Legendary actress and pop star Olivia Newton-John has passed away at the age of 73. RIP.
With a massively successful career that spanned music, film, television, and environmental activism, Newton-John’s work has brightened lives ever since she first began performing as a teen.
For many, she’ll be forever associated with the 1978 smash-hit film adaptation of the musical Grease. Newton-John played transfer student Sandy Olsson as sunshine personified, but with just the right amount of edge so that, when she makes that last-minute metamorphosis to a leather-clad vixen, you believe her when she purrs, “Tell me about it, stud.”
Others will point to her transfixing work in Xanadu, the panned roller-disco fantasia that nevertheless has gone onto become a quintessential cult classic. Seriously, how can you pull off a number like this and not become a gay icon?
But for our purposes today, we’d like to take a moment to reflect on her award-winning music career, and particularly the song and video that changed its trajectory forever: “Physical.”
Much like Sandy at the beginning of Grease, Newton-John’s public image was pretty squeaky clean through most of the ’70s, and her music followed suit. It was romantic, folksy, and sweet. Take, for example, her first song to top the Billboard charts in the U.S., “I Honestly Love You” (from her fourth studio album), which was a breathy ballad all about professing a pure and innocent love.
But, in her first solo release post-Xanadu, Newton-John surprised her fans and shook up the charts with “Physical,” the pop-forward lead single from her 1981 album of the same name.
Originally intended for Rod Stewart and, at one point, offered to Tina Turner, the track represented a very intentional shift for the Aussie singer, allowing her to step into her power and own her sexuality. Of course, its lyrics feel a little PG these days (“There’s nothing left to talk about unless it’s horizontally”), but the cheeky suggestiveness was a major change for Newton-John. With a rollicking guitar solo and giddy synth accentuations, “Physical” was an immediate hit and has endured as her signature song.
And, speaking of endurance, how about that music video? Intended to temper the lyrics’ overt sexuality, the clip took Newton-John to a geometric gym setting where the only sort of “physical” activity she’d be getting into was some light aerobics.
Though the video starts with a few shots of well-oiled muscle men deep into their workout routine, it’s basically a fake-out, giving way to a more comedic conceit. In a headband and a blue shirt tied over her white-and-purple leotard, Newton-John plays flirty instructor to a group of not-so-jacked men who struggle with the workout equipment. It’s more than a little bodyshame-y, but hey, it was 1983; are you surprised?
No, the real surprise comes at the video’s end: At a certain point, Newton-John steps off the workout floor and into the shower, and that’s when all the men suddenly get ripped. When she returns, she’s shocked by the results, but has trouble coaxing any of the insta-studs to be her doubles partner in tennis.
“Why is that?,” you might wonder. Well, it turns out, they’re gay! We see the men distracted by their own muscles before they grab one of their beefy workout classmates and head out the door, hand in hand.
It’s all pretty shocking to see in a video from the ’80s—so much so that MTV initially cut off the homoerotic ending before airing it on the network. Despite that, the clip for “Physical” made a lasting impression, becoming arguably one of the most iconic music videos of the era.
Since then, the song’s been covered time and time again (Kylie Minogue’s seductive version stands out as a favorite), was featured on Glee (Newton-John even made a cameo alongside Jane Lynch), and has been interpolated by more recent hits like Doja Cat and SZA’s “Kiss Me More” and, of course, Dua Lipa’s hit song of the same name.
Nearly 40 years on, “Physical” looms large in the culture thanks to its totally ’80s vibe and successful overhaul of a pop star’s image. But we’ll never forget that moment at the end of the video, when Newton-John gifted us with a gay-friendly twist that didn’t make us the butt of the joke.
Thank you, Dame Olivia Newton-John, for sharing your gifts with the world and long being an ally to the LGBTQ community. You’ll be missed.
View this post on Instagram