How “Forever Your Girl” Made Paula Abdul The Original Britney


Tim Roney / Getty Images

Paula Abdul circa 1990.

Paula Abdul exists in today’s culture largely through her reality television stints: as the zany (and nice) judge on American Idol, and the tearful, memeworthy diva — mocked by Kathy Griffin — from her 2007 reality show Hey Paula. But long before that, she was the original “pop princess” — an avant-la-lettre Britney Spears — initially launched to stardom 30 years ago today, with the release of her 1988 debut album, Forever Your Girl.

Abdul’s crisp dance moves and coy, girlish attitude eventually helped propel the album to record-setting success, garnering the first four of her six No. 1 singles. Those hits demonstrate the range of her pop persona, from the sweetheart appeal of the title track to the iconic David Fincher-directed video for “Straight Up” to the deep cheese of a duet with the rapping animated “skat cat” in “Opposites Attract,” which Abdul recently reenacted with connoisseur of corniness James Corden. (He plays the cat.)

They turned Abdul into a Diet Coke-endorsing superstar, and throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s her commercial success rivaled Madonna and Janet Jackson. “She was like Miss America in people’s hearts, when she was at the height of her success,” former Virgin Records A&R vice president Gemma Corfield, who worked closely with Abdul her entire career, tells BuzzFeed News. But while there are entire cultural studies syllabi devoted to Madonna, and reclaiming Janet Jackson’s legacy has become its own genre of criticism, Abdul’s brief pop reign has largely been lost to history.


Ron Galella / WireImage

Paula Abdul and the Rockettes during the unveiling of a Diet Coke sign at Times Square in New York City, July 1992.

In fact, Forever Your Girl became a slow-burning success only after it had almost been written off as an irredeemable flop. The story behind the making and release of the big hits off the album, written by producers Oliver Leiber and Elliot Wolff, reveals the alchemy that resulted in its particular sound, in many ways a reflection of Abdul’s quirky humor and perspective. And it serves as a reminder that record companies and producers can’t manufacture big stars from the top down.

“It was a confluence of innocence and being unafraid that brought it all together,” says Corfield. “Once you have success, then you’re trying to always beat the success. But when you haven’t had any, you don’t know any better.” Leiber describes the process of selecting “Opposites Attract,” one of the album’s No. 1’s, a little more bluntly: “It’s not like it was Clive Davis with an amazing ear that said, ‘That’s a hit for Whitney,’” he says. “It was Gemma saying, ‘Do you have a third song?’ and me making up a half-assed chorus over the phone.”

Pop stars tend to be best remembered for being either transgressive, era-defining stars or nostalgic one-hit wonders. Abdul landed somewhere between those two extremes, maybe in part because, as she sang in her last original song (which she performed on American Idol in 2009), she was “just here for the music.” Unlike Jackson or Madonna, she was never interested in generating controversy or using her songs as a form of autobiography, and female pop stars historically haven’t been taken seriously when they just want to sing and dance.

In a post-poptimism era, most people accept that an artist who isn’t a songwriter, or who doesn’t have a powerful voice, can still matter culturally; the New Yorker covers Britney Spears. But that wasn’t necessarily the case in the early ’90s. Abdul did win one Grammy for a music video and two Emmys for her still-influential choreography, but ultimately, as Rolling Stone writer David Wild put it around the time of her rise, she was seen as proof that “an uncanny grasp of style and image can compensate for a lack of innate musical talent.” Taken all together, Abdul’s discography is often corny in a so-bad-it’s-good way, but cheesy pop has its own rules and inspirations. And for a brief moment, Abdul choreographed them into something unforgettable.


Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

Paula Abdul at the Songwriters Hall of Fame 20th anniversary event, at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, May 1989.

Abdul famously transitioned into the music industry when her work choreographing the Laker Girls led to her discovery by the Jacksons. After helping craft Janet Jackson’s moves for the “Nasty” and “Control” music videos, she was signed to the then-new label Virgin Records by Jeff Ayeroff, who had worked in marketing at A&M Records with Janet. “She said, ‘I can sing, you know. I want to do an album,’” Ayeroff recalled later. “Here’s someone with a personality and she’s gorgeous, and she can dance. If she can sing, she could be a star.” But the story of how Abdul found her bearings as a professional singer, and learned to work with producers, is not quite so straightforward.

