Modern pop fans rarely go for the innocent type — especially when it comes to women. Swoons more commonly surround shock queens (Madonna), superbabes (Janet Jackson), or serious hellcats (Courtney Love). Even pop’s most conservative heroines (Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston) consider themselves enlightened sophisticates.
All of which clears an uncrowded spot for Paula Abdul. In a world of knowing women, her voice speaks for the utterly uninformed. With her pixielike pitch, baby’s breath sustain, and pinkish tone, Abdul may be the girliest singer in rock history. At least her pigtailed predecessors — from Lesley Gore through Debbie Gibson — sounded like legitimate pimpled teens. But if you judged Paula only by her voice, you’d swear she was no more than 5 years old.
Unfortunately, so dewy a character puts Paula at serious odds with the intentions of her third and latest album, Head Over Heels. While earlier releases painted Paula as a goody two-shoes, tap-dancing her way toward committed love, here she can’t wait to do the horizontal bop. More than half her new music emphasizes chunkier funk beats — tailor-made for the slow, sexy grind. Lyrically as well, Paula adds more randy come-ons to her usual dreamy entreaties. ”Now I know the meaning of ecstasy,” she coos with hopeful eroticism in ”Crazy Cool.” But it sounds like she’s reading the line phonetically. In another song, when she sings, ”I’d keep you up all night,” you wonder just how she plans to spend her time: playing tiddlywinks?
At least in her zippy videos, Paula comes off like a coquette. But on record she doesn’t even communicate the unconscious sexiness of Shirley Temple, coming closer to the rank frigidity of early Olivia Newton-John.
It’s a shame that Abdul’s handlers — numbering no fewer than 12 on the production and 28 on the writing team — didn’t expand on the strategy from her second album, Spellbound. There, Paula’s producers fashioned a series of musical petticoats (like ”Rush Rush”) ideally suited to the singer’s Kewpie-doll persona. Then again, a video-age construction like Abdul (the flashy dancer who rarely writes and doesn’t play) has to go where the market leads her. And the current market, in her chosen division of R & B-dance, skews far more raw than when Abdul began seven years ago.
As a result, her music seems more cynically stitched-together than ever. One could never accuse Abdul’s songs of being organic. As functionally catchy as these pieces continue to be, they mostly amount to self-conscious production vehicles rather than actual tunes. The sound itself provides the hook more often than the melody or performance, ultimately rendering it less R & B than robo-pop.
Amazingly, Head Over Heels manages to exhibit some strong points along the way. When the melodies tip toward froth, and the lyrics encourage Paula’s fathomless sweetness, she can still whip up a cotton-candy charm. ”I Never Knew It” lifts the goofy opening chords of ABBA’s ”S.O.S.,” while ”Ain’t Never Gonna Give You Up” makes a George Clinton-style funk bash sound like a sweet sixteen party. ”Ho-Down” one-ups her smartest hit, ”Straight Up,” adding punchy elements of Cab Calloway jazz.
The singer proves even more winning on an apple-cheeked ballad like ”Missing You.” With her ever-quavering voice, Abdul sounds like she’s constantly on the verge of tears — not in the manner of a disappointed lover but of a kid who just found out there is no tooth fairy. Who else in current pop can claim that level of vulnerability? At its best, this quality allows Abdul to soar above her massive vocal limitations, creating a figure of almost freakish tenderness, a wounded cherub expressing hurts known only to the most naive. C+