Oct 9, 2014

Let's Get Physical

I heard Olivia Newton-John a lot during the 1970s. Her easy-listening, feelings-drenched songs appealed mostly to girls. "If Not for You" (1971) and  "I Honestly Love You" (1974) didn't specify pronouns, and  "Have You Never Been Mellow?" (1974) wasn't about romance at all, but I still wasn't a fan.

But after the success of Grease (1977), Olivia's music became as sexually liberated as her character.  Her next big hits included: "Totally Hot" (1979), "Physical" (1981), "Make a Move on Me" (1981), and "Heart Attack" (1982). Again, no pronouns, and this time desire was added to the cuddliness.

 One of ten or twelve songs with gay subtexts from the early 1980s, "Physical" (1981), has about the same theme as "You're The One that I Want," and for that matter, "Show Me" from My Fair Lady (1964): we've done the dinner and movie thing, we've talked about our feelings.  I've got nothing left to say except "Let's get horizontal."

The music video responds directly to gay fans.  Olivia plays a personal trainer whipping men into shape, leering at various disembodied, muscular pecs and arms, and semi-nude men in jockstraps.

She gives extra attention to an out-of-shape specimen, until he gets stronger, younger, and more handsome.  And seems to change his race.  But to her consternation, he goes off with a man, one of the first explicit evocations of same-sex desire in popular music.

"Make a Move on Me" (1981) makes a similar plea to stop talking: "Spare me your charms and take me in your arms."  (You couldn't carry on a conversation anyway, with disco music blasting).

Not that the romance was absent.  The movie Xanadu (1980) was about the Greek goddess of. . .um, roller disco. . .helping a nebbish  (Michael Beck, left) open a nightclub.

But the song "Xanadu" is about leaving the straight world behind, running away to West Hollywood.

 A place where nobody dared to go
The love that we came to know
They call it Xanadu

See also: Madonna, Gay Diva of the 1980s