THere’s a limited notion that Olivia Newton-John’s career, whether in cinema or pop, has only traversed from “virgin girl next door” to “spandex-clad vixen,” as one rather snotty obituary put it. While that transformation may apply to her most famous role as Sandy in the musical Grease, it does a disservice to the chameleonic British-Australian musician’s ability – and persuasion – to flex between genres and navigate pop’s shifting moods Serving the biggest hitmakers of their time and an enduring cult icon.
Newton-John broke out as a country-pop singer in the early 1970s, with the single “If Not For You,” a Bob Dylan cover, becoming an unexpected hit in North America. She cemented her reputation in the genre with the hard-hitting, Grammy-winning Let Me Be There, her first US Top 10 hit, the ballad I Honestly Love You, and the plaintive Please Mr Please, which peaked at #3 on US Pop charts, #5 on the country charts and #1 on easy listening. By 1974, she was named the Country Music Association’s Female Singer of the Year, and it wasn’t without controversy — Newton-John beat out Nashville royalty like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton for the award, prompting industry protest.
It couldn’t stop Newton-John’s near-total pop-culture dominance. While continuing to thrive as a country artist, she also won fourth place in the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest that same year with “Long Live Love” – and the rousing oompah beat and farewell message had more than a little in common with Abba’s winning song, Wasserloo . She became a global star in the late ’70s thanks to her role as the genius femme fatale Sandy in Grease, which owed much of its success to new original songs written especially for Newton-John by her longtime producer, John Farrar. The innocent ballad Hopeless Devoted to You combined ’50s classicism with its distinctive pop-country vocals; You’re the One That I Want not only allowed Newton-John and John Travolta to display their vocal power over a rockabilly bass line, but also triggered a major semantic shift in Newton-John’s personal pop persona. While she was known for singing about love and devotion, here she sings about it explicitly want someone. Along with Summer Nights, they all made the US Top 5; Fat became the highest-grossing film of 1978 and then the highest-grossing musical film worldwide, dethroning The Sound of Music – a title it held until 2012.
The transformation that Newton-John’s character Sandy undergoes in Grease brought about a similar shift in her public appearance and music career. That year she released the album Totally Hot and moved away from a pure country sound with the rocking A Little More Love and the sophisticated Deeper Than the Night. The change didn’t scare the horses, and the album eventually went platinum in the US. Other notable changes were yet to come: their 1981 album Physical spawned a hard-hitting single of the same name, which spent 10 weeks as the US No. the pop video.
In 1982 she released Olivia Physical, a VHS that offers a video for each song on the album. “I think that’s what albums are going to look like in the future — visuals with the music,” she told Billboard 1981 (35 years before Beyoncé’s “visual album” Lemonade). “I need to be a different personality and play a different side of myself.” The music video for the single Physical was not only notable for Newton-John’s portrayal of sexual innuendo, her assertiveness towards men desperate to lose weight at the gym, and her popularization of the headband as a fashion accessory: one version shows two men walking together, implying they are a couple, cementing Newton-John’s status as an LGBTQ+ icon.
During that decade, Newton-John’s talent for vocal shapeshifting managed to uplift some nonessential films. In the 1980s roller disco romance Xanadu, she plays Kira, the muse of a self-pitying commercial artist. While the script and acting are nothing special, the soundtrack, composed in part by the Electric Light Orchestra and performed by Newton-John, masterfully combines her distinctive vocals with innovative electronic bass. And the chameleon struck again in 1983’s Two of Kind, which reunited her with her Grease co-star Travolta. While the film was critically panned, its soundtrack was a hit — though the Laura Branigan-worthy, synthesizer-centric Twist of Fate would eventually become Newton-John’s final US Top 10 single.
Perhaps Newton-John’s capacity for reinvention had reached its limit; or maybe ageism has pushed an artist now in her mid-30s to the sidelines of pop while teen pop stars took center stage. Undeterred, she continued to expand her artistic expression to reflect her mature outlook on life: she sang about the environment and AIDS on her 1988 album The Rumour, and wrote about her experiences with breast cancer as a solo songwriter on her first album Gaia: One Woman’s Journey in 1994.
As she faded from the pop mainstream, her peers knew when credit was due: Mariah Carey invited her to perform Hopeless Devoted to You live in Australia in 1998; Dua Lipa’s 2020 single Physical is obviously (shamelessly) indebted to Newton-John’s hit of the same name. “I’ve loved and looked up to Olivia Newton-John since I was 10,” said Kylie Minogue tweeted. “And I always will.” And even without those name checks, Newton-John’s legacy remains: as one of the earliest women in pop, spanning multiple eras, genres, sounds, and even self-expression, she lives on in the DNA of every female pop star’s self-invention.