How I Became a TikTok Star Thanks to a Paula Abdul Song

Sam Pocker
19 min readAug 21, 2021

I was in bed reading a book one day when the walls started shaking. “Another earthquake”, I thought. It seemed there had been so many earthquakes lately, or was it construction? Somehow it hadn’t dawned on me that spending weeks in a row during the pandemic sitting in bed had actually weakened my body to the point that it was unable to sustain my weight and that I was experiencing tremors (for lack of a better word).

I got out of bed, texted my neighbor “did you feel that?”. She hadn’t. I downloaded an app that measures vibrations. An hour later it confirmed that there were no vibrations, it was me. I had completely fallen apart.

The pandemic had made it impossible for me to walk every morning as I had done for the previous two years. There was no room in my apartment for a treadmill but the choice was clear, either get one or risk really injuring myself. I got one. UPS managed to throw it over an 8 foot high fence and break it.

After dragging it upstairs and piecing it together I was wiped out and resolved to start walking on it the following morning. The first day back was a challenge, as expected. The second day back was a little easier, but still tough. On the third day back, without any warning, magic happened.

There I was walking on the treadmill, minding my own business, when Spotify’s algorithm started playing a beat. I recognized it but couldn’t place it. The song started, I knew every word but had no idea what the hell it was. It was great, like a long-lost friend you forgot ever existed kind of great. I looked at the phone in disbelief. It was Paula Abdul.

I had some history with Paula Abdul’s music (which I’ll discuss in a minute), but I completely forgot that this album ever happened. It was so out of sync with everything happening in my life (and the culture) at the time that it somehow just got erased from my memory. Trying to piece together the timeline in my head I started thinking “Did Prince write this? This is a Prince song. Maybe that’s why I know it. This has to be Prince.”

Maintaining a comfortable pace of 3.5 mph and swiping as fast as my thumbs could handle I started looking for credits. I wanted to know everything. Who wrote it? Where was it recorded? Who produced it? How can I write something like this? What’s the hook? Why does this work? How was this not a hit? Can I cover this? Should I cover this? I just wanted to know everything about it.

Credits:
Producer: V. Jeffrey Smith
Producer: Peter Lord
Composer: Peter Lord
Composer: V. Jeffrey Smith
Composer: Sandra St. Victor

I had no idea who these people were. Were they just big Prince fans? Why was no studio listed? Where was I? (The internet tells me I was in my freshman dorm room about to skip school and follow the R.E.M. tour around for two months)

Within minutes I’d discovered that one of the composers (Sandra St. Victor) had written songs for Prince. This made perfect sense to me now. How did Paula Abdul fit into this? Was she trying to recreate Prince’s sound, what was the logic behind the album? While the album went gold, it wasn’t a massive hit the way her previous two were and she stopped making music after this. Why? I mean I sort of had some of the answers, but not enough to understand everything that had happened here.

Let’s take a step back for a second:

I was fifteen years old when I saw my fourth-ever (and only 2nd as a teenager) concert. The ticket stub says it all. A massive blockbuster tour on its final legs, playing a third-tier market for guarantee money to cover a night’s layover expenses before it plays a profitable gig. My memory is of it being maybe 2/3rds full and the lights of the ferris wheel and other attractions spilling onto the audience. The stuff of nightmares.

At the time I didn’t understand it at all. I thought it was unwatchable. I don’t remember singing or dancing along with any of it. I just remember that it felt so out of place with the grunge and grunge-esque music that had taken over the world. This would be the summer that I didn’t get to see ZooTV, or Nirvana, or the Use Your Illusion tour, or the INXS club tour, or any of that stuff. I just remember standing in the bleachers of some shitty theme park watching someone in an MC Skat Kat costume mime a guitar solo for what seemed like fifteen minutes and thinking “what the hell is this?”

