Remembering Olivia Newton-John: Pop Music’s Ultimate Girl Next Door

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British-Australian pop singer and actress Olivia Newton-John died on August 8 at age seventy-three, after a long and recurring battle with breast cancer. Though less in the public eye for the past few decades, the singer made a huge impact during the ’70s and early ’80s: she became one of the few foreign artists to become a major figure in the decidedly American genre of country music, crossed effortlessly over into pop, and starred in one of the biggest movie musicals of all time (as well as one of the most infamous). And all this is just for starters.

Newton-John was born in the U.K. but moved with her family to Australia at age six. She released her first single (“’Til You Say You’ll Be Mine”) while still in her teens, and even starred in two obscure musical films. However, her singing career truly began its ascension in 1971, when she launched her longtime collaboration with Australian songwriter and producer John Farrar. Newton-John became a superstar in country music, even though her crossover potential was never in question (in 1974 and 1975, her singles “I Honestly Love You” and “Have You Never Been Mellow” each went to number one on both the country and pop charts). Meanwhile, her looks and gentle demeanor made her the ideal girl-next-door figure for the era. More hits followed, including “Please Mr. Please,” “Sam” and “Don’t Stop Believin’,” on which she beat Journey to the title by five years.

Among those not always believin’ were critics, who saw Newton-John as the epitome of safe, bland mid-’70s AM pop and bemoaned her “quiet” singing voice (the first edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide awards zero out of five stars to all of her first eight albums). Despite this, and being nearly a decade removed from her last major acting role, in 1978 Newton-John was cast as the female lead in Grease, the highly-anticipated film adaptation of the hit Broadway show set in the 1950s. Like most of the movie’s cast (including star John Travolta), Newton-John probably seemed too old for a teenage role, but audiences and even reviewers were more than willing to suspend disbelief: Grease was a huge hit and for a while the highest-grossing film of all time behind only the first Star Wars movie and Jaws. The double-LP soundtrack did just as well, eventually selling more than thirty million copies worldwide.

Photo Credit: Everett Collection, Charley Gallay/Wireimage

The film ends with Newton-John’s character Sandy undergoing an instant transformation from the personification of innocence to being dressed – and acting like (let’s be honest) a hooker, in an effort to impress her love interest (Travolta). This became the film’s defining image before it was even released, featured in much of the advertising and promotions (despite only turning up in the final ten minutes). Even though she was playing a character, many saw this as Newton-John trying to bury or at least neutralize the wholesome image that had made her a star. The sultry cover photo and general tone of her next album, Totally Hot, seemed like an effort to continue on that path.

Newton-John more-or-less reverted to wholesome for her next project, though end results were drastically mixed. In the feature film Xanadu, she played an ancient Greek muse sent in 1980 to inspire a frustrated artist… to open a roller rink. The movie almost instantly came to be regarded as one of Hollywood’s all-time cinematic train wrecks (even though it is nowhere near as bad as its reputation would suggest and would eventually gain a cult following). However, the movie’s soundtrack was a whole different story, becoming a worldwide bestseller. Perhaps its most important element was the title cut, which Newton-John sang backed by Jeff Lynne and the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO). Not only was the song Top 10 in at least seventeen countries but helped pave the way for Lynn as a producer to lend that distinct sound to other major artists such as George Harrison and Tom Petty.

Newton-John stuck with Farrar as her main collaborator, recruiting him to produce what would become her most commercially successful album, Physical (1981). Reviews were solid (even Rolling Stone liked it), though many saw the suggestive (for mainstream pop) content as another attempt to distance herself from the goody-two-shoes image. But the project quite strategically played both sides: the video for the title track (which would go to number one in six countries) largely ignores the song’s theme of sexual frustration, instead depicting a gym workout as the “physical” act. The timing was perfect: not only was the ’80s fitness craze kicking into high gear at the time, but the video proved a perfect fit for the emerging phenomenon known as MTV.

Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Feature films, however, continued to offer Newton-John less and less cooperation. In 1983 what was meant to be a triumphant screen reunion with Travolta, Two of a Kind instead became an instant commercial and critical disaster (Time called it a “shambles” and the worst movie of its year). Unlike Xanadu, there’s little argument to be made that Two of a Kind got a raw deal or deserves another look (though the soundtrack did produce “Twist of Fate,” which would become Newton-John’s last huge hit).

Newton-John would have one more Top 20 single in the U.S. (“Soul Kiss”) and continue to release albums, but would never be greeted by the same level of commercial success. Many of her more prolific appearances since then would concern nostalgia over Grease, as the movie has always remained hugely popular (a sequel was made with new leads; talk of another installment with the original stars never came to pass). In 1992 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and spent much of the next few decades helping to raise public awareness of the disease. In 2017 the cancer returned (for apparently the third time), causing irreversible damage which ultimately led to her passing.

Of Olivia Newton-John’s five number-one hits, “You’re the One that I Want” (a duet with Travolta from Grease) remains one of the highest-selling singles of all time, while “Physical” held the top chart position in the U.S. for ten weeks, a record at the time. But arguably her signature song was “Magic,” the John Farrar-penned lead single from Xanadu. An earworm-and-a-half with lyrics advocating self-determination and tenacity, the song opens with the lines, “Come take my hand // You should know me // I’ve always been in your mind.” This perfectly sums up the way an entire generation – and beyond – embraced Olivia Newton-John. For them, the magic was always real.

Written by: Richard John Cummins

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