One of the main criticisms leveled against Abdul after her album’s release was about her voice. LA Times journalist Dennis Hunt, profiling Abdul in 1989, called her voice “just passable,” and Abdul told him, “With my singing, there’s room for improvement.” But, as Corfield points out, “She didn’t play an instrument or was a good singer in the traditional sense of the word, but she had an unusual and unique tone to her voice, intrinsic value to her voice, that was very catchy.”

That didn’t immediately emerge on the first song she recorded for Forever Your Girl, “Knocked Out,” produced by Babyface and L.A. Reid. At the time, Reid and Babyface were on their way to peak popularity, and they “didn’t want to spend a long time in the studio fiddling about with her there,” says Corfield. “I don’t think they were that empathetic.” In his memoir, Reid recalls — in diplomatically brief terms — that it took “a long time to record her vocal.”

Leiber remembers how affected Abdul was by that first recording experience. “I don’t know if they gave her an hour or 15 minutes, but they kicked her out,” he tells BuzzFeed News. “They said, ‘Thank you, you know what, we’re gonna finish this record without you,’ which freaked Paula out,” he says. “She was sort of traumatized from that experience.”


Ron Galella / WireImage

Abdul with her first album, Forever Your Girl, in 1988.

The album’s sound, and Abdul’s musical identity as it is remembered now, started coming together more clearly after she and Corfield started working with Leiber and Elliot Wolff (the writer and coproducer of “Straight Up”). Corfield allowed them to produce their own songs, bringing their unique sensibilities, and a willingness to collaborate with Abdul, to the project. “Because the writers were also producing, mostly for the first time, except for L.A. and Babyface, they cared a lot,” remembers Corfield. “They put a lot of time and effort into it. I think that sort of youngness and the greenness of everybody was part of the charm.”

Leiber and Wolff took the time to help Abdul come into her sound throughout the recording process. Leiber found that her natural vocal range “was best when she was actually moving and dancing … I had her dancing to a certain extent,” he recalls of their time in the studio. “On my stuff you can hear shit jingling on some of the songs.”

Abdul would later be remembered — in some ways dismissed — as a Janet Jackson knockoff, because Jackson had first used new jack swing and the funky Prince-style Minneapolis sound as a female pop singer to make Control, two years before Abdul released her debut. Leiber was certainly influenced by and circling the Prince camp while living in Minneapolis; he recorded the demo of the first song he made with Abdul, “(It’s Just) The Way That You Love Me,” with the artist St. Paul, who’d been part of Prince’s bands the Time and the Family.

You could also make the case — and Abdul has — that she helped create Jackson’s dancing style, which remains influential to this day. Referring to Jackson’s choreography, Leiber says, “There was a sense that that was really [Abdul’s] dance style. She gave it away, she was a choreographer, but she kind of wanted to own it. So I knew that the order of the day was to try and make a Janet kind of record.”

As they worked together, Leiber adapted that sound to work with Abdul’s own distinctive persona, particularly with the song “Forever Your Girl,” for which he drew on poppier influences, like Madonna’s “Borderline.” Before working with Abdul, Leiber had started a song, inspired by his girlfriend from North Dakota, called “Small Town Girl.” It was “very upbeat, very major, very poppy,” he says, and he played it for Abdul. “I just got this strong feeling from her of this sort of innocence, a sweetness about her, a timidity about her.”

Leiber wrote the song’s lyrics after their first meeting. “‘Forever Your Girl’ was my take on the sweetness that Paula had and my imagining how she might handle it if she had an insecure boyfriend,” he says. The song later doubled as a declaration of her new status as America’s sweetheart, and it would ultimately become one of her signature hits.


Gilbert Carrasquillo / Getty Images

Abdul performs during the Total Package Tour with New Kids on the Block and Boyz II Men in 2017, her first tour in 25 years.

It was Abdul herself who stumbled onto, and strongly advocated for, the funky pop of “Straight Up” and “Cold Hearted,” after her mother got a demo from Wolff, then an unknown writer/producer. Wolff died in 2016, and Abdul spoke at his wake about her reaction to first hearing the “Straight Up” demo. “We were actually crying-laughing, but I was also so intrigued, and my mom said, ‘I’m putting this in the wastebasket,’” she recalled. Abdul pulled it out of the trash, telling her mother, “There’s something about it that’s crazy good, and I have to hear it again.”