In music videos Paula Abdul was an adult, she did adult things, why was she pandering to children? None of any of it made any sense. I’d think about it from time to time over the years, again revisiting a video of the show around 2005, and still being dumfounded. My friend Dee and I compulsively watched her reality show “Hey Paula” and while exploitive it still managed to leave an impression on me (to this day whenever I am dead tired but keep drinking caffeine we refer to my state as being “Paula Abdul”).

Aside from occasionally listening to “The Way That You Love Me” (the video for which is a masterpiece hybrid of Janet Jackson, Madonna’s “Material Girl”, and 80’s commercial videography) or “Forever Your Girl”, I didn’t really even think about Paula Abdul much until she came out of retirement and went on the road. There was no show in L.A. but the OCD part of my brain had to figure out what the hell went wrong back in 1992 so I could resolve it internally. I did what any impractical artist would do and got an 8th row center seat and drove to Vegas.

The booking was, like Agawam years earlier, something of a mess. Red Rock doesn’t have a ballroom, this I knew already, they simply rebranded the conference center and threw some chairs in it. In the midwest this makes sense, but in a city that has more theaters of every imaginable configuration than any other in North America, why was this show booked here?

You have to understand something about my nature to understand where this is going. I’m confident in my ears. Ira Glass explains it better than I can. I know that if I really like a song or a video there’s a reason, and I’m compelled against all logic to do whatever it is I can to discover the reason. This is how I learn. I’m confident above all else in my taste. No matter how good or bad society judges a work to be, I’m confident in my taste. Clearly either Paula Abdul was a brilliant artist or she had great management. I wasn’t sure which. How then could such a brilliant artist put out something that I perceived as out of line with the rest of her work?

I watched the show. It was as if someone with talent and money had seen one of those unbearable Fringe Festival shows that I’d fought with and said “let me fix that”. The work was an autobiographical one-woman show with backup dancers. She gave a synopsis of what had happened. It made sense. The booking would later turn out to have been a showcase for the casino buyers, as she famously landed at Flamingo and had a successful run there as a result.

Back to where we were:

So here I am in the middle of the pandemic and I’m listening to the three studio albums non-stop. I’ve bought them on CD, cassette, and vinyl. I’m pouring over liner notes, scouring proquest for old interviews and articles, taking notes, doing crazy stuff like ending up in Reseda trying to track down the psychic who told her that she was going to host “American Idol”. On the drive to Reseda I explain to my friend G that everywhere I go lately Paula Abdul music is playing. We pull into a shopping center so I can make a TikTok of the donut shop where “Boogie Nights” was filmed.

G tells me he is going to go look in the Goodwill, he walks in and “Promise of a New Day” is playing on the radio. I walk in the donut shop and “Straight Up” is playing on their radio. We text each other “WTF?”.

Three times in a week I go to the Italian restaurant in Burbank where Michael Landon refused to sign an autograph for her as a child and studying the decor. Turns out they have the perfect old-school New York style Italian Food that I struggled to find for the previous five years.

I’m making G nuts as I point out more things I discover listening to interviews with anyone involved in any of the albums. That shopping mall we went to last week that we both really liked and I said we should start hanging out at more? Yeah, turns out that’s Paula Abdul’s favorite mall too. (In perfect G fashion he replies “Oh yeah, I met her there once.”) That building around the corner from G’s new apartment? Yeah that was the studio where she cut the vocals for “Spellbound”.

Having stumbled into the world of Fiverr witchcraft months earlier and writing a song about it, I find myself intrigued by the origins of the song “Spellbound”.

I revisit the video for the “Spellbound” tour and obsess over every frame, I compulsively read the program for the “Under My Spell” tour. I Google everyone listed in the tour program I’d never heard of. Slowly I started to appreciate what she had been doing and why it didn’t translate to my 15 year old self.

This went on for months. The pandemic had everything shut down and I had no real obligations. I was still cranking out my own work, but everything in one way or another became tied to Paula Abdul. I just kept asking myself why. What was it about this work that was so interesting to me?

I saw this atrocious live performance from the last album (the performance itself is fine, it’s the placement and booking that are nightmarish)

How had this all gone wrong? Even with this great song and well choreographed piece nothing was working.

