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A diva returns? Paula Abdul's hits and misses

September 18, 2009 |  9:17 pm


Paula Abdul, the former pop princess and forthcoming pill popper, strutted her stuff as the opening act for the 2009 VH1 Divas Concert this week, setting off plenty of armchair speculation on whether the just-retired host of "American Idol" still has her chops as a song-and-dance diva (or, even a lip-sync-and-dance one).

Really, did any of us actually expect her to sing her own vocals while dancing in those high heels?  Regardless of your take of Thursday's effort, it gives us a chance to reflect on -- or scrutinize -- the star's past. Here, we take a look back on the highs and lows of Paula's live performance career. 

1989 MTV Video Music Awards. It’s the performance that made Paula a household name and sent thousands of preteens to jazz class. Introduced by a dog-pounding, enthusiastic Arsenio Hall, Paula's debut performance at the MTV Video Music Awards starts off with a jaw-dropping tap solo, high-flying rope twirling, and some admirable attempts at live singing. Pulling together the three biggest hits from her debut album -- "Straight Up," "Cold Hearted Snake," "Forever Your Girl" -- Paula employs the ever-popular medley strategy of transitioning from sexy/cool to uplifting (see Michael Jackson’s same-year Grammy performance). Plus, she gets bonus points for dancing with the keytar player.

1990 MTV Video Music Awards. After her slam-dunk performance at the 1989 awards, Paula returns with another high production performance -- this time going up against former client/student Janet Jackson.  Here, it appears she eschews live singing altogether in favor of raising the level of choreographic pyrotechnics. With her signature moves performed by a stable of dancing bachelors, an Art Deco jungle gym for a set and a surprise mid-song costume change, Paula pulls off another show-stopping performance.

1991 MTV Video Music Awards. While “disastrous” might not be the appropriate word for Paula’s next award performance (especially after seeing how bad things can get, ahem, Britney), it was certainly an embarrassing moment for the pop star. She chose to sing live during her “Vibeology” performance, leaving the audience to hear a strained and out-of-tune voice, one that desperately tried to crowd-pump with the cringe-worthy phrase, “Horny Horn!”  Muffled under male drag, only to reveal a less-than-flattering rhinestone-encrusted bustier/leotard, Paula muddled her way through a desperately overproduced number. Oh, and, did we mention the yellow megaphones?

Super Bowl 2008. Although Paula continued to dance on stage throughout the mid-90s to promote her third studio album (such as this Middle Eastern-flavored piece from Top of the Pops), most would agree that her big live-performance comeback was this prerecorded number for the 2008 Super Bowl. Thankfully, it seems relatively clear that Paula’s given up the live singing experiment, and although she doesn’t participate fully in the choreography around her, she does swing around a weighted mic stand with aplomb.  This, of course, proves what we've always suspected about Paula’s live shows -- voice amplification tools work best as dance props.


"American Idol" 2009. In her first performance on the show that resurrected her career, Paula played to her home audience in a spring 2009 episode of "American Idol." Her face is almost always in shadow, and the swinging mic gimmick is back, but this time Paula busts out the dance combination alongside her dancer counterparts, proving the 47-year-old can still pull out many of the moves that made her famous. Check out the footage. Go Paula, go Paula!   

--Ramie Becker

Photo credit: Getty Images