“Straight Up,” which inspired countless punning headlines about her upward trajectory at the time, remains Abdul’s most iconic song and the most-viewed music video of any of her hits. Today, it just sounds distinctly of its ’80s era, making it hard to understand why Abdul — or anyone at the record company — might have found the song laughable. But Leiber, who calls the song a “masterpiece” (and Wolff a genius), remembers having a similar initial reaction. “You couldn’t tell, in the beginning, if this shit is really horrible or is it just brilliant,” he says. “His stuff lyrically was campy and comical and not cool, and that’s how it hit me in the beginning, and that’s kind of how it hit everybody. I think that’s why it ended up in the trash bin.”

That campiness is likely what turned off the record company executives. (Abdul said she had to convince them to include “Straight Up” on the album.) “All the world’s a candy store / and he’s been trick-or-treating,” is one of the metaphors of “Cold Hearted,” in which Abdul advises a girlfriend against a player, spitting out the phrase “cold-hearted sssssnake,” a slithering bit of pop onomatopoeia. “That was the stuff that hit my ears and I went, ‘This shit is not cool, and this guy has definitely not been hanging with the brothers,’” Leiber recalls, chuckling.

But Abdul, says Leiber, “was always ahead of the curve. She heard it and she was right: His stuff just has its own thing.” She worked hard with Wolff to get the vocals right, recalling that he went as far as writing out the song phonetically for her. “That’s how I learned how to say the rap,” she explained. “He was meticulous with Paula,” Leiber says. “He just went line by line, vowel sound by vowel sound, and there’s a uniqueness to it.”


Michael Ochs Archives

Abdul filming the 1988 music video for “Forever Your Girl.”

Both these songs brought out another aspect of Abdul’s sonic persona, with more attitude and less of the sunny, girlish appeal of the other songs on the album. But “Straight Up” — indeed, all of Forever Your Girl and Abdul herself — might have been lost to history, because the record company slotted Wolff’s song in as a B-side, and went with the more famous producers’ track, “Knocked Out,” as the first single.

“We were initially working her on the R&B side,” says Corfield. Much was made during Abdul’s rise of her ethnic ambiguity, but, as Corfield put it, “she’s a Jewish girl from the Valley, as far as I’m concerned,” and her sound was not “urban” enough for non-pop stations. Babyface and L.A. Reid’s “Knocked Out” failed to gain major video or radio airplay traction on the R&B charts when it was released in the summer of 1988. And the second single, Leiber’s “(It’s Just) The Way That You Love Me,” accompanied by a stylish, big-budget video shot by David Fincher, initially peaked at 88 on the charts. The record company, which was new in America, was giving up on the album. “So I asked, ‘Is the record a stiff or what?’” Abdul later told People. “And the record company said, ‘Paula, it ain’t happening.’”


Virgin

Abdul in the music video for “Straight Up,” directed by David Fincher.

Ultimately, Abdul’s stardom was not sparked by record company machinations, her choreography, or even MTV, but by old-fashioned radio play. It wasn’t until the end of the year that “Straight Up,” the quirky song Abdul had advocated for, was selected and played by the pop radio station KMEL in San Francisco, and immediately took off. It rushed up to Billboard’s top 20 based on radio, before a music video was ever shot, prompting Virgin to push it as a single. And Fincher’s imagining of the song in the now-iconic black-and-white video, featuring Abdul’s distinctive dance moves, helped define her own kind of hip girlishness. (The Djimon Hounsou and Arsenio Hall cameos didn’t hurt, either). Thanks to the success of “Straight Up,” the other Leiber and Wolff songs were released as singles, and “Forever Your Girl” and “Cold Hearted” both eventually peaked at No. 1. And the album, which holds the record for slowest climb to the top of the charts of all time, finally began its ascent.