One of the things that got me in all this research was her singing. She was a dancer first, a choreographer second, but at no time did she mention how she learned to sing. Buried in this New York Times article from 1991 I read the name Gary Catona listed as her vocal coach. I found his website and emailed him, inquiring if he still gave voice lessons. He charged more than I could reasonably afford but I was still interested in his work. I discovered he had an expensive DVD program, but there was what I will politely call a “knock off” version that I was able to purchase for $3 on eBay. You’ll never guess who appears on the cover of the DVD.

For a month I practiced the lessons every day, finally paying Gary for a lesson in which he told me I was on the right track and to keep going. My voice (a point of contention for the last few years) became noticeably stronger within weeks. The first song that Darcy and I put out after this got more likes and comments than any other in the previous two years. People noticed the difference immediately without knowing what the difference was.

At one point I considered paying $20 to send her a message on Cameo and ask a barrage of extremely specific questions but I knew that would just look crazy and as she was under no obligation to reply it could just be a waste of $20. Plus, I think for me the discovery is the joy in all of this. I still had more discovery to do.

I found these interviews by Questlove with the producers who had made “Spellbound”. I am not a big fan of Questlove’s music but I have so much respect for his taste. After a well-documented couple of years where he was next to, in front of, behind, or across from me at what seemed like every show in New York, I learned that he and I had similar taste.

The fact that these producers warranted more than one interview, that the interview starts with him saying this is going to be something special, and involves not one but TWO phone calls to Jimmy Jam explaining that he is no longer the best interviewee on the program, you can imagine just how captivated I was by the whole thing.

“Rush Rush” was written on a dare to write a song using only two chords. I had a MIDI made of the beat, I wrote “TTMMWKM” from that original beat and a Casio SK-1 in my kitchen. I recorded the demo on a blank cassette tape that I bought at the used bookstore in Reseda. I sent it to Darcy with no information and he built around it from there.

At the core of all of this was a stronger understanding of the city of Los Angeles, something I’ve written extensively about before (especially my thoughts on Thom Andersen and Cheech & Chong’s descriptions of the culture). Paula Abdul IS Los Angeles. She was born and raised here, she lives here, she has HISTORY here (something which few natives actually do).

She’s a legitimate artist who has been successful in popular entertainment (something incredibly rare anywhere). As much as I explore the city, it’s the random and otherwise unimportant leads that I followed from her interviews that helped me discover parts of the city nowhere else had led me to.

Her music (unlike the empty posturing related to the city such as RHCP or Sublime) is authentic to the culture. She embraces and doesn’t pretend not to work hard on her appearance. She’s a platinum-selling recording artist who even in her 50’s still likes to hang out at the mall. Naturally, she is not associated with Los Angeles at all. You won’t find her face next to other iconic entertainers connected with the city. In some cases this might be heartbreaking but in hers I think it’s a compliment. I can’t think of another artist so closely tied to a city who isn’t identified as one. In the world of pop music Paula Abdul is a unicorn.

I’d kept thinking about how to make a “Sam Pocker Workout” video for a couple of years, I’d gotten as far as making the costume for the video:

It occurred to me in the middle of this craziness that of course, Paula Abdul used to make workout videos. I watched a couple and quickly realized all the pieces of the puzzle I’d been missing. I was now no longer in any kind of shape to make the video. I began working out every day like crazy to prepare for the shoot. All of a sudden I’m in the best shape of my 40’s, my voice is better than it’s ever been, and I’m cranking out content that total strangers actually enjoy.

Then TikTok happened.

Just before the treadmill incident I was in the drive thru line at Raising Cane’s talking to my friend Eric on the phone. He was telling me that I needed to get on TikTok and I dismissed it as “children dancing”.

Fast forward six months and I have a TikTok account where my teddy bear is telling borscht belt jokes to an audience of 100 people. I close the account. Something about TikTok just makes me depressed. The vernacular, the lack of coherence, the ignorance, the sensationalism, most of all as Keith Richards would say in a derogatory fashion “It’s talent show.”

