Olivia Newton-John was a trailblazer within the artwork of pop reinvention

Tright here’s a restricted concept that Olivia Newton-John’s profession, whether or not in cinema or pop, ran solely from “virginal girl-next-door” to “spandex-clad vixen”, as one rather snotty obituary put it. Whereas that transformation could apply to her most well-known function as Sandy within the musical Grease, it does a disservice to how ably – and convincingly – the chameleonic British-Australian musician shape-shifted between genres and rode the altering moods of pop to develop into one of many greatest hit-makers of her period and an everlasting cult icon.

Newton-John broke out at the start of the Seventies as a country-pop singer, with single If Not For You, a Bob Dylan cowl, turning into an surprising hit in North America. She cemented her repute within the style with the assertive, Grammy-winning Let Me Be There, her first US Prime 10 hit, the ballad I Honestly Love You and the plaintive Please Mr Please, which reached No 3 within the US pop charts, No 5 in its nation charts and No 1 in simple listening. By 1974, she had been named feminine vocalist of the yr by the Nation Music Affiliation, and never with out controversy – Newton-John beat Nashville royalty similar to Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton to the prize, which prompted an business protest.

It couldn’t cease Newton-John’s nearly complete pop-cultural domination. Whereas she continued to thrive as a rustic artist, that very same yr, she received the UK fourth place on the Eurovision track contest with Long Live Love – and the rousing, oompah beat and valedictory message had greater than just a little in frequent with Abba’s profitable track, Waterloo. By the tip of the 70s, she would develop into a worldwide star because of her function as ingenue turned femme fatale Sandy in Grease, which owed a terrific a part of its success to new unique songs written particularly for Newton-John by her longtime producer John Farrar. The harmless ballad Hopelessly Devoted to You mixed 50s classicism together with her distinctive pop-country vocals; not solely did You’re the One That I Want let Newton-John and John Travolta exhibit their vocal chops over a rockabilly bass line, it additionally prompted a serious semantic shift in Newton-John’s private pop persona. Whereas she was identified for singing of affection and devotion, right here she explicitly sings about wanting somebody. Alongside Summer Nights, all of them made the US Prime 5; Grease turned the highest-grossing movie of 1978, and the highest-grossing musical movie worldwide on the time, dethroning The Sound of Music a title it held till 2012.

John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.
John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. {Photograph}: Paramount Footage/Allstar

The transformation that Newton-John’s character Sandy undergoes in Grease introduced on a comparable shift in her public look and music profession. That yr, she launched the album Completely Scorching, shifting away from a purely nation sound with the rock-inflected A Little More Love and the delicate Deeper Than the Night. The change didn’t scare the horses, with the album finally going platinum within the US. Extra strident modifications had been but to come back: her 1981 album Bodily spawned a punchy single of the same name that spent 10 weeks as US No 1 (turning into her most profitable hit) and likewise represented Newton-John including one other medium to her already appreciable quiver: the pop video.

In 1982, she launched Olivia Bodily, a VHS providing a video for each track on the album. “I feel that is the best way albums will go sooner or later – visuals with the music,” she instructed Billboard in 1981 (35 years earlier than Beyoncé’s “visible album” Lemonade). “I received to be a distinct persona and play one other aspect of myself.” The music video for the only Bodily wasn’t simply notable for the way Newton-John portrays sexual innuendo, her assertiveness over males desperately attempting to shed extra pounds on the health club and her popularisation of the headscarf as a style accent: one model sees two of the lads depart collectively, implying they’re a pair, which cemented Newton-John’s standing as an LGBTQ+ icon.

Olivia Newton-John: Bodily – video

That decade, Newton-John’s knack for vocal shapeshifting managed to raise some insubstantial motion pictures. In 1980’s roller-disco-themed romance Xanadu, she performs Kira, muse to a snivelling industrial artist. Whereas the script and the performing are nothing to write down dwelling about, the soundtrack, composed partially by Electrical Gentle Orchestra and carried out by Newton-John, masterfully combines her distinctive vocals with modern digital bass. And the chameleon struck once more in 1983’s Two of Sort, which reunited her together with her Grease co-star Travolta. Whereas the movie was critically panned, its soundtrack was a success – though the Laura Branigan-worthy, synth-oriented Twist of Fate would find yourself being Newton-John’s final US Prime 10 single.

Maybe Newton-John’s capability for reinvention had reached its restrict; or possibly ageism shunted an artist now in her mid-30s to pop’s sidelines as teen pop stars took centre stage. Undeterred, she continued to increase her artistry to mirror her maturing outlook on life: she sang concerning the setting and Aids on her 1988 album The Hearsay, and wrote about her experiences with breast most cancers on 1994’s introspective Gaia: One Lady’s Journey, her first album as sole songwriter.

Whereas she light from the pop mainstream, her friends knew when credit score was due: Mariah Carey invited her to perform Hopelessly Devoted to You dwell in Australia in 1998; Dua Lipa’s 2020 single Bodily is evidently (shamelessly) indebted to Newton-John’s hit of the identical title. “Since I used to be 10 years outdated, I’ve cherished and regarded as much as Olivia Newton-John,” Kylie Minogue tweeted. “And I all the time will.” And even with out these namechecks, Newton-John’s legacy endures: as one of many earliest ladies in pop to embrace totally different eras, genres, sounds and even self-presentation, she lives on within the DNA of each feminine pop star’s self-reinvention.

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