Once the momentum picked up, Abdul was able to imprint herself even more on the music, altering “Opposites Attract” to fit her vision for its music video. “She always wanted to do an animation song. She had a bee in her bonnet about it for ages,” recalls Corfield. Leiber originally wrote the song — borrowing the title from a dime store romance novel — as a call-and-response tune between Abdul and Prince backup singers the Wild Pair. “The rap was put on it to be the voice of the cat, because she wanted a video with an animated character,” Corfield says. Leiber collaborated on a rap with a radio DJ he found in Minneapolis, Derrick “Delite” Stevens, who became the voice of MC Skat Kat in the video, “and that was a massive video, and again gave her a number one,” remembers Corfield.


Virgin

Abdul with MC Skat Kat in the 1989 music video for “Opposites Attract.”

Forever Your Girl went on to sell 7 million copies just in the US, and that massive success changed the dynamic around Abdul, as she suddenly became both a major corporate priority and a public target. Singer Yvette Marine, who Leiber had hired as the demo vocalist for “Opposites Attract,” sued Virgin, claiming that her voice was on the song’s lead vocal. Coming in the wake of the Milli Vanilli backlash and Martha Wash’s C+C Music Factory lawsuit — which prompted an authenticity witch hunt amid public suspicion that music video performers weren’t actually singing their songs — the lawsuit sparked endless bad publicity and reports of Abdul as “the latest lip sync scandal.”

Abdul, who sat front row of the courtroom every day, ultimately won, but the allegations didn’t help her musical credibility. The case made headlines in 1991, just as she was releasing her second album, Spellbound, and fed a larger skepticism about the rise of “manufactured pop” designed to compensate for artists without songwriting skills or big voices. The success of Abdul’s debut also impacted the sound and marketing of her next album, because there was now a big success to live up to and reproduce.


Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

Abdul at a 1991 press conference, addressing the claim that some of the vocals on her song “Opposites Attract” were not her own.

“Everybody was a sweetheart for the first one, but was also green. Everybody was sort of, like, scrambling,” says Leiber. “Whereas there wasn’t really much A&R-ing for the first record, all of a sudden there’s A&R-ing going on, and there’s management going on, and there’s these people making decisions.” Abdul’s new managers — former promotions men — rejected Leiber and Wolff’s input for the second album, and the members of one of their other acts, the Family Stand, became her writers and producers.

Spellbound did eventually hit No. 1 — setting a record as the lowest-selling album to do so — and gave Abdul two more number one singles: “Rush Rush,” a stripped-down ballad emphasizing her vocals accompanied by a Rebel Without a Cause–inspired video featuring Keanu Reeves; and the follow-up single “Promise of a New Day.” But it was also perhaps the first sign that Abdul was losing her grip on the zeitgeist — and musical credibility — as she moved out of the teen pop mold of Forever Your Girl.


MTV / Via youtube.com

Abdul performs “Vibeology” at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards.

The vaguely new-age video and lyrics of “Promise” (“What will change the world / No one knows,” “Hear the younger generation ask / Why do I feel this way?”) came across as an awkward attempt at more adult, socially conscious themes, in the mold of Jackson’s Rhythm Nation, that didn’t fit with Abdul’s image. Critics have singled out her performance of “Vibeology” at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards as the moment she jumped the shark, because of her “unflattering” costume and her supposedly shaky attempt at live vocals.

Abdul later joked on her reality show that her bedazzled leotard at the VMAs made her look “fat” and nearly ended her career. But it was more likely the long delay between her second and third albums that defused her momentum. Abdul took time off after Spellbound to deal with personal issues, including an eating disorder and her divorce from Emilio Estevez. By the time she reemerged with Head Over Heels in 1995, Corfield says, “She wasn’t as cutting edge … a lot of hipper artists had come up in between. You have to change with the times to stay current, and maybe she wasn’t current; obviously she wasn’t. Her kids, her fans had gone on to the next thing.”

In 2001, Abdul reinvented herself as the reality television star we know today with her debut as a judge on American Idol, and she’s spent the better part of two decades since mentoring budding pop stars and dancers; she pioneered the pop-to-panel move later employed by other divas like Jennifer Lopez, Spears, and Katy Perry. Still, Abdul’s quirky, enduring appeal has helped her music continue to resonate in unexpected ways, whether she’s reenacting “Straight Up” dance moves with Kelly Ripa or providing the soundtrack for a lip-sync battle on RuPaul’s Drag Race. “She’s done well and made a career for herself,” says Corfield, “so she’s got the last laugh, probably.”

