over 25 years ago, during her last solo jaunt, the Under My Spell tour that supported her second album, Spellbound.
It was during that tour that Abdul says a life-changing event occurred: She was in a plane that was forced to make a crash landing, resulting in injuries that affected her for years after. She told the story onstage—here is what she said, verbatim:
“I was at the height of my music career when I embarked upon my Spellbound World tour. Well, it was towards the end of the tour and I was leaving one city, St. Louis, and I was going to Denver. And seven of us boarded a small, little jet, and about 30 minutes into the air, all of a sudden I heard a boom and an illumination. One of the engines blew up, the right wing caught on fire, and we plummeted. Now I didn’t have my seatbelt on and I went straight up and hit the top of my head on the ceiling of the plane and I was knocked out unconscious. And then I came to and everyone was holding hands and saying their last prayers. And all I could think [was], This isn’t right. This is not my time to go.
And then we crash-landed with half an engine in a cornfield in the plains only to wake up in the hospital to find out that the neurosurgeon said I crushed my entire cervical spine. So I disappeared for almost seven years. And in those seven years, I suffered partial paralysis all down my right side. And I spent those years traveling around the world seeing all the top neurosurgeons, hoping that they could put me back together again. All of a sudden, it was the worst time in my life. I wanted to give up. But I didn’t. And for one reason and one reason only: Because of all of you who stayed in my heart and stayed by my side even when I was gone. I have a debt of gratitude. I love you and I certainly missed you.”
A few things about this: I found no reports of it at the time it happened (supposedly her 30th birthday, June 19, 1992). She doesn’t seem to have mentioned it in the press until 2005, well into her American Idol tenure when rumors of drug use (tied to her “loopy” onscreen behavior) were rampant. There’s an online conspiracy theory, in fact, that Abdul has invented this story entirely. Whatever the case, she certainly didn’t disappear for seven years after her 1992 world tour—she released another album, 1995's commercially unsuccessful Head Over Heels, which she promoted rather heavily with highly choreographed performances that didn’t give any indication of a spinal injury or paralysis. It was after that record, which she said she planned on touring to support but ultimately did not, that Abdul took a prolonged break from entertainment, only to come roaring back via American Idol.
I’m not even a proper Abdulthisast and I know that. Her setlist betrayed her story, too, as it included one Head Over Heels song, “Crazy Cool,” which Abdul performed in a sparkly body-length leotard (she changed outfits for virtually every song). Maybe she was just compressing her biography for the sake of moving things along, maybe she really is just making it up, whatever, but it seems to me that the worst people Paula Abdul could possibly present a revisionist history to are those who would pay good money to see her in 2018. These are perhaps the only people in the world who are still holding Head Over Heels in their minds.
It didn’t matter. People loved her anyway. They loved when she performed “Blowing Kisses in the Wind” with her feet almost entirely off the ground (she was either being tossed around by her backup dancers or singing on an elevated platform on wheels that looked like a luggage cart with some wood nailed to it). They loved when she discussed her health problems as a child (she told us she was born three months premature, with a broken windpipe and hip dysplasia and that her lungs were a “mess”). They loved when she recreated the dance she had choreographed for Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” video. During that segment, Abdul discussed how many of her choreography ideas came from her dreams, and then some of her dreams played out behind her as she “lay” in a vertical “bed” onstage:
I never took Abdul for a surrealist, but she certainly shares the belief in the utmost importance of dreams with the 20th century art movement. “Look I’m going to talk to you about the spirit and psyche of really creative people,” she said at the beginning of that segment. “Especially choreographers. We’re weird. I mean, we draw inspiration from anything and everything.”
I buy it. I think Paula Abdul is weird, lovably so, and I thought this 90-minute spectacle was an enjoyable showcase of her weirdness. If you’re holding onto lingering suspicion of her drug use or concern for her well being, well, she seemed totally lucid and in control (she didn’t fall off the stage this time or anything). I have every reason to believe, that Straight Up Paula! is exactly as Abdul envisioned it and if it was “loopy” it’s because Abdul is loopy on life.
It must be weird being Abdul, who was so big for such a brief period of time. The bulk of her best known music, that from her debut, features some of the most bloated aspects of late ’80s synth pop and it hasn’t aged particularly well. I don’t really hear her stuff very much—maybe “Rush Rush” in a supermarket every once in a while—so it’s as though her superstardom is preserved in amber, confined to the period between 1989 and 1992 when she had the lion’s share of her hits. What do you even do with that, in order to present it to the people who haven’t forgotten, who still want to see you after all these years? I suppose the only thing you can ask from such a performer, a dance-pop singer whose diminutive voice was always beside the point and who isn’t going to hit the road singing the Great American Songbook any time soon, is that she not be boring. Paula Abdul was not boring for the 90 minutes she was onstage Saturday, not for a second.
She ended her set with her first No. 1, “Straight Up.” To say “buh-buh-buh-buh-bye,” she climbed up a ladder and jumped into the arms of her dancers while a cartoon shark leapt on screen at the same time, as though it was consuming her:
Her encore was “Forever Your Girl,” her second No. 1 hit. She spent much of the song in the crowd, alit by the adoration of her glowing fans. At the end of the song, she gushed to the crowd, “I’m forever your girl. Don’t you ever forget it! Ever!” That seems right—she is not our queen, not even our woman. Her status as a legend, even, is arguable. Paula Abdul is our girl and that’s a perfectly fine thing to be.
The audience left basking, as though they had just witnessed a series of miracles performed by an angel. Clearly, they would not soon forget.
Update: A Paula fan on Twitter tells me Paula’s fandom is called the “PAmily.” I found a tweet from Paula to corroborate this.