VIEWS: More Than Grease – Celebrating the Career of Olivia Newton-John
Grease is the word that has become synonymous with Olivia Newton-John, the Australian singer who was launched to superstardom following her portrayal of Sandy in the 1978 movie musical. Pop music fans across the world have whiled away their summer nights listening to the Grease soundtrack, with Newton-John’s iconic voice making them hopelessly devoted to the singer. If asked to choose one song from Newton-John’s discography, many fans would go straight to the soundtrack’s best-selling single and say ‘You’re The One That I Want’.
Shoehorning all of those Grease references into the opening paragraph is not only annoying, but it also helps to perpetuate the idea that Newton-John’s legacy is based on one musical. You don’t become one of the best-selling artists of all time by relying on just one piece of work, with Newton-John selling over 100 million records worldwide. In terms of Australian acts, that places her behind just AC/DC and the Bee Gees, the latter act relocating Down Under from the UK in the same way as Newton-John.
Of course, it’s no surprise that Grease has become many people’s reference point when it comes to looking back on Newton-John’s career. ‘You’re The One That I Want’, her legendary duet with John Travolta, remains one of the best-selling singles of all time. When The Guardian re-ranked the best-selling tracks to take modern streaming numbers into account, that Grease hit jumped up four places to slot into 7th.
The enduring appeal of Grease
While its songs retain their timeless charm, Grease’s relevance has been consolidated thanks to appearances in television and gaming. The 2007 ITV series Grease is the Word merged the musical with a talent show format in the quest to find a new Danny and Sandy. The performance of Newton-John was the inspiration for those would-be Sandys, as it was for Julianne Hough in the 2016 TV special Grease: Live.
The Grease music party game released on Wii in 2010 paid tribute to the aesthetic of the film, recreating Newton-John in virtual form as players attempt to emulate her performance. Meanwhile, Playtech’s licensed Grease stands out among free slots on the web because it uses the film’s characters as symbols on its reels, with Newton-John’s Sandy and Travolta’s Danny unsurprisingly the most desirable symbols.
All of the TV shows, games, and live performances bring Grease to new audiences, so most people’s first introduction to Newton-John will be as Sandy. They also remind people that her performance will always be the definitive portrayal of the character. With such a presence in modern pop culture, it is natural that Grease continues to remain the key career landmark for everyone involved.
However, this completely overlooks the fact that Newton-John was a massive pop superstar in her own right, both before and after Grease. Much was made of Newton-John’s ability to inhabit both the quiet studious Sandy at the start of the film and the rebellious character that emerges later on, but that versatility was clear to see in her pop career.
A long and diverse career
Newton-John’s early career was characterised by tender country-pop tracks, with 1974’s ‘I Honestly Love You’ becoming a worldwide hit. In the same year, Newton-John represented the United Kingdom in the Eurovision Song Contest and finished 4th with ‘Long Live Love’ (the winners that year were a Swedish group called ABBA with the track ‘Waterloo’ – no idea what happened to those guys).
Although Grease gave Newton-John a bigger platform from 1978, she continued to do what she had always done: deliver massive pop tunes. Newton-John intelligently evolved with 1980s pop music, prioritising rockier up-tempo tracks over ballads, but there were still the same huge hooks and incredible vocal performances.
In 1981, Newton-John released Physical. For anyone who hadn’t starred in the most popular musical of all time, this would have been a career-defining release. The massive title track tackled themes that showed Newton-John was ahead of her time, while the irresistible dance rhythms of ‘Landslide’ and ‘Make a Move on Me’ revealed a singer on top of her game.
This barely scratches the surface on a career that has seen Newton-John release 28 studio albums. There have been four Grammy awards, two platinum albums, four double platinum albums, and several chart-topping hits. While Newton-John may always be most remembered for that one performance as Sandy, it’s clear that her legacy is so much more than Grease.