Paula Abdul’s sleeper hit defied all expectations, saved her career & made her a “Straight Up” global superstar

Paula Abdul’s sleeper hit defied all expectations, saved her career & made her a “Straight Up” global superstar

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Paula Abdul will receive a very special Straight Up Ally award at the 2024 Queerties Awards ceremony hosted by Jinx Monsoon in Los Angeles on March 12. In anticipation of tonight’s big event, we thought it would be fun to look back at the song that first put this beloved LGBTQ+ ally on the map…

In November 1988, Abdul released “Straight Up”, the third single from her debut album Forever Your Girl, following “Knocked Out” and “The Way That You Love Me” respectively.

The mid-tempo dance-pop track, written by the late Elliot Wolff and recorded for just $3,000, became her first top 40 hit in the United States, eventually reaching #1 the Billboard Hot 100 in February 1989 and landing in the top 10 in 16 other countries.

The single was actually a last ditch effort by Virgin Records to save Forever Your Girl, which the label had declared a flop after the first two singles failed to take off.

As the story goes, execs were actually in the process of reorganizing the label’s talent roster and Abdul’s name was on the chopping block when the song was randomly picked up by radio stations.

Speaking to author Terry Southern in 2004 for his book “Virgin: A History Of Virgin Records”, the label’s co-founder Simon Draper explained:

One of the artists they were getting ready to drop was Paula Abdul; they were spending all this money on her and it hadn’t really happened. It’s unbelievable, but at lunchtime we sat in on a marketing meeting where they were arguing about this remix of her single [The Way That You Love Me], and on that same day the things suddenly started to turn around, orders started to pile in, and the record took off like a rocket–the record played a major role in establishing Virgin America–but it was close! Another week and they might have got rid of her.

Thank goodness they didn’t!

Not only was “Straight Up” a monster hit on the radio, spending an astonishing 25 consecutive weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but it became the fourth biggest hit of 1989 on Billboard‘s year-end chart and was later certified Platinum by the RIAA for selling over 1 million copies. It also became a staple in the gay clubs.

And then came the music video.

The late ’80s and early ’90s were the halcyon days of MTV. Usually, a song didn’t really catch fire until the video was released. In the case of “Straight Up”, however, the single was already so hot that by the time Abdul finally had time to shoot a video for it in January 1989, it was already simmering in the top 20.

Directed by the famed David Fincher and choreographed by Abdul herself, the black and white video featured appearances by her friend, comic and talk show host Arsenio Hall, and actor Djimon Hounsou, who also appeared in Madonna‘s “Express Yourself” and Janet’s “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” music videos.

The video immediately went into heavy rotation on MTV, helping “Straight Up” reach the very top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, where it stayed for three consecutive weeks.

Meanwhile, Forever Your Girl, which just a few months earlier had been written off by record execs as a flop, was catapulted into the top spot on the Billboard 200 chart, spending 10 weeks at #1 and becoming the most successful debut album in history at that time. The album was certified 7x platinum by the RIAA and spawned three more #1 singles–“Forever Your Girl”, “Cold Hearted”, and “Opposites Attract”.

The “Straight Up” video earned four 1989 MTV Video Music Awards, including Best Female Video, Best Editing, Best Choreography, and the first-ever Best Dance Video. 

But the accolades didn’t stop there.

The song also nabbed a Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1990, although it ultimately lost to Bonnie Raitt’s “Nick of Time.”

Widely regarded as her signature song today, Abdul has included “Straight Up” on the setlist of every single one of her tours. She also sang it during her performance at L.A. Pride in 2019. The song was also featured on her greatest hits compilation album, and a remixed version appeared on her 1990 album Shut Up and Dance: Mixes.

We’re looking forward to honoring Abdul with the very special Straight Up Ally award at the 2024 Queerties Awards in Los Angeles tonight.


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