Farewell, Olivia Newton-John: Why We Truly Loved Her

Farewell, Olivia Newton-John, the eternally beloved Queen of Pop who died Monday at the age of 73. years. But Olivia could do it all: tearful ballads like “I Honestly Love You,” country accents like “Let Me Be There,” 50s pastiches in Fat. Disco show tunes with Gene Kelly and ELO in Xanadu. Breathtaking rock odes to sex like “Magic” and “Make a Move On Me.” It’s all the reasons we loved Olivia Newton-John — we honestly loved her — and it’s why pop connoisseurs mourn her today.

Olivia could jump between genres, but she threw herself into every style with the same effervescent, hyper-glitzy enthusiasm, which is why she never sounded the least bit. Before fans invented the terminology of stars having “eras,” Olivia perfected the concept as she hit every stop on the radio dial, from ingenue to Xanadu.

Every fan has a favorite ONJ phase, but for me it’s Olivia, 70s soft rock on AM radio, when she kept finding new ways to break her heart beat after beat. No happy songs for this girl. She was the star of the Mellow era who actually had the nerve to use the word “mellow” in a song title — her number one therapy session, “Have You Never Been Mellow?” I always have this tragic feeling of “Don’t Stop Believin'” and “Sam”. But my favorite Olivia ballad will always be “Please Mr. Please,” a country song about sitting in a Nashville bar by the jukebox, begging random cowboys not to play the tune. who reminds him. “Don’t play B17 / It was our song, it was his song, but it’s over” – she sounded totally desperate, vulnerable, but also a bit scary.

No other singer could get away with the exaggerated misery of “I Honestly Love You.” Olivia confesses her crush on someone she can never have, in her breathy whisper. She humbles herself line by line, resigned to her grief, refusing to even entertain the idea that this notion might not be a total disaster. (She doesn’t even give him a chance to think about it.) “If we were both born, in another place and another time / This moment could have ended in a kiss” – the way her voice shakes on this line is always a punch in the aorta.

She grew up in Australia, the granddaughter of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born. She launched herself into English folk-pop stardom early on in the 60s – with her angelic chirping, blonde hair, blue eyes and blinding white teeth, she was like a G-rated version of Marianne Faithfull. In the 1970 sci-fi flop tomorrow (yes, that’s how it’s spelled) she played the lead singer of a British pop band abducted by aliens, but even Olivia couldn’t save that concept.

Her first big crush came when she turned to country music, as part of her longtime partnership with writer-producer John Farrar. She scored her first hit in 1971 covering Bob Dylan, of All People, “If Not For You”, soon followed by “Let Me Be There”. It was controversial when she won a country Grammy, but it was a real scandal when this Australian intruder won the Country Music Association’s award for female singer of the year. George Jones and Tammy Wynette were so outraged that they organized other Nashville veterans in a boycott of the CMA and founded the “Association of Country Entertainers”. It didn’t last. (The following year, the top CMA award went to John Denver; when presenter Charlie Rich read the name on the envelope, he pulled out a lighter and burned it on the podium. Shit, country singers were very fiery at the time. .)

After so many years as the healthiest of pop singers, her Fat makeover in 1978 was a turning point. Like Sandy in the movie, Olivia got in touch with her bad girl energy. The Fat The soundtrack album became its own pop culture phenomenon – it was one of those hit albums that people just refused to stop buying, until the end of the century. “You’re the One I Want” could have been a ringtone – it had nothing to do with the Broadway musical or the 50s concept. But it exploded into one of the most irresistible hits ever. era: Olivia’s growl, John Travolta’s hurt screams, that massive bass line and a repeat of the chorus that lasts forever, but always ends too soon.

Fat ended her Sandra Dee phase – once Olivia discovered the joys of black leather and sultry pouts, there was no turning back. His next move was totally hot, where she gendered her music and eventually broke up with sad songs. She has become more popular than ever. “I love commercial music,” John Lennon said in 1980, just before his death. “I love Olivia Newton-John singing ‘Magic’, and Donna Summer singing whatever she sings. I love ELO singing ‘All Over the World’. I can dissect it and criticize it with n any industry critic.

‘Physical’ is rightly her most famous hit – it was outrageous not because it was so explicit, but because it was so funny, with Olivia purring, “There’s nothing more to say unless it is horizontally.” It was a time when it was rare to hear radio hits from adult women in their thirties about racking their brains, so mothers went crazy for this one, with the kids and all the world. You can hear a sly smile in her voice, but her voice grows more vigorous as the song progresses, until the final choruses when it transitions to “Let’s get animal! Animal! Let’s enter animal!

She took the “physical” smile even further in her unjustly forgotten sequel, “Make a Move On Me” – it’s not as famous, probably because it’s not as dirty, but it’s a song who can always turn anyone into a Solid gold Dancer. His ’80s phase peaked in 1985 with “Soul Kiss,” one of the era’s most explicit odes to non-Prince oral sex.

She devoted her final years to philanthropy and family, as well as her long and courageous public battle with cancer, but she never gave up on music. She recorded albums for Hallmark, as well as a touching 1998 remake of “I Honestly Love You” with Babyface. His subsequent best album is This Christmas, an incredible series of holiday duets from 2012 with John Travolta. When Olivia and John go “Baby, it’s cold outside”, he’s the one pleading that he needs to go home, while Olivia urges him to stay (“God, Liv, I really have to go” , “I was hoping, John, that you would pass”), until he finally shrugs, “Ugh, I’m staying!” They also sing “Deck the Halls” with James Taylor and “Winter Wonderland” with Tony Bennett.

She inspired a stunning 2018 tribute album by indie rock legend Juliana Hatfield, illustrating how Olivia gave so many shy Gen X girls a voice they could recognize as their own. Juliana Hatfield sings Olivia Newton-John putting his songbook in a new light; Juliana’s “Make A Move On Me” is a real banger. (Olivia loved the album.) In Allison Anders’ 1992 drama Gas Food AccommodationFairuza Balk is a small town trailer park kid who befriends Donovan Leitch Olivia’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 — he’s obsessed with the phrase, “We gotta believe we’re magic,” until she realizes it’s her way of trying to tell him he’s gay.

There’s a touching cry from Olivia in the 1999 comedy Tail, starring Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams as a teenage couple who bring down the Nixon administration. Williams bursts into the Oval Office and dictates a message to the President, singing “I Honestly Love You.” (That happens to be the 18-minute gap in the Watergate tapes.) Somehow, this moment seems to capture the heartfelt sincerity that the world has always cherished in Olivia’s voice. Stay in “Magic”, Olivia Newton-John.

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