“Opposites Attract,” the sixth single off of Paula Abdul's best-selling album Forever Your Girl, achieved massive popularity in the United States and became one of top dance hits of the ‘90s. The song, which is catchier than it has any right to be, has a memorable video featuring cartoon stalwart Jerry Mouse, and it remains a dance radio and karaoke favorite more than 20 years after its release.
Yet, despite the song's long tenure in the public eye (and ear), no music critic or literary scholar has thought to address an important question raised by the song's lyrics: in the tempestuous relationship between Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat, is there an approximate parity in the kinds of compromises the two lovers make for one another, or do the “differences” between them result in a disproportionate amount of sacrifice by one of the participants? In other words, is someone in this relationship “dating down”? This study corrects this gap in the criticism by analyzing each of the song's oppositional dichotomies in turn.
In the following sections, the “winner” is the person who is objectively making the better choice.
Paula: Likes TV
MC Skat Kat: Likes Movies
In making this call, we have to consider the time period in which the song was released. Today, in the wake of a “golden age” of television that brought us HBO’s The Sopranos and AMC critical darlings Mad Men and Breaking Bad, it would be easy to make the case that television's offerings are, if not superior to, at least equal to those available on film—and, often, cheaper and more convenient besides. That said, “Opposites Attract” was released in November of 1989, when the cultural waters were much murkier. In fact, two of the top shows on television that year, The Cosby Show, and Roseanne, have stood the test of time quite well; in addition, 1989 also saw the debut of the critically acclaimed sitcom Seinfeld. However, movie showings were also strong in 1989: we had Tim Burton's Batman, Disney's A Little Mermaid, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (a personal favorite). Ultimately, this is a close call, but a holistic reading of the period suggests that, in 1989's cultural climate, someone who “likes TV” could be understood to be a less thoughtful consumer of culture than someone who prefers the movies.
Winner: MC Skat Kat
Paula: Takes things light
MC Skat Kat: Takes things serious
In some contexts, a cheerful, “light” approach to life may help raise the mood of a gathering, or help ease a couple through the inevitable difficulties they will face together. At the same time, someone who “takes things serious” is, presumably, a person who will be committed to the relationship and who will work hard at accomplishing his or her personal and professional goals. If we consider this line in conjunction with the previous section, we might begin to imagine Paula as a shallow person whose frivolousness contrasts unfavorably with MC Skat Kat's deeper and more thoughtful demeanor. However, as further analysis will show, such a conclusion would be premature. Treated in isolation, then, there is no reason to weight one of these approaches to life above the other; indeed, the tendency for such personality types to balance each other out is almost certainly the origin of the (admittedly questionable) folk wisdom that gives the song its title.
Winner: A draw
Paula: Goes to bed early
MC Skat Kat: Parties all night
While there are certainly some arguments to be made for the “cool” factor that accompanies partying all night, particularly if one is pursuing a career as a singer or MC, we cannot, in good faith, ignore the tremendous health benefits of a good night's sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, lowered brain function, and a higher susceptibility to cold and flu. Even if MC Skat Kat were to attempt to make up the sleep he missed while partying by sleeping during the daytime hours, research shows that a day-shifted sleeping schedule leads to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol – a biological fact that may explain some of the other potentially stress-related personality traits MC Skat Kat also exhibits (see below).
Paula: Moves slowly
MC Skat Kat: Is fast
This line can be read as a coded reference to sexual behavior – i.e., Paula “moves slow” and delays initiating sexual contact until a relationship has been established, while MC Skat Kat is “fast,” i.e., sexually promiscuous. Given the puritanical climate of the post-AIDS 1980s, this line is undoubtedly meant to cast aspersion on MC Skat Kat's behavior. The song therefore engages in a kind of problematic slut-shaming that a thoughtful critic cannot endorse. However, the line can also be understood as a reference to a general attitude of “taking it slow” as presented in the fable of the tortoise and the hare – in which, of course, “slow and steady wins the race.” This more innocent reading, which is bolstered by the family-friendly aura of the song’s cartoon-filled music video, allows us to accord the win to Paula without reifying the reactionary sexual politics of a less-enlightened era.
