Olivia Newton-John Essentials
Perhaps the only singer to anticipate both Madonna’s early bump-and-grind anthems and Taylor Swift’s winsome country ballads, Olivia Newton-John had a hitmaking path filled with unexpected reinventions. Born in Cambridge, England, in 1948, Newton-John spent most of her childhood in Australia, and already had designs on stardom as a teen in the ’60s, performing in song contests and on variety shows. But the gentle, plaintive voice she was honing was a manifestation of a deeper vision for pop music. Her early forays into country—embodied by 1973’s “Let Me Be There” and the following year's “If You Love Me (Let Me Know)”—rankled Nashville purists, not only because of their smoothed-out take on the genre, but also because they were sung by someone from far outside country’s heavily guarded gates. That she won a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance in 1974 only cemented her arrival. Those tunes were a mere staging ground for 1974’s soft-focus pop smash “I Honestly Love You,” which put Newton-John on a starward trajectory. But just as soon as that success came, she ditched her decidedly mellow image for another star-making turn as the demure-girl-turned-dynamo Sandy Olsson in the 1978 film adaptation of Grease, finger-snapping her way alongside John Travolta through hard-to-resist sing-alongs built on rock ’n’ roll nostalgia. More dizzying change-ups followed, and each explored new facets of Newton-John's range and artistic inclinations. In 1980, she starred in the fantasy film Xanadu and, collaborating with orchestral rockers ELO, experimented with disco for its soundtrack before crossing over into R&B and electronic pop with 1981’s “Physical.” In the ensuing years, her music took on a particularly personal tone as she wrote and sang candidly of loss and her own decades-long fight against breast cancer (she also founded the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in Melbourne in 2008). In doing so, she shifted once again—as so many great artists do—from a pop icon to an advocate and a beacon of hope for survivors. Newton-John passed away in 2022 at the age of 73.