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Dancing Her Way Up the Charts : Paula Abdul has emerged as the most influential woman in pop

December 10, 1989|CONNIE JOHNSON

Few took former L.A. Lakers' cheerleader/choreographer Paula Abdul too seriously a year ago when she made her album debut on Virgin Records, but 4 million sales later some people are saying she's doing more to change pop music than any woman since Madonna.

What Madonna did for lingerie, Abdul is doing for dancing shoes.

Madonna's early success with the "boy toy" come-ons in her videos showed other pop "wanna-bes" that teens--male and female--were ready for a woman who was as blatantly sexual as rock males like Presley and Jagger once were.

Abdul's success sends out a different message: Stick to those dance lessons.

What makes Abdul's videos so special is the way they display her extraordinary abilities as a dancer--not just simple steps you might cultivate at the local disco, but moves that suggest a more formal, Broadway-like training. Hers is a level of pop-music showmanship largely limited in the past to males--the likes of James Brown, Michael Jackson and, most recently, Bobby Brown.

There's a debate in pop circles on how good a singer Abdul is (most critics would say about C+), but everyone seems to agree that the woman can dance.

The commercial history of her debut album shows the impact that her dancing ability had on establishing her as a pop star in the video age.

Abdul's "Forever Your Girl" album was hurried into completion and released in June of 1988 to capitalize on the industry buzz created by her "Knocked Out" dance track. "Knocked Out" was part of a Virgin Records compilation CD and was distributed in February, 1988 at the Gavin Convention in San Francisco (an annual event attended by radio and record execs). The track quickly gained airplay on urban stations in Northern California. "It was definitely urban radio that broke Paula," said one of her two managers, Larry Frazin. "Urban radio played Paula without ever having seen a video on her."

A sweetly appealing, craft-conscious "Knocked Out" video--in which the L.A.-based singer's dancing ability proved to be her real strength--was released by July, 1988,when the record had risen to No. 3 on the black charts. It was heavily played on the Black Entertainment Television cable channel, while MTV "never touched it," according to Frazin.

Radio reaction to her second single, "The Way That You Love Me," was modest when it was released in July (the song did better when it was re-released two months ago). But in late December both black and pop programmers began playing an album track, "Straight Up," the cut that rapidly started the ball rolling for Abdul.

When the record entered the Top 20 on the pop charts last January, the "Straight Up" video--in which the diminutive performer showed off her flashy tap-dancing skill--was released. MTV put it into heavy rotation and at last Abdul distinguished herself from other dance-floor divas who've attempted to duplicate the success of artists like Madonna and Janet Jackson.

Abbey Konowitch, senior vice president of programming at MTV, attributes much of Abdul's success to old-fashioned star quality.

"Today it's not necessary to have a voice like Anita Baker to become a star," he says. "Thanks to video and concert tours--and the fragmentation of radio--you can rise to the top on a great looking presentation. That's what Paula has. . . . She's the epitome of an MTV success story. We took an ordinary hit record and helped turned it into a star vehicle for her."

Observing that Abdul won four MTV awards this year, Konowitch added, "In 1984, it was Madonna who dominated MTV. Paula doesn't have the unpredictability or danger of a Madonna, but she has incredible dancing ability. Her skill as a choreographer is what makes her unique."

Abdul's co-manager, Larry Tollin, added, "I've heard that several dance-oriented artists have recently been signed to record deals and that choreographers are being teamed with producers in order to create singing careers that didn't previously exist. Every day Paula gets letters from young girls who want to know where she bought the hat she wears in her 'Cold Hearted' video, so the 'wanna-be' factor is definitely there."

"Cold Hearted's" composers--Oliver Lieber and Elliot Wolff--and video director David Fincher are also "being offered huge deals by those who want them to duplicate the kind of success they've had with Paula," Tollin said.

Abdul, 25, is proud of her achievements as a dancer, but doesn't feel they are solely responsible for her current success.

"Dancing is just one of the ingredients that's gotten me to this point," she said in a recent phone interview. "But dance has become more important. Artists are realizing that audiences appreciate an all-around entertainer and that's an area where I've had an effect. But I'd never say that I made it just on videos and the visuals. I admire those MGM stars back in the old days who were singers, dancers and actors. I'm trying to bring all of that back."

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