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Country Music Part V: Olivia Newton-John Country Superstar

At first glance Olivia Newton-John’s career trajectory appears to be a refraction on the Sandy charecter she played in the iconic movie musical “Grease, chocking on her cigarette, high heel ib Travolta’s chest, snarling “You better shape up because I need a man.” Gone the “Look at at me I’m Sandra Dee lousy with virginity…” of yore. She honestly wanted him. And so like Sandy Olivia had gone from Australia’s first country superstardom to the video diva of “Physical”.

But that’s only at first glance. From the age of 14 in her native Australia ONJ had pursued pop supremacy and what gave it to her in the States was country music. In the mid-70s she released “Let Me Be There” – and beat Loretta Lynn at the Grammy’s. Beat Loretta Lynn???? Well, there was a difference and it is one