Abdul’s short-lived 2007 Bravo reality show Hey Paula is a candid production from that brief window before celebrities wised up and turned all “reality” productions into boringly glossy infomercials. In one scene from the series, as Abdul is walking down the street after an awards show, a random guy in a car screams, “Hey, Paula! You know that you’re a legend!” He cheerfully adds, “Yeah! ‘I’m Forever Your Girl!’ Remember that?” Abdul laughs appreciatively. It’s a bittersweet moment that unexpectedly captures the promise of that optimistic first album title — that even despite pop’s ruthless tides, Abdul could remain eternally ours. ●


Pier Dominguez is a Culture Writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Dominguez has a Ph.D. from Brown University in American Studies.

Contact Pier Dominguez at pier.dominguez@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.

An 18-Year-Old Posted A Rap Online. Then He Was Arrested For Threatening A School Shooting.

Michael Schmitt woke up in his mom’s condo on February 24 full of inspiration to freestyle a scream rap that he later posted online. The lyrics are crude: The high school senior yells “you can suck my dick” several times, and says “you’re gonna get cracked on the head like an egg, bitch.” No one is named in Schmitt’s rap, but James Caldwell High School, which Schmitt had attended, is referenced in the title: “u lil sluts @ jchs i love u all even tho yall hurt me and i forgive u. i would never hurt u.” Schmitt promoted it on Twitter and Snapchat. That afternoon, JCHS went on lockdown.

A student saw Schmitt’s tweet and noted that his profile photo on the music streaming site SoundCloud showed him pointing a handgun at the camera. The alarmed student thought Schmitt’s track sounded violent and told her mom, who alerted a teacher, according to police reports. School administrators called police in West Caldwell, New Jersey, around 1 p.m. to report a possible threat, and soon after, a SWAT team descended on the campus, where — although school was not in session — hundreds of people were gathered for a weekend music concert that rainy Saturday.

“I’ll be loud and clear: These are not juvenile pranks.”

Schmitt was arrested for creating a “false public alarm,” which carries a five- to 10-year sentence, and taken to jail in Newark, New Jersey, where he was placed in protective custody, which Schmitt described as an isolated cell away from other detainees. Fourteen weeks later, the 18-year-old is under house arrest, facing a potential trial over a rap song that police and school officials, haunted by a slew of campus shootings around the country, took as a serious threat, but that Schmitt says was a parody.

“They painted me as a school shooter, and that’s terrifying,” Schmitt told BuzzFeed News. “Whenever these school shootings are happening, it’s scary to me that I’m being associated with that because of this rap song.” Schmitt insists he’s just a weird kid who loves hip-hop in an overwhelmingly white, conservative town. He says that he calls his male friends “sluts,” doesn’t own a gun, and never planned to attack the school.

But the school principal, Jim Devlin, says police did the right thing. “He says there wasn’t a plan, but we don’t know for certain,” Devlin told BuzzFeed News.

Schmitt’s arrest was 10 days after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. During that time, journalists had uncovered numerous warning signs about Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old who faces 17 counts of premeditated murder. School administrators and police in Parkland were criticized for not taking action based on social media posts showing Cruz bringing a bullet to school, posing with guns, and saying he would “shoot up the school.” Hundreds of schools nationwide faced threats after the Parkland massacre, though it’s difficult to determine how many were real, how many were hoaxes, and how many were misunderstandings between officials and students making jokes or careless comments.


Courtesy Tyler Schmitt

Schmitt’s SoundCloud profile picture.

Trying to show it was taking every threat seriously, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office held a press conference on February 28 to announce it was charging four individuals for allegedly making threats to schools. Robert Laurino, the acting county prosecutor, described the cases: Two were juveniles who had allegedly planned school shootings, and the third was a student who had posted an Instagram video at a firing range while “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People, a song about a school shooting, played in the background. The final one was Schmitt’s rap song.

“I’ll be loud and clear: These are not juvenile pranks,” Laurino said. “These are crimes that are punishable by up to five years imprisonment for an adult.”

Yet Schmitt’s case isn’t a clear-cut example of a troubled youth on the verge of exacting revenge on his classmates. The case raises questions about how administrators and cops determine what counts as a threat and what’s a form of free expression, albeit a highly derogatory one. And it has the potential to put Schmitt away for years over what boils down to a profile photo and a short rap song made by a kid in suburban New Jersey.

