Olivia Newton-John, the pop angel who guided us to the forbidden zone


She arrived each and every unmarried time like an angel, in the beginning from Down Under, an alluring variety-show distraction within the Nineteen Seventies for our eagerly receptive, open-collared dads, who tuned out us youngsters via turning up the quantity every time “Have You Never Been Mellow” got here on.

Everyone cherished a bit of Olivia Newton-John, even our mothers. The singer and actress, who died Monday at 73, had this unthreatening, maintaining attractiveness: the soft-focus remedy, the pearly whites, the massive blue eyes, the voice that may be strangely sturdy even if it was once whispery and airy. If the station wagon most effective were given AM radio stations, one thing about her nonetheless got here via crystal-clear. She was once sunny seashores and dewy meadows and heat fireplaces.

And then: Just as the vanguard of Generation X felt the primary exciting tugs of one thing sexual, Newton-John went Hollywood.

Singer and actress Olivia Newton-John, who reached super-stardom in 1978 for enjoying Sandy in “Grease,” died on Aug. 8. (Video: Nicki DeMarco, Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

In 1978’s “Grease,” she starred because the virginal Sandy Olsson, the brand new lady at Rydell High School circa 1959, taunted via the in-crowd for her shyness and prim attire. The filmmakers had rewritten Sandy as an trade scholar to house the British-Australian accessory no person would ever dream of disguising.

It didn’t subject that Newton-John was once pushing 30 on the time; everybody in “Grease” was once some distance too outdated to be taking part in a highschool scholar, and what precisely was once “Grease” meant to be anyways, but even so an underwhelming act of musical theater? Was it an early case of nostalgia dysfunction, the general throes of a ’70s fixation with the ’50s? Was “Grease” supposed as a farce intended to thrill folks sufficiently old to comprehend a coarse facsimile of American highschool lifestyles ahead of the Vietnam War technology? Or was once it simply an excuse to pair Newton-John and the ruling heartthrob of the instant, John Travolta (as Danny Zuko), with simply sufficient of a film round them to ship a double-album soundtrack to the Top 40 stratosphere?

Olivia Newton-John, pop singer and ‘Grease’ star, dies at 73

“Grease” was once all the ones issues and extra, I guess, relying at the viewer on the time. If, on the other hand, you have been anyplace from about 10 to fourteen years outdated in 1978, it was once basically a shiny fitness center all completed up particular for you — crepe streamers and large letters that spelled out P-U-B-E-R-T-Y. Down got here the posters of Farrah Fawcett-Majors on her seaside towel. Up went the posters of a reworked Sandy/Olivia, who in any case wins Danny’s middle via adapting the techniques of his trashy T-Bird and Pink Ladies ilk.

“Tell me about it, stud,” Sandy says, reintroducing herself after a shocking transformation (slutty, such a lot of adults would commentary on the time): giant hair and skintight black pants, a decent, off-the-shoulder black most sensible, purple stiletto heels, flawless make-up. “I were given chills!” Zuko’s Travolta thus publicizes, of their hit duet “You’re the One That I Want.”

Chills far and wide within the 5th grade, the 6th grade, up during the 8th grade. Libidos unleashed: Oh, well-uh, well-uh, well-uh, inform me extra, inform me extra! Name one lady on the shut eye birthday celebration who didn’t personal the “Grease” soundtrack. Name one child who didn’t get the attract, and even perhaps the metaphor, and a few more or less provocation about early life: Warning, giant adjustments forward. Also: They’ll such as you higher for those who glam it up a little. And: Everyone in highschool is having intercourse, so simply be able. Tell us extra, let us know extra. That was once “Grease” once we first met it, and there was once Newton-John in the course of it, possibly reckoning with this new grip she had at the preteen psyche, or possibly now not.

And then, a pair years later, the depths and miseries of heart college: Newton-John is an angel another time, this time arriving on curler skates, the foundation Terpsichore (a.okay.a. Kira) within the objectively horrible musical comedy “Xanadu,” which was once launched in the summertime of 1980 right through a tough segue within the tale of Gen X’s upbringing.

“Xanadu” got here out a yr ahead of MTV and a yr finally the ones racists and homophobes rioted at Comiskey Park whilst destroying tons of data at a Disco Demolition Night (aimed squarely at Black artists, but in addition the paintings of the Bee Gees and, glance nearer, Newton-John). It got here out amid the waning antiperspirant fumes of our Saturdays spent at America’s curler rinks. Newton-John introduced coverage within the type of supernatural, lushly overproduced pop: “Come take my hand,” she sings within the hit track “Magic.” “You will have to know me — I’ve at all times been to your thoughts.”

I take into account that I didn’t need curler disco to finish. I valuable the ones Saturdays, looping spherical and around the rink in my zippered tracksuit most sensible, a large yellow comb take care of protruding of my again pocket, achieving for just a few of that magic. Yet I additionally knew it was once too overdue. Everyone had adopted Travolta as an alternative, to “Urban Cowboy” and line-dancing round mechanical bulls.

And then, Newton-John made the savvier transfer, with an inescapable hit track referred to as “Physical” and a brand new glance aimed squarely on the nascent MTV age: health goddess of the Eighties. Leg heaters and spandex and a brief haircut someplace between Pat Benatar and Princess Di. No one fell more difficult for this iteration than our eighth-grade P.E. instructor, Mrs. Rapp, and this time that fitness center was once tricked out in workout stations — dumbbells, pull-up bars, ground mats. Let’s get bodily, folks. Over and over it performed, for weeks of P.E. magnificence, whilst we labored out and ran laps.

You can pay attention “Physical” 100 occasions, perhaps 1000, ahead of you actually pay attention what it’s about, and it’s now not workout. It’s a lady taking regulate of seduction, claiming for herself the techniques normally deployed via males: the flirtation, the dinner, the film, the sexy insistence. “There’s not anything left to discuss, ’much less it’s horizontally.” Although Newton-John would now not live to tell the tale a coming onslaught of the way more suggestive pop hits of Prince and Madonna and past, she confirmed us a door to one of those forbidden zone, for those who selected to move via it, and of course, we did.

For her, the travel was once already finishing. Life would lead her again to extra seashores, seashells, the ones heat and mellow meadows. Sandy selected softness finally.

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