In driving around to all these locales on the weekends, many of which were due to this strange obsession I had with piecing together Paula Abdul’s works I had acquired a lot of footage of different locales. I’d been feeding them to YouTube shorts because my friend Kim had a strange overnight success on the platform. I had enough views for monetization but not enough subscribers. Kim had the opposite problem, having now acquired over a thousand subscribers by accident. I was trying to trick the system. It didn’t work. I was getting 10–12 new subscribers a week though, so I kept grinding it out.

My best converting piece (which I’ve since had to remove due to harassment from anti-gentrification activists) was about a taco stand in Lincoln Heights. Somehow due to this I started getting served videos about the same taco stand in TikTok on my For You page. One of them really caught my attention.

https://www.tiktok.com/@lafoodieguy/video/6932307051192306949

This video encapsulated everything I disliked about the format so precisely. You had someone with no credentials, no talent, and generally poor taste being quite successful in this format. The verbiage is so confusing and perfunctory that it would have never occurred to me to use as a narrative.

I transcribed it and removed the specifics:

[00:00] — Speaker 1

What’s up, Los Angeles? I’m about to put you on to something that I probably shouldn’t even mention because it’s going to get packed

[00:05] — Speaker 1

I’m in CITY, where PLACE is set up. And since the pandemic started, it’s turned into much more than a THING. It’s turned into an awesome little WORD crawl and something fun to do on your Friday night.

[00:15] — Speaker 1

The THING had a deliciously eclectic mix of THING, but I decided to go with this DETAIL. Not lying, one of the best DESCRIPTORS I’ve ever had. DETAIL ONE and DETAIL TWO because you know I’m a sucker for the SLANG WORD. Finished it with a DETAIL THREE.

[00:29] — Speaker 1

Would you come here?

I took some of the footage that I’d been shooting with G and put it into the format.

Within a day it had thousands of views. At the suggestion of my friend Chuck I renamed the channel “WhatsUpLosAngeles”. I watched some basic How To videos on YouTube, got the basics down, and kept making these for a few days.

Fast forward about two weeks and I’m sitting in a bar in Glendale waiting for G when I notice something on my phone. One of my videos has just jumped up over a thousand views in a few minutes. It keeps going. For the rest of the day I am refreshing the screen in complete shock as the video reaches almost 90,000 views in a day. Nothing I have ever made in the last twenty years has been this popular. The video is so incredibly stupid I don’t know where to begin.

I’d found this event on Eventbrite and we were there for maybe five minutes. It’s one of the saddest documents of consumerism I’ve ever shot (and that’s saying something). Most of the narration is fiction. I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing one of Steven’s t-shirts, nor did I consume black ramen noodles. It’s not even an ongoing event. I thought this was clearly parody, but the comments proved otherwise. One person who didn’t understand my point of view about Amoeba Music (that it’s simply a tourist trap to sell t-shirts disguised as a record store) referred to it as “legend” (“That place is legend”).

I’m not going to mince words here: This was both the stupidest and most popular work I’d ever made up until this point.

Many of the comments were on the quality of the narration. I’d combined the cadence of my failed attempt at stand-up comedy with the voice lessons from Gary Catona to create a stronger impression of the absurdly weak material.

I made some more of these clips, but then the artist in me thought “Well, if the goal is to be stupid, what could I do that was even stupider?”. Additionally it became time consuming to film 3–5 clips worth of material a day. I started lifting other people’s YouTube footage and re-cutting it, but it wasn’t as effective.

I went back to the well and watched more videos by the person who’d recorded that original taco stand video that I’d parodied. Clearly they were on the pulse of the local TikTok viewer. This person’s channel focused on food, almost exclusively local food, I thought “what if the narrator was so stupid they thought that fast food was local?”. “What could I add to fast food?” as I already knew of the famous fast food reviewers that I had no way to compete with.