Paula: Likes it quiet
MC Skat Kat: Loves to shout
This is a situation in which it is difficult to make any kind of coherent argument on behalf of MC Skat Kat. While Paula and MC Skat Kat are both musicians and, therefore, one would expect a certain degree of noise in the shared living space that could run contrary to Paula's expressed preference for “quiet,” surely shouting is taking things to an unacceptable extreme. At approximately one foot of distance, a shouting voice can reach 88 decibels, a volume that, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Health and Safety Office, may be sufficient to induce noise-induced hearing loss. Unfortunately, noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is already common among musicians (especially, perhaps, those musicians already inclined to party all night in loud bars or clubs) so the further introduction of unnecessarily high noise levels into the environment could prove devastating to both participants’ health and careers.
Paula: Makes the bed
MC Skat Kat: Steals the covers
Again, no contest. Making the bed is something that benefits both parties, while stealing the covers is a selfish act that indicates a blatant disregard for Paula's comfort.
Paula: Likes it neat
MC Skat Kat: Makes a mess
As someone who is myself quite disorganized, I hesitate to award this round to Paula without offering at least some consideration for MC Skat Kat's position on the issue of neat versus messy. However, the question of whether a neat environment has any inherent superiority over a messy one can be set aside if we consider the peculiar phrasing of the relevant line (which is inexplicably delivered in the third-person): “She likes it neat and he makes a mess.” The shift from “likes” to “makes” suggests a hidden causality, as though he makes a mess not only despite but because of the fact that Paula prefers it neat. In other words, MC Skat Kat is willfully baiting Paula in the hopes of luring her into a fight.
Paula: Takes it easy
MC Skat Kat: Gets obsessed
We return now to a subject raised at the beginning of the essay: the relative seriousness of both individuals. While Paula's attitude is described using a pair of synonyms (“easy” and “light”), suggesting that her behavior has not changed over the course of the song, here we see a marked escalation in the intensity of MC Skat Kat's attitude, from “serious” to “obsessed.” Unlike “serious,” the word “obsessed” has distinctly negative – and even violent – connotations.
Paula: Got the money
MC Skat Kat: Is always broke
While the cliché of dating the “starving artist” has a certain romantic appeal, it would be easier to make a convincing case for MC Skat Kat if he had any positive attributes other than a preference for film over television. At this point in the song, a disturbing picture of MC Skat Kat has emerged: an obsessive, humorless man (or, rather, cat) who is entirely without resources, and yet who stays out late every night, possibly with other women (“Baby, I'm fast”) and returns home only to shout at Paula, steal her blanket, and foul their living space. Despite the fact that he contributes nothing to their shared economy, he expects her to do the bulk of the household chores, surely an unacceptable division of labor even in the less-enlightened 1980s. MC Skat Kat is bringing nothing to the table.
Paula: Doesn't like cigarettes
MC Skat Kat: Likes to smoke
Second hand smoke results in an estimated 46,000 deaths from heart disease and 3,400 deaths from lung cancer each year. Even setting aside Paula's clearly stated preference on the matter, MC Skat Kat’s smoking is objectively putting her life in danger. On the bright side, the increasingly popular use of matching algorithms in online dating (for which a disparity in smoking habits is often a basic deal-breaker) means that today, this mismatched pair would not even make it to a first date.
Paula: Takes two steps forward
MC Skat Kat: Takes two steps back
By now, it is obvious that Paula is the one who is “moving backward” by staying in a relationship with MC Skat Kat, who, by any objective measure, has absolutely nothing to offer. He is a messy, loud, mean, poor, stinky, selfish animated cat who is inexplicably in a relationship with one of the most beautiful and popular musicians of the era. Which, I guess, means he is the real winner here.
Winner: MC Skat Kat
Final Score: Paula 7, MC Skat Kat 2 (barely).
Kristen Roupenian is thinking about submitting this essay in lieu of her dissertation.