You wouldn’t really think of Olivia Newton-John as any kind of revolutionary. In the 70s and early 80s, her image was pretty much as squeaky clean as it got. Even when she got all tarted up at the end of Grease in pants so tight she had to be sewn into them, the change was so Sandra Dee could win over her man, presumably so they could go off into happily married bliss. It was all pretty conventional and, frankly, wholesome.
So when the album Physical and its title single were released in 1981, it was something of a shock. Here was the sweetest Pop singer in the world singing about (gasp) sex! Sex outside of marriage! With a guy the character in the song couldn’t have been dating all that long! “Physical” was about a woman with a libido, with wants and desires that she wasn’t afraid to articulate. A woman with agency.
Sure, by 1981 women had been “liberated” by the second wave of feminism. There was all sorts of lip service paid to women’s power economically and socially, but they were still expected to be demure, deferential, and polite. The Reagan 80s were beginning, and while we would soon see the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, a woman’s primary function was still to fit into whatever role a man wanted her in. For Newton-John to be singing about a woman wanting to get it on was pretty heady stuff for a lot of people. She confidently declared that “There’s nothing left to talk about, unless it’s horizontally.” The suggestive lyrics got the song banned in some markets, although today they would be considered kind of quaint.
What’s more, the video took a pretty radical approach to sex and sexualized images. Livvy was prancing around in her Jane Fonda-esque exercise togs, glowing with perspiration and leering at the camera. But the objects of lust were the bodybuilder physiques of the men in speedos. It was all about the beefcake in this video. But “Physical” upped the ante by making the “joke” of the video the fact that none of the boys were terribly interested in getting physical with the very good-looking woman. Although it was played for laughs, seeing men holding hands with and embracing other men in any sort of positive, affectionate way was almost unheard of in mainstream popular culture at that point (and it got the video banned, too). What appears to be a cheesy video for a cheesy song turns into an artistic shot across several discriminatory bows.
All of this pretty much passed right over my twelve-year-old head. I just liked the song. I remember liking the whole album. It didn’t dawn on me until I saw this video again a couple weeks ago just how radical this stuff must have seemed. But I think exposing myself to these songs and images helped shape the way I see the world today. Women have control of their own lives, including how they express their sexuality. And sexuality is about more than who you have sex with. It’s about how you are perceived and treated by the world. In a perfect world, none of this ever would have been controversial.