“This is as serious as it gets,” David Gray, Schmitt’s lawyer, told BuzzFeed News. “His life is on the line.”


Tyler Kingkade / BuzzFeed News

James Caldwell High School in West Caldwell, New Jersey.

When cops arrived at James Caldwell High School on February 24, according to police records, music teacher Scott Chamberlain and a parent showed them a Snapchat video Schmitt had posted. It was a sample of his new track that he had captioned, “I’ll give ya a little extra to hate me for today.” They also showed officers Schmitt’s 10 a.m. tweet that read, “hi sluts get yr face fucked” and shared a link to the rap. One line of the song stated, “Pull my gun, kill your fuckin’ head / Now you’re dead, go to sleep.”

“A student associated with our school put a violent song on SoundCloud, which references killing somebody — shooting somebody in the head — and posts a picture of him with a gun, and made a connection to girls at our school,” Devlin told BuzzFeed News. “If you put all of that together, it does seem pretty threatening. At that point it’s not my job to say, Is it credible? Is it not? We have to protect our students and families.”

“It wasn’t a false alarm. It was what needed to be done to make sure the school was safe.”

Police searched the campus for Schmitt, but instead found “visibly shaken and upset” people huddled in classrooms, records say. A half hour into the search, Schmitt’s mom called the cops to ask why they were looking for her son, and said she would quickly bring Schmitt to police headquarters. The school canceled the concert and evacuated the building.

“Everyone did what they should have done on that day,” Devlin said. “What we did, I feel 100%, we did because it was necessary. It wasn’t a false alarm. It was what needed to be done to make sure the school was safe.”

Sitting in blue sweatpants and a Christmas tree sweater at his friend’s house, Schmitt received a string of texts from relatives and friends about what was going on at the school. “This is ridiculous,” he told people, but realized the situation was escalating.

Schmitt had been suspended from JCHS for at least 10 incidents since 2016, from cutting class to spitting on a classmate, school records show. Once, he was suspended for testing positive for THC, the active chemical in marijuana. Schmitt started a homeschooling program in October. He said he’d uploaded the song just so he could listen to it through his car speakers, but apparently adding “JCHS” to the title screwed everything up. “But at that point, I didn’t think anything of it,” Schmitt told BuzzFeed News. “I didn’t think people were watching my SoundCloud, watching what I was doing.”

Everyone has an opinion about what needs to change to prevent incidents of mass violence. In recent months, more commentators have suggested people take expressions of violence against women seriously as a possible precursor to shootings. “But what does it mean to take it more seriously?” asks legal scholar Mary Anne Franks.

Students in Parkland had reported Cruz to school officials for threatening classmates after one of them began dating his ex-girlfriend, whom Cruz was allegedly abusive toward. Dimitrios Pagourtzis, the boy charged in last month’s shooting that killed 10 at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, allegedly shot and killed a girl who had rejected his advances. Statistically, most mass shootings involve intimate partner violence, and nearly all school shooters have been male, a fact that has received more attention since Elliot Rodger’s rampage in 2014. Rodger shot and killed six people near the University of California, Santa Barbara, after posting a lengthy manifesto about how he was unfairly still a virgin and had been rejected by women. This made Rodger a hero among “incels,” an internet community of people who claim they’re involuntarily celibate. The 25-year-old man who drove a van through a crowded Toronto street in April, killing 10 and injuring 14, had declared the “Incel Rebellion” was beginning and praised “Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger.” Cruz wrote in a YouTube comment posted a year before the Parkland shooting, “Elliot rodger will not be forgetten [sic].”

Franks told BuzzFeed News that schools and law enforcement should take alarming social media posts into account and consider intervening. But, Franks said, “We can’t lock people up based on the fact that we think they might be violent in the future.”

The US Supreme Court essentially punted a case that could’ve set a standard for what constitutes a threat made online. In 2015, the court overturned the conviction of Anthony Elonis, a Pennsylvania man who spent nearly four years in prison for making threats on Facebook against former coworkers, his ex-wife, an FBI agent, and an elementary school. Elonis argued they were Eminem-inspired rap lyrics he used to cope with getting fired from his job, where he was accused of harassment, and losing his wife, who had obtained an order of protection against him. (Elonis was also arrested for hitting his girlfriend’s mom in the head with a pot a month before the high court’s ruling.)

