In eight seasons as a judge on American Idol
, Paula Abdul was by far the most forgiving panelist, frequently finding something nice to say about even the most dreadful performances. She seemed to understand what the contestants were going through, and they always appreciated her encouragement.
To understand why Paula found it so hard to eviscerate contestants Simon Cowell-style, let's look at her early recording sessions. The first track she recorded was "Knocked Out
" in a session helmed by the famous producers LA Reid and Babyface. Her next sessions were with the unknown Oliver Leiber, first recording "'The Way That You Love Me," then "Forever Your Girl."
Oliver explains: "Paula needed encouragement - she struggled with her confidence, and she really needed someone who was very nurturing and very positive. Paula's first experience in the studio with a pair of hit producers that I won't mention had been very, very discouraging. They had basically told her, 'You can't sing, you can go home, we're gonna finish this song without you.' Like, you suck, get outta here, we'll finish this somehow. No need to keep singing and no need to come back. That was her first experience on this record, song number one that she recorded. She was devastated, because she had confidence issues to begin with, knowing she wasn't the strongest singer. And to have these two very successful producers basically say, 'Don't bother to come back,' she was not in a very confident place. This was the second song they were recording on the album, and they needed it to be a positive experience, or they were going to have a very damaged artist on their hands. I was fueled with gratitude for having this gig – it was my first gig – and also knowing that I needed to be a really positive person. So, no amount of hours were too long, no amount of takes were too many, and there was lots of cajoling and coaxing and joking. We were going to get this one way or the other."
Paula herself will tell you she isn't the greatest singer, but she certainly had star power. Leiber adds: "She's not the strongest vocalist, and everyone knew that. But when her voice is put in a certain setting, and when it's layered, it smoothes out and it has a definite sound. A lot of people really love the way she sounds on these records. She's not Chaka or Mariah or Christina, or any of those women who can blow, but she had a sound on those records that totally worked. Much like Madonna, she wasn't the strongest vocalist, but Paula was a tireless worker. She flew out to Minnesota with a vocal coach who was present for the vocals on all of the first sessions that I did with her, and if I couldn't get a word or a pitch or something, the coach would chime in with various techniques for pitch and breath control to help her sing: 'tell Paula to sing this vowel sound rather than that vowel sound.' There was a lot of help from this particular vocal coach to warm Paula up and to help her to deliver the vocals."
When it comes to Paula's persona on American Idol
, Leiber says: "I understand where Paula's compassion and empathy and pathos comes from, because she can so relate to being the person having to work hard and struggle. She's got a tremendous amount of empathy for that reason, and the irony wasn't lost on me."