Having been an active reader of 2600 Magazine as a teenager, having actively followed the hacker community in the late 1990s, and having spoken at a 2600 convention while I was writing my first book, I’d become aware of the misuse and absorption by mainstream culture of the word ‘hack’.

I’d gotten my friend Dee hooked on TikTok and she comes back to the same themes over and over again over the years, one of which is her love of the fast food chain Chic-Fil-A. Somehow we got sucked into watching “Chic-Fil-A Hacks” videos which more or less consisted of people removing the chicken from their sandwiches, coating it with condiments, and placing it back in-between the buns.

What if the character from the first set of videos assumed the role of the characters in the second set of videos? You have two popular elements, let’s put them together and see if it works. The name “Fast Food Hacks” was unavailable. Trying to piece together an appropriate word from the vernacular I used “legend” from the other channel’s comments. “Fast Food Legend” became the handle.

I bought a second phone for $30, drove to the nearest fast-food restaurant (an Arby’s where famous YouTuber Emma Chamberlain had recently shot one of her fast food review videos) and bought some random food to work with.

I had no idea what I was doing, but I did it anyway. I uploaded 30 seconds of whatever it was to TikTok, added five hashtags, and was shocked to have over a thousand views by the time I’d driven home.

The next ten days was more of the same, culminating with four days of collecting random condiment packets from every major fast food chain I could think of and pouring them over a Big Mac.

The Big Mac video got around a half-million views. I was truly dumbfounded. The shoots were complicated and messy. I spent another week making videos but the views disappeared overnight. I decided that I needed to find a way to start filming these at home. I also realized I couldn’t afford to spend $30–50 a day making these videos. Out of desperation I spent a hundred dollars having Domino’s Pizza, McDonalds, and Taco Bell delivered. I got nine videos out of it, none of which got more than 100 views each. I gave up.

A week passed. I deleted all the videos except for the Big Mac. My goal was to convert the channel into a SamPockerOfficial channel and just use it to promote my work with the thousands of followers I’d acquired thus far. I couldn’t be any worse off than I was already with my YouTube growth.

I went to Vegas for a couple of days. Just before I drove home I went back and looked at the channel. The Big Mac video had a million more views since I’d left L.A. It was at 1.5 million views and rising. The next morning it was at 2.4 million. WTF was happening?

When I got back home I re-cut the previous footage. I uploaded one video as a test. The Domino’s Pizza video that couldn’t get a hundred views a week ago now had 10,000 views in a day.

I dropped everything and hit the books. Clearly I’d hit a nerve and I wasn’t going to screw this up the way I’d missed every other good opportunity that had come along in the past. They get rarer and rarer as you get older. I spent 11 hours taking this course on TikTok. I understood every word of it from years of watching sleazy get-rich-quick scheme tutorials and social media classes. I made a business plan by hand on a notepad. I cleared out space in my kitchen. Everything has been a blur since…

The entire premise is to take a piece of fast food, unwrap it, pour as many condiments over it as possible, re-wrap it, and have the Jim Carrey “Ta-Da!” moment at the end. It’s tied with a hook “Best (restaurant name) hack ever!” and a tagline “Follow me for more legendary fast food hacks!” (with the themed-phrasing learned from my Disney Imagineering studies).

In just under two months I have over 9 million views and 75,000 followers. My channel is monetized (something that I’d struggled and failed to achieve on YouTube for over two years) and I get notifications 24/7. For the first time in my adult life one of my artworks is popular, successful, and generating revenue (albeit small and in the red).

I could write another article this long just about the productions themselves, but this more or less summarizes what has happened.

During the course of all of this I decided that I wanted a third account just so I could participate as myself on the platform. I’m perfectly aware that who I am as a person will not be anywhere near as popular as this other work, and thankfully I have the other work to demonstrate as proof of success.

After three months I downloaded the TikTok app on my phone, created an account, uploaded my photo, and hit the For You page. You’ll never guess who’s face was the first to come up in my feed…

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