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

The singer’s turn in ‘Grease’ came just as Generation X started having questions about everything having to do with sex. Tell us more, tell us more. And she did.

Olivia Newton-John greets the press in 1978. (Bandphoto/Starstock/Photoshot/Everett Collection)
6 min

She arrived every single time like an angel, at first from Down Under, an alluring variety-show distraction in the 1970s for our eagerly receptive, open-collared dads, who tuned out us kids by turning up the volume whenever “Have You Never Been Mellow” came on.

Everyone loved a little Olivia Newton-John, even our moms. The singer and actress, who died Monday at 73, had this unthreatening, sustaining beauty: the soft-focus treatment, the pearly whites, the big blue eyes, the voice that could be surprisingly strong even when it was whispery and ethereal. If the station wagon only got AM radio stations, something about her still came through crystal-clear. She was sunny beaches and dewy meadows and warm fireplaces.

And then: Just as the leading edge of Generation X felt the first thrilling tugs of something sexual, Newton-John went Hollywood.

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

In 1978’s “Grease,” she starred as the virginal Sandy Olsson, the new girl at Rydell High School circa 1959, taunted by the in-crowd for her shyness and prim apparel. The filmmakers had rewritten Sandy as an exchange student to accommodate the British-Australian accent no one would ever dream of disguising.

It didn’t matter that Newton-John was pushing 30 at the time; everyone in “Grease” was far too old to be playing a high school student, and what exactly was “Grease” supposed to be anyhow, besides an underwhelming act of musical theater? Was it an early case of nostalgia disorder, the final throes of a ’70s fixation with the ’50s? Was “Grease” intended as a farce meant to delight people old enough to appreciate a rough facsimile of American high school life before the Vietnam War era? Or was it just an excuse to pair Newton-John and the ruling heartthrob of the moment, John Travolta (as Danny Zuko), with just enough of a movie around them to send a double-album soundtrack to the Top 40 stratosphere?

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

“Grease” was all those things and more, I suppose, depending on the viewer at the time. If, however, you were anywhere from about 10 to 14 years old in 1978, it was mainly a glittery gymnasium all done up special for you — crepe streamers and big letters that spelled out P-U-B-E-R-T-Y. Down came the posters of Farrah Fawcett-Majors on her beach towel. Up went the posters of a transformed Sandy/Olivia, who finally wins Danny’s heart by adapting the ways of his trashy T-Bird and Pink Ladies ilk.

“Tell me about it, stud,” Sandy says, reintroducing herself after a stunning transformation (slutty, so many adults would remark at the time): big hair and skintight black pants, a tight, off-the-shoulder black top, red stiletto heels, flawless makeup. “I got chills!” Zuko’s Travolta thus proclaims, in their hit duet “You’re the One That I Want.”

Chills everywhere in the fifth grade, the sixth grade, up through the eighth grade. Libidos unleashed: Oh, well-uh, well-uh, well-uh, tell me more, tell me more! Name one girl at the slumber party who didn’t own the “Grease” soundtrack. Name one kid who didn’t get the allure, and perhaps even the metaphor, and some kind of provocation about adolescence: Warning, big changes ahead. Also: They’ll like you better if you glam it up a bit. And: Everyone in high school is having sex, so just be ready. Tell us more, tell us more. That was “Grease” when we first met it, and there was Newton-John in the middle of it, perhaps reckoning with this new grip she had on the preteen psyche, or perhaps not.

And then, a couple years later, the depths and miseries of middle school: Newton-John is an angel once more, this time arriving on roller skates, the muse Terpsichore (a.k.a. Kira) in the objectively terrible musical comedy “Xanadu,” which was released in the summer of 1980 during a tricky segue in the story of Gen X’s upbringing.

“Xanadu” came out a year before MTV and a year after all those racists and homophobes rioted at Comiskey Park while destroying heaps of records at a Disco Demolition Night (aimed squarely at Black artists, but also the work of the Bee Gees and, look closer, Newton-John). It came out amid the waning antiperspirant fumes of our Saturdays spent at America’s roller rinks. Newton-John offered protection in the form of supernatural, lushly overproduced pop: “Come take my hand,” she sings in the hit song “Magic.” “You should know me — I’ve always been in your mind.”

I remember that I didn’t want roller disco to end. I treasured those Saturdays, looping round and round the rink in my zippered tracksuit top, a giant yellow comb handle sticking out of my back pocket, reaching for just some of that magic. Yet I also knew it was too late. Everyone had followed Travolta instead, to “Urban Cowboy” and line-dancing around mechanical bulls.

And then, Newton-John made the savvier move, with an inescapable hit song called “Physical” and a new look aimed squarely at the nascent MTV age: fitness goddess of the 1980s. Leg warmers and spandex and a short haircut somewhere between Pat Benatar and Princess Di. No one fell harder for this iteration than our eighth-grade P.E. teacher, Mrs. Rapp, and this time that gymnasium was tricked out in exercise stations — dumbbells, pull-up bars, floor mats. Let’s get physical, people. Over and over it played, for weeks of P.E. class, while we worked out and ran laps.

You can hear “Physical” a hundred times, maybe a thousand, before you really hear what it’s about, and it’s not exercise. It’s a woman taking control of seduction, claiming for herself the tactics usually deployed by men: the flirtation, the dinner, the movie, the horny insistence. “There’s nothing left to talk about, ’less it’s horizontally.” Although Newton-John would not survive a coming onslaught of the far more suggestive pop hits of Prince and Madonna and beyond, she showed us a door to a kind of forbidden zone, if you chose to go through it, and naturally, we did.

For her, the trip was already ending. Life would lead her back to more beaches, seashells, those warm and mellow meadows. Sandy chose softness after all.