Olivia Newton-John, Pop’s First Female Chameleon
As the superstar turns 70, let’s revisit her ever-changing moods.
Olivia Newton-John has earned her accolades — and what a list of accolades: four Grammy Awards, 10 American Music Awards, five number-one singles on Billboard’s Hot 100, 14 gold albums, six platinum albums, and so on and so on.
But the one accomplishment for which Olivia has never gotten her due is this one: The UK-born, Australia-bred, U.S.-based songbird was pop’s first female chameleon. She was reinventing herself by overhauling both her look and her sound more than a decade before Madonna picked up the baton. (She also recorded “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” two decades before Madonna-as-Evita did, on her 1977 album Making a Good Thing Better.)
Her ’70s contemporaries Barbra Streisand (with whom she tied for the Favorite Female Musical Performer People’s Choice Award in 1975), Linda Ronstadt, and even Cher dabbled in as many, if not more, genres, but their images have remained fairly consistent. Olivia, though, was constantly stretching both her sound and her vision, maybe not to extent of David Bowie, but more than any female artist who came before her.
“I’m Every Woman,” another great female contemporary sang in 1978, the year Olivia made the rare successful transition from music star to movie star with Grease. Olivia never really went disco, but if she had, she could have sung Chaka Khan’s hit and meant it.
As she prepares to enter the septuagenarian circle on September 26, let’s revisit the many faces of Olivia.
Folkie and Rocker Olivia (1971–1972)
Olivia meets Dylan? Strange but true. When Olivia scored her first hit single in 1971 with “If Not for You,” she was singing a song Bob Dylan wrote and originally recorded for his 1970 album A New Morning.
It was the first single from her debut album If Not for You, which also featured her takes on songs written by Kris Kristofferson (“Me and Bobbie McGee” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night”) and Gordon Lightfoot (“If You Could Read My Mind”) as well as “Banks of Ohio,” a murder ballad previously recorded by folk idols Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie, among many others.
Ex-Beatle George Harrison, who sat in on an early recording session for Dylan’s “If Not for You,” included the song on his triple-album All Things Must Pass in 1970. Olivia must have really loved Harrison, because she covered two other songs from his landmark opus, including its Top 10 single “What Is Life,” on her second album, 1972’s Olivia. That effort, which suffered the dreaded sophomore slump, contained Olivia’s only flirtations with rock.
Country Queen Olivia (1973–1977)
Her first burst of superstardom came with a string of pop hits, beginning with 1973’s “Let Me Be There,” that also charted high on Billboard’s country singles chart. Although Olivia never considered herself a country singer, she hit the country Top 10 six more times, winning the Best Female Country Vocal Performance Grammy for “Let Me Be There” and the Academy of Country Music’s Top Female Vocalist prize in 1974.
Nashville’s country music establishment revolted, leading to the first controversy of Olivia’s career. And the song was so innocent! There’d be less innocence and more controversy to come.
Pop Star Olivia (1978 to 1988)
By 1975’s chart-topping Have You Never Been Mellow, the best of her ’70s solo albums, Olivia was slowly phasing country out of her sound. She covered Bee Gees for the title track of Come on Over in 1976, nearly a half-decade before Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, and Diana Ross made collaborating with the Brothers Gibb ’80s-fashionable.
Although she’d continue to chart country into the ’90s, her consistent success on Billboard’s Hot 100 with straight pop from the late ’70s through the ’80s would provide a crossover blueprint for Shania Twain and Taylor Swift in decades to come.
Movie Star Olivia (1978)
Without the precedent-setting Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues and Olivia Newton-John in Grease in the ’70s, we might not have Cher in Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again (and no Dancing Queen, Cher’s ABBA tribute album, out two days after Olivia’s 70th) and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born 40 years after Grease. (Previous female double-threats like Judy Garland, Doris Day, and Streisand launched their acting and recording careers more or less concurrently.)
Olivia’s big-screen follow-ups, Xanadu and Two of a Kind, wouldn’t come close to the critical or commercial success of Grease, which brought back the movie musical after nearly a decade of dormancy. Still, “Grease” was not only the word in 1978, but the film arguably remains the one thing for which Olivia is best known today.
Sex Goddess Olivia (1979 to 1985)
The Grease makeover stuck! When Olivia’s Grease good girl Sandy went bad in skin-tight black leather in the movie’s most iconic scene, it telegraphed a shift in her music and her image that would begin the following year with “A Little More Love.”
That number-three single from the aptly titled album Totally Hot, introduced a sexier, more confident Olivia, two years before her heat peaked with “Physical,” her biggest hit.
“Physical” Fitness Olivia (1981)
Hello, controversy… again. Olivia’s signature hit, which was banned by radio stations around the country for being too sexy (“Let’s get physical — get it?), wasn’t actually all that sexy. Sure, the double entendre was risqué for the times, but the song itself was a perky pop confection better suited to aerobics class than the bedroom.
Olivia must have recognized this, because the year before Jane Fonda’s Workout hit the scene, she helped usher in the ’80s fitness craze with the “Physical” video, which played up the exercise side of the double entendre.
The clip was set entirely in a gym, and Olivia heated up the pot that Madonna would later stir — and acknowledged and embraced her growing status as a gay icon — by having the musclebound guys in the video walk out of the gym and into the sunset with other guys.
New-wave Oliva (1982–1985)
After the success of “Physical,” Olivia enjoyed a string of hits that were sonically aligned with the new-wave sound of the times. While bands like Duran Duran and Culture Club were launching a second British invasion with new-wave hits, Olivia’s singles took on more of a synth-pop sound, from “Heart Attack” to “Living in Desperate Times.”
Go All the Way Olivia (1985)
“When I look at that video, I don’t even know who that woman is,” Olivia told me in 1998, during a telephone interview months before she turned 50. (When she was answering my question about reaching the half-decade milestone, I could hear her then-12-year-old daughter Chloe saying in the background: “But Mom, fifty isn’t old.”)
Oliva was talking about the video for “Soul Kiss,” her final Top 40 hit in 1985, which she spent mostly writhing around on a bed while pregnant with Chloe. It was one of five clips that appeared on her Soul Kiss video compilation. Yep, Olivia was rocking the video album when Beyoncé was still a toddler.
Soul Kiss (the audio LP and video collection) found her pushing sexual boundaries even further with “Culture Shock,” a track in which she calmly suggests a ménage à trois to her partner after confessing she’s fallen for someone else. Scandalous!
Earth Mother Olivia (1994)
Five years after closing the ’80s with Warm and Tender, a 1989 album of children’s lullabies (including Brahms’s — naturally), and two years after battling breast cancer in 1992, another new Olivia made a music comeback with Gaia: One Woman’s Journey.
For the first time in her career, she wrote every song on the album, which was named for Greek mythology’s equivalent of Mother Earth and reflected the environmental and global concerns that would occupy her musically and personally for the next 24 years.
“Cancer Thriver” Olivia (the ’90s to now)
Now facing her third battle with cancer, this time in her lower back after being treated successfully for cancer in her shoulder in 2013, Olivia looks as beautiful and youthful as she did 20 years ago when she was on the cusp of 50.
She calls herself a “cancer thriver” because the illness that has defined so much of her life over the past quarter century has also led to personal enrichment. Though her work in pop isn’t yet done, she’s now more dedicated to raising money for cancer research and treatment through the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre than to keeping up with the musical times.
“Don’t stop believin’,” she sang in the ’70s (years before Journey’s Steve Perry — or the kids from Glee — did), and apparently, she hasn’t. The humanity and humanitarianism of pop’s first female chameleon ensures that her personal legacy will be as all-encompassing as her musical one.