Feb 2, 2021

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.

Kenny recreated the iconic song on a 2017 episode of The Real O'Neals.

"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


  1. Of course, it's also about how bodybuilding was a gay thing first. Most AMG models were secretly escorts. Some of them had wives and kids, I've met the grandson of one AMG model, but were still escorts.

    Then Joe Weider degayed bodybuilding and soon you had man-mountains in the 80s. Weider was a weird fellow all around tho.

    My generation had it even worse, by the way: Animation and comics often abandoned anatomical principles in their man mountains in the 90s, producing a generation with body dysmorphic disorder. (Liefeld's a homophobe too...)

    So, the ending of Physical makes sense with the history of bodybuilding in mind.

  2. How was Weider a "weird fellow"? His magazine did make body building more mainstream and it had a great appeal to teen boys ; )

    1. Joe Weider is not mentioned in the post, but I worked for "Muscle and Fitness" for a few years part time. He was weird. And homophobic.

  3. The "Physical" video must have been directed by a gay man- or at least a gay casting director. Bi-sexual Peter Allen wrote many of Newton-John's hits. Newton-John must have been aware of her large gay following so perhaps she started making music aimed at them.


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