Sept 23, 2002
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Olivia Newton-John still mellow, but moving on
Olivia Newton-John is the queen of mellow gold, now and forever, since the type of music she made in her heyday is not likely to experience a revival. What rules the charts today sounds pushier. The closest thing we have to soft-hued '70s pop is the background strumming in pastoral ads for asthma pills and fabric softener.
And Newton-John, who performs on Monday at Fort Lauderdale's Broward Center, has other priorities than making the world safe for a sequel to Have You Never Been Mellow, although she does have a 16-year-old daughter, Chloe, who is currently in Los Angeles writing songs and making her own bid for a recording career. Newton-John anticipates from her daughter "a very different kind of music from mine."
In a brief telephone interview, it is commitments to family, ecological activism, cancer-patient care and a winemaking business that bring the most spontaneous, unsolicited remarks. Questions about her career elicit short answers. Newton-John, 53, might have no reflections on the place of her music or its value, or she might have no interest in sharing them with the media. It's hard to know either way when the interview is held to 15 minutes, period, and conducted as if on an egg timer.
Still, she has made herself available to chat, mainly to alert people to the fact that she is touring again. "I'm still delighted when I see people out there," she says, the voice still light and airy.
Newton-John's music was all about cultivating nice feelings. Her love songs and ballads, even at their saddest, had a blithe spirit that defined a period of plain-spun, earnest pop. Let Me Be There, I Honestly Love You and If You Love Me Let Me Know, sung by Newton-John, hovered close on the heartwarming scale to Diary by Bread and the James Taylor version of Carole King's You've Got a Friend. This wasn't so much an age of innocence, not with Vietnam and Watergate in play, as it was a plaintiveness that listeners still found possible, and believable, before cynicism and irony took over the vernacular.
Where Newton-John parted company with her easygoing peers was in the decision to branch out. She took a leading role in the 1978 film revival of Grease, alongside John Travolta, and became a phenomenon. The tribute to the '50s became one of the highest-grossing movie musicals ever. The co-stars' duets, Summer Loving and You're the One That I Want, also spurred the soundtrack to a long pop-chart run. Nobody minded that a woman in her late 20s, born in England and raised in Australia, was playing the proverbial American high-school sweetheart.
Her subsequent albums, slicker and more lavish-sounding than the folk-tinged pop that made her famous, yielded still more hits. Even her 1980 movie musical Xanadu, a box office bomb co-starring Gene Kelly, produced a chart-topping soundtrack. The disco-influenced 1981 album Physical caused a stir of another kind. The mildly suggestive title track -- "Let me hear your body talk" -- was banned by a handful of radio stations. But it sold a million copies and earned Newton-John a Grammy in the relatively new category of best video.
Old-fashioned showbiz entropy would take over from there, and the Newton-John craze subsided in the '80s. Her softer '70s work continues to crop up on telemarketed album compilations and easy-listening radio.
At her peak, she was a pop star for the silent majority -- people who asked little of music except that it be pleasant and not too loud. She was never a culture warrior, just the sort of artist for whom the phrase "song stylings" was practically invented. But she proved hardy through years that saw plenty of upheaval in popular music. She persevered through punk, disco, metal, New Wave, unkind critics and the alarming, late-'70s industry-wide dive in record sales that the big labels tried to blame on home cassette-taping.
She married actor-dancer Matt Lattanzi -- who appeared in Xanadu -- in 1985 and had daughter Chloe the following year. She did not stop working, but appeared comfortable trading full-time pop stardom for family life. Spotlighted for most of her 20s and 30s, she put some distance between herself and the public, and showed a wariness of any attention she could not control. She disclosed her battle with cancer in 1992 by saying, "I am making this information public myself to save enquiring minds 95 cents."
Asked what lessons about show business she might pass along to her daughter, she says, "One of them would be, don't believe your handout. Don't believe what's written about you, good or bad."
After recovering from illness, she released Gaia: One Woman's Journey in 1994 -- an album only just issued this year in the United States. A set of straightforward pop songs, Gaia takes an autobiographical look back through the best and worst of times, and thematically links her own struggles with her concerns for the health of the planet.
She has continued to record and tour, and collect lifetime-achievement accolades that arrive, as she puts it, "when you get of a certain age." She sounds most enthusiastic about her campaigning to save the world's forests, the "healing center" for cancer after-care patients that she is helping to build in Australia, and her Koala Blue wine label. She describes her life today as "saving trees, helping people with cancer and giving them a bottle of wine to get through it all."
She is more of a spectator to contemporary pop than a participant. And she does stay up on things, jumping at a passing mention of the television sing-off American Idol: "Oh God, we watched it last night! I thought there was a lot of talent on the stage. I think the girl that won, she's got a good voice, and I think she'll do well. She's very sweet." She applauds the recent success of another Aussie pop star, Kylie Minogue, and she mentions her daughter's fondness for the female-fronted pop band No Doubt.
As it happens, No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani used to cover Summer Loving on tour with the Vandals, one of No Doubt's opening acts. Newton-John is hearing this for the first time, and says it's not often that her songs come ricocheting back to her that way. She is more apt to hear them on "elevators and things like that, but not so much on stage," she says, although she notes that Elvis Presley covered Let Me Be There and If You Love Me Let Me Know, "and that's great acknowledgement to have."
She sounds unconcerned with -- or free of delusions about -- the notion of a musical legacy, happy instead to still have a fan base. Touring is something she does because she can. "I'm very fortunate," she says. "I'm at a pick-and-choose kind of time right now ... I've kind of done it all. This is kind of icing on the cake."
With thanks to Di Dixon
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