We would’ve just called her ONJ now. But part of the appeal, I think, was all of that name, the possible royalty of it. Nobody wanted to waste a syllable. Olivia Newton–John. Just saying it might bestow a crown. The rest of her allure sprang from that classiness: She was neither queen nor first lady of anything, yet she seemed, ultimately, like … a lady. And that was something she could have some fun with, a category she could smudge. Eventually. I mean, this was a person who, at the heights of funk, disco and glam rock, recorded six country-esque albums, throw pillows for your ears. And most of their singles topped what was once known as Billboard’s easy listening chart. (So maybe she was the queen of that.)
By the end of the 1970s, though, she had figured out the whole “lady” thing and spent 90 percent of her first Hollywood movie disguised that way, as a princess. There’s a lot going on in “Grease.” Most of it’s bizarre and has to do with sex and a sort of pure whiteness, particularly how, in both cases, Newton-John, who died on Monday at 73, was holding onto hers. Not for John Travolta, per se, but for “You’re the One That I Want,” the duet with Travolta (and a triple-X bass line) that ends the movie. The virginal bobby-soxer Newton-John had been playing was now in pumps and skintight black pants. Her hair had expanded from Sandra Dee to Sophia Loren. You could see her shoulders.
That transformation unlocked something new that shot her to the top of pop’s Olympus: the vestal vamp. Nothing about the presentation of a four-minute pop song would be the same. Neither would anybody who sat through a dozen showings of “Grease.” The only reason my 5- and 6- and 10-year-old selves put up with it at all was the knowledge that we’d soon get to the part at the amusement park where Olivia Newton-John turns into an ONJ.
I didn’t learn much from Newton-John about sex. Only that its existence was there to be implied and winked at. It’s true that her pelvis was, at last, affixed to Travolta’s near the end of “Grease” but on a redundant ride called the Shake Shack. And, yeah, she does spend that zany video for “Physical” in a disco spa studded with Adonic gym rats, but when the tanned, fatless men walk off hand-in-hand, she gleefully locks arms with one of the spa’s tubbier clients. They’re the ones she wants — and, consequently, the ones I wanted, too.
The videos, the hit songs, her lip-syncing them on “Solid Gold”: I also wanted Olivia Newton-John. And one of my parents must have known this because there was a copy of her second greatest hits LP, from 1982, at our house. And knowing what my parents weren’t listening to, the only reason it would’ve been there is for me; I wasn’t even 7. The thing about that album — more than any I’d ever studied up to then, except for Stevie Wonder’s “Hotter Than July” (you could see his shoulders) — is the gatefold, a good album’s second strongest intoxicant. And this one was just Newton-John in a horizontal display, head to thigh, hair shortish and characteristically a-feather. White knit top, tight white pants, some gold jewelry. Was she truly on her back or simply shot to look that way? I’d have to wait a whole two months, for the gatefold of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (not a dissimilar pose but with a tiger cub), to see anything as mesmerizingly erotic.
Newton-John revamped herself at the dawn of the music-video era. She knew the power of the art form — her Grammy-winning 1982 video album, “Olivia Physical,” was the “Lemonade” of its day, inspiring a prime-time network TV event. She only had to toy with going too far. Her real thing was limitations. She seemed to know what hers were — as a vocalist, as a dancer, as an actor. And she luxuriated in them. There was nothing inherently subversive about her. Yet she was an ironist — the person you’d least expect to see, say, mounting a fat dude on a massage table and riding him like a mechanical bull. Even when she was straining for eros — the way she was in the video for “Tied Up,” in a red leather vest, her mouth seemingly in want of irrigation — you were watching an angel pursue a dirty face.
That’s the reason she survived “Xanadu” — the musical belch, from 1980, with her as a Greek muse on roller skates: an imperviousness to the surrounding absurdity. It’s the reason she came to embody the sleek fantasies of pleasure, painlessness and profit of the 1980s. Nothing disturbed her. She disturbed no one. Even that gatefold: She’s fully clothed! The skates and spandex were a prop and a metaphor. And “Physical” remained the decade’s longest-running No. 1 song.
But at some point, she stopped perking us up. Well, we stopped letting her. Madonna had come along and threatened to put her out of business. I swore she was a parody of Newton-John’s flirty, jolly, heaven-sent persona; of her being staunchly white while adjacent to a wealth of Black and Latin music. What would it mean to mean it, not just to get dirty but to be dirty, to mix in some of that Blackness and brownness? “Like a Virgin,” for instance, is Newton-John but more ornately ironic, authentically, imaginatively lewd. Even though Newton-John’s hit machine was still going by 1985, she was already becoming a memory of a kind of innocence. Which is to say that she was never, ever forgotten. She’s a place pop music has been trying to get back to: the Stacey Q’s and Cathy Dennises, the Carly Rae Jepsens and Dua Lipas; the one and only Kylie Minogue.
What I like to go back to with Olivia Newton-John isn’t her body at all. It’s her singing. There’s always more to it than I remember. I was putting it in sundresses and leotards. But, boy, that voice could work a singlet, too: She learned to flex her soprano so that it bent, barked, yipped and squealed. “Totally Hot,” from 1978, occasionally features sounds more typical for Sea World. Yet any deficiencies in soulfulness were repaid in spirit.
She also perfected a great trick: layering. Instead of just one of her, suddenly, in a pre-chorus or a chorus-chorus, there was a fleet, of lilting, undulating, rainbowing, billowing, Bee Gee-ing selves, on “Have You Never Been Mellow,” on “A Little More Love,” on “Magic.” She had but one body, but on a record, she could become a multitude. The warmth of that sound; the glorious blue-sky of it still warrants exclamation — like “oh my lord” but alternatively divine. I like “ONJ.”