“We have to be mindful when dealing with any speech when choosing to treat it criminally.”

Domestic violence victims’ advocates argued that courts needed to take intimidation disguised as lyrics seriously because abusers were finding more sophisticated ways online to threaten from afar. Civil liberties groups said courts needed to determine what is a real threat, and what’s free expression protected by the First Amendment. Ultimately, the high court chose a narrow middle ground on a technicality. But Justice Samuel Alito warned of their Elonis decision, “This sounds like a road map for threatening a spouse and getting away with it,” so long as someone claims to be an “‘aspiring rap artist.’” (The next year, an appeals court reinstated Elonis’s conviction, and the Supreme Court declined to rehear the case.)

In New Jersey, a 2014 state Supreme Court ruling bars prosecutors from charging someone solely because they talked about violent acts in a rap song, unless there is a strong connection to another offense.

“We have to be mindful when dealing with any speech when choosing to treat it criminally,” Joseph Giordano, the assistant prosecutor handling Schmitt’s case, told BuzzFeed News. Since the Parkland shooting, Essex County has dealt with 24 incidents of possible threats to schools, many posted online, Giordano said, though not all resulted in charges. “It’s truly a case-by-case evaluation,” he said, “and they are time-consuming, but we’ve got to be right 100% of the time with these things.”


Screenshot

Schmitt’s SoundCloud post.

While Schmitt was on his way to the police station, Detective Paul Mazzeo, who is JCHS’s school resource officer, called a school counselor who’d worked with Schmitt. The counselor said Schmitt was getting psychiatric treatment, Mazzeo wrote in a report, and that Schmitt had expressed anger toward the school in the past. In his report, Mazzeo wrote that Schmitt insisted there was no meaning behind the track title, that the gun in the profile photo was just a plastic pistol borrowed from a friend, and that he didn’t know where it was. Later, though, police reported that Schmitt “attempted to conceal” evidence by not turning over the gun, which turned out to be real.

Police say that Schmitt should’ve known that using “JCHS” in his SoundCloud post while a major event took place on campus was “likely to cause evacuation of a school.” It didn’t matter that police never found any weapons or anything of “evidentiary value” when they searched Schmitt’s home and car. They arrested him for creating a “false public alarm,” a level two crime in New Jersey, which does not separate misdemeanors and felonies. Officers noted in a safety assessment that Schmitt was low-risk, had no criminal record, and that no one was injured, but said in the incident report that his crime had involved “threatening with [a] weapon.” Jamel Semper, an Essex County assistant prosecutor, authorized charging Schmitt.

“It was like I was guilty the second I posted the song on SoundCloud,” Schmitt said. “They wouldn’t let me explain myself.”

“It was like I was guilty the second I posted the song on SoundCloud.”

West Caldwell, New Jersey, is a town of about 11,000 people with a miniscule amount of crime. It’s nestled in one of the Republican-leaning pockets of New Jersey, 25 miles away from New York City. West Caldwell’s median household income is three times higher than that of Newark and Paterson, New Jersey, the two closest cities. It’s difficult to find a house or yard in disrepair, and many are enclosed by shiny white fences. Schmitt has lived there his whole life and said he began rapping in fifth grade. Sometimes he freestyled with his grandma, whom he and his mom lived with for a few years. In high school, he learned how to mix and record his own tracks.

Music’s role in inciting violence has been a subject of contention for years. In the 1980s, amid fears of rising juvenile crime, parents groups demanded warnings on albums they said were too violent and vulgar for kids. After the Columbine school shooting in 1999, Marilyn Manson was famously scapegoated as inspiration for the two shooters. In the years since, blaming music for violence has remained a constant in the political debate following shootings.

But it’s only been recently that anyone could record and immediately, and widely, distribute their own music for free. Erik Nielson, who often serves as an expert witness in criminal trials involving rap music, said officials bring charges in these cases by playing off of fears and biases about hip-hop.

