Remember when Paula Abdul was a major pop star?
When she first burst onto the scene, in 1989, she came on like a multimedia juggernaut. Her debut album, "Forever Your Girl," sold more than 7 million copies, spinning off four No. 1 singles in the process, while its 1991 follow-up, "Spellbound," sold another 3 million, and put her atop the singles chart two more times. Moreover, Abdul was a fixture on MTV and a staple of the gossip columns, with a movie star fiance and her own record company. For a time, it looked as if she'd eclipse even Janet Jackson and Madonna.
Seems such a long time ago, doesn't it?
Abdul is still at it, of course. She just released a new album, "Head Over Heels" (Virgin 40525), and has a new video -- a budget-busting Moroccan extravaganza called "My Love Is For Real" -- on MTV. Paula-mania, however, does not appear to be sweeping the nation.
It isn't that Abdul has lost it, exactly. "Head Over Heels" is every bit as slick and savvy as its predecessors, avoiding the overproduced excess of "Spellbound" to stress the groove-oriented directness of her dance-pop roots. The singing isn't especially strong and the songs get by mostly on the strength of the rhythm arrangements, but the same could be said of her first album.
So why does this new album seem so bland by comparison?
Because what made "Forever Your Girl" seem so vital back in '89 and '90 was that Abdul was in the right place at the right time, with the right look and right sound. What trips up "Head Over Heels" is that she's still there, and the rest of us have moved on.
Take "My Love Is For Real" as an example. With its thumping, bass-driven groove and exotic, Middle Eastern vocal embellishments, it features many of the same qualities as Ofra Haza's 1988 dance hit "Im Nin 'Alu" -- no surprise, considering that Haza is guest vocalist on the track.
But what sounded fresh and exciting seven years ago comes across as cliched now, and that's the trouble with "My Love Is For Real." Instead of evoking an aura of romance and mystery, it merely makes you wonder why Abdul bothered.
It should also be noted that Haza's cameo only serves to emphasize how weak Abdul's voice is. Imagine Kate Moss trying to haul a piano up a staircase and you'll have a sense of how Abdul's thin, underpowered voice struggles with these melodies. There are moments, like on "If I Were Your Girl," where her breathy tone and weak attack bring a certain poignancy to the performance, but generally, Abdul's girlish voice and amateurish inflections wear thin in a hurry.
Then again, singing wasn't what made Paula Abdul a star. Video was, and it's reasonable to expect that she still has a few big-budget tricks up her sleeve. "My Love Is For Real" certainly is more interesting to watch than it is to hear, and it's likely that the spunky "Get Your Groove On" and the gimmicky, sample-laden "Ho-Down" will spawn visual extravaganzas of their own.
So forget the album, and wait for the inevitable video collection. After all, if you're going to spend money on Abdul, you may as well invest in her strength.
To hear excerpts from Paula Abdul's new album, "Head Over Heels," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6114 after you hear the greeting.