Olivia Newton-John & The 5 Songs that Existed in 1981

Darling Ones,

Olivia Newton-John died. I was surprised at the swiftness of the tears and sadness upon reading the news. Her death has thrown me back into the very early 80s of my mind and my very first rumblings of pop culture awareness.

Chronologically, Grease came first (1978) but in my world, “Physical” came first. As far as I was concerned only five songs existed in 1981/1982:

  1. I Love a Rainy Night,” by Eddie Rabbit
  2. Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield
  3. Physical” by Olivia Newton-John
  4. Centerfold” by J. Geils Band
  5. Start Me Up” by The Rolling Stones

In 1981 the biggest influences on my musical taste were Jenni, our next-door neighbor, the kids in Ms. Reinking’s fourth grade class, and Mrs. Miller, our music teacher. I’ve mentioned before how Mrs. Miller always let us bring in records to music class to listen to, but “Centerfold” and “Start Me Up” were strictly forbidden for sexual content reasons.

“Physical” was not forbidden, but under Mrs. Miller’s rules it should have been. “Physical” is way more explicit than “Centerfold” for sure.

In my memory, Jenni, the aforementioned next-door neighbor, had records by both Rick Springfield and Olivia Newton-John. We would listen to those records for hours while roller skating in the basement with my little sisters. Just endless circles around and around the concrete fire trap.

The video for “Physical” was kind of a big thing to the girls of University Avenue Elementary. I give that video credit for making headbands trendy and fashionable. It would be, for 5’10”, nine-year-old me, the last fashion trend I could actively participate in. The best part about this fashion trend was that it was also economically accessible for poor kids like me. I had the bitchenest white satin headband with a rainbow on it wrapped in gold braiding.

I’m pretty sure I got it at the Woolworth’s in the Northtown Mall. I’m 100% sure I wore it the next time our class went rollerskating at Great Skate. All the girls wore their best headbands and we requested “Physical” and “Magic” over and over and over.

Without a doubt, sporting a stylish headband while skating to Olivia Newton-John was the absolute coolest, most mature thing a young girl from the Blaine/Coon Rapids area could do in 1981. At my school, only the upstairs big kids (grades 4-6) got to spend their class parties at Great Skate while the babies downstairs (grades k-3) traded Valentines or participated in Halloween costume parades. Dorky.

Cool kids rollerskated and wore headbands and listened to Olivia Newton-John. Obviously.

I’m not the biggest fan of “Grease.” This is some kind of personal heresy, when you consider all my early sexuality was built around my love of Fonzie and 50s-era greasers (James Dean, Ponyboy Curtis, et. al). However, this movie never really did much for me. I mean, I know it by heart and think Rizzo seemed cool, but still . . . it was kind of a snooze and the songs didn’t click into my heart. Beauty School Drop Out? Blech. Greased Lightning? Gross.

Give me, instead, Grease 2. We watched that one every day, multiple times a day during the summer of 1983? 1984? I know we didn’t get cable TV until 1985, but we had some sort of pre-cursor or generic version of cable tv that played Grease 2 every day and we never missed it.

I will not delve into the myriad reasons Grease 2 is far superior, because this is about Olivia Newton-John and not how much better Stephanie Zinone is than Sandy Whateverherlastname was.

Olivia Newton-John’s death has made me a little sad because the loss of her has reminded me of my loss of innocence. Maybe not the loss so much as the last time I was innocent. When I loved “Physical” I had no idea about double entendre. I thought it was a song about exercising. I had to ask Donny why we couldn’t listen to “Start Me Up” and even after he told me I still didn’t get it.

There’s nothing like someone I don’t know’s death to make me stop and contemplate them and the role they played in my life. I always had warm feelings around Olivia Newton-John but never examined why, until right now. Now that initial rush of sadness and tears makes more sense, at least to me.

Hopelessly devoted,

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