“This is making the argument that the art is actually autobiography,” said Nielson, a University of Richmond professor. However, it appears rap music is the only genre that gets treated by police as nonfiction, Nielson continued. “What’s disturbing is that we’re just seeing more and more of these cases all over,” he said.

The same week Schmitt was arrested, a 23-year-old man named Randy Ross was charged with making a terroristic threat for posting a music video titled “School Shooter” that was filmed outside of two schools in Greece, New York. Ross doesn’t name any person or school in the song, but police said the lyrics — which include the hook “I lay ‘em down like a school shooter” — were “alarming.” Cops said they learned about the video through a concerned resident, which police described as an example of a community “banding together to do whatever it takes to keep our kids and our schools safe.” A local newspaper columnist noted it made sense to question Ross over his “offensive” music video, which was in “bad taste,” but this was hardly criminal. A grand jury seemingly agreed, and declined to indict Ross in March.

Schmitt’s lawyer is hopeful the same thing will play out in Essex County. “This just fits so squarely as what should be protected as a First Amendment right,” Gray told BuzzFeed News.


George Douglas Peterson

Schmitt is 5 feet 7 inches tall and 140 pounds, with a shaggy tuft of hair covering his forehead; he shaves the back and sides close. There’s a small tattoo on his left hand of a broken heart, “because I’m a little broken-hearted boy,” he said. More recently, he’s added “L-O-V-E” across his wrist as a stick-and-poke tattoo.

Local officials made him out to be a danger. In a February 28 letter to the court, Devlin asked that Schmitt stay locked up because the district had “serious and grave concerns regarding the safety of all students and staff” if Schmitt were free. Multiple girls who viewed Schmitt’s social media posts were still in fear, Giordano said at a March 1 court hearing on whether Schmitt should be released.

A judge let Schmitt go home on house arrest, and Schmitt has remained there ever since, barred from using the internet or contacting anyone at the high school. He also can’t upload any of his music to SoundCloud. He’s spent most of his time under house arrest watching TV, recording music, and once in a while ordering Domino’s.

“My life is ruined here in this town.”

On May 1, the family of a female classmate got a restraining order against Schmitt for “terroristic threats and cyber harassment.” As a condition of it, he can’t step foot on the JCHS campus and has to go to a batterers intervention program once a week, court records show. High school vice principals testified about Schmitt’s disciplinary history at a hearing for the restraining order. He expects to get his high school diploma from JCHS for completing his tutoring and homeschool assignments.

“My life is ruined here in this town,” Schmitt said. “I don’t think my life is ruined in general — I don’t. But I feel like here, in this town, I’m done.”

It makes sense that Schmitt’s post on SoundCloud that day, combined with his history, could set off alarm bells, said Franks, but she’s not sure bringing the hammer of justice down on him was the right answer. If he’s not on the path to committing an act of violence, Franks said, “then solitary confinement could be the thing that pushes you over.”

But school safety consultant Ken Trump said given the recent history of mass shootings, officials nowadays have little choice. “School administrators realize the vast majority of threats turn out to be unfounded,” Trump said, but they don’t want to let a school shooter slip through the cracks.

The next school day after the lockdown, JCHS had counselors on hand for students who were too upset to go to class. The music concert that was canceled was rescheduled for March. One student wrote a song inspired by the lockdown, which was performed at the make-up event and includes the line, “I believe there is good in everyone.”

Giordano, the prosecutor, told BuzzFeed News he plans to present Schmitt’s case before a grand jury in the coming weeks. Even if Schmitt doesn’t go to trial, he’ll still have an arrest record. He was fired from his job at UPS as a package handler over the incident, he said, and some of his family members have distanced themselves from him. “Everyone in my town thinks I’m crazy,” Schmitt said. ●

Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York City.

Contact Tyler Kingkade at tyler.kingkade@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.

Can You Name Every My Chemical Romance Song In 5 Minutes?

Here’s how it’s gonna go down:

* The albums from which you’ll be naming songs are: I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me My Love, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, The Black Parade, Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, Conventional Weapons, Life on the Murder Scene, and May Death Never Stop You.

* You’ll be asked to name one hidden track, one demo, and two previously unreleased songs.

* When song titles are revealed within the quiz, you’ll see that some titles that include commas are spelled without them. That’s because this quiz doesn’t support commas right now, it’s not a mistake, MCRmy!!