This sassy single was the breakout hit for Paula Abdul, who before she was a singer, was a cheerleader for the Los Angeles Lakers and a dancer. She had a knack for creating dance moves that went over well on MTV and became an in-demand choreographer after working with Janet Jackson on videos for "Nasty
," "When I Think of You
," and "What Have You Done For Me Lately
." She went on to work with ZZ Top, Duran Duran and Debbie Gibson before starting her own career as a singer.
This song finds Abdul all aflutter over a guy who seems too good to be true. She's been hurt before, so she wants him to be straight up (honest) with her and tell her: does he really love her, or are they just fooling around.
"Straight Up" was a popular phrase at the time that could be dropped into just about any conversation - "I'll meet you at 6 p.m., straight up" or "That was straight up the worst Rocky movie ever."
This song was written and produced by Elliot Wolff, a keyboard player who had co-written track for Johnny Gill ("Super Love") and Gladys Knight & the Pips ("All Our Love"). He wrote "Straight Up" for a new singer he was working with who was signed to Virgin Records, but she was dropped from the label before releasing any material. Wolff's demo made its way to Abdul when she was looking for material for her first album. The demo was low quality, but Abdul loved the song and convinced her record company to let her record it, which she did in Wolff's studio apartment.
"I never expected someone who wrote that song to look like you," she told Wolff, an unassuming white guy with strange mannerisms. Abdul recalls using Wolff's shower as a vocal booth, and the neighbors banging on the walls to complain.
"It was the most enjoyable time working with him because he was so different, and left-of-center," Abdul said of working with Wolff. "He never would get mad."
Wolff also wrote "Cold Hearted," for Abdul, which was also a #1 hit. He died in 2016 at age 60 when he went on a solo camping trip in New Mexico and never returned.
This song is driven by a synthetic horn riff Elliot Wolff created with a Roland D-50 linear synthesizer. This model came to market in 1987 with banks of presets, including one for a horn section (A-15), that Wolff used here.
In the US, this was the best-selling single of 1989.
The video was directed by David Fincher, who also directed Madonna's "Vogue
" and The Wallflowers' "Sixth Avenue Heartache
." Fincher directed the movies Seven
, The Game
and Fight Club
. The clip won MTV Video Music Awards for Best Female Video, Best Dance, Best Choreography and Best Editing.
"I wanted to tap-dance, and it just came together - very simple," Abdul told Entertainment Weekly
. "It ended up defining a look and signature of the decade."
This song has a very distinctive bridge that breaks down into three sections. First, Paula is frustrated:
You are so hard to read
You play hide and seek
With your true intentions
Then, she delivers the ultimatum:
If you're only playing games
I'll just have to say
"bye bye bye bye bye bye bye bye bye"
This "bye" break really catches the ear, and it serves as a transition into yet another distinctive section, with Abdul rephrasing her original query, this time getting right to the point:
Do do you love me?
Abdul's record company didn't hear the hit potential in this song, and released a song called "Knocked Out
" as her debut. That was an obvious choice, since it was written and produced by some of the hottest players in the game: Babyface and L.A. Reid. That one stalled at #41 in August 1988.
Her next single was "(It's Just) The Way That You Love Me
," which topped out at #88 in November. When the San Francisco radio station KMEL started playing "Straight Up," it forced the hand of her record company, which released it as her third single. Her first two singles established Abdul as a dance singer, but "Straight Up" brought her to the next level when it climbed to #1 in February 1989. Her next three releases, "Forever Your Girl
," "Cold Hearted
" and "Opposites Attract
" all went to the top, making Forever Your Girl
one of the most successful debut albums in history.
After this became a hit, Paula went on tour with some other popular MTV acts. This was the tour where Milli Vanilli were caught lip-synching when their tape skipped during a show in Connecticut.
This song fit the niche of dance-pop music with female vocals that was huge at the time. Madonna and Janet Jackson ruled this genre, but many more singers cropped up, typically with big-time producers supplying the beats. Most of these artists (Lisette Melendez, The Cover Girls, Alisha), got very little press attention, but Abdul had a back story and a personality that drew media coverage and launched a robust career that lasted even after the dance music trend faded.
The Forever Your Girl album did not hit #1 in the US until its 64th week on the chart, the longest ever journey to the top.
In December 2004, Abdul was "caught in a hit-and-run." After swiping a car on a Los Angeles freeway, she drove off, but someone took a picture of her license plate with a cell phone camera. She was fined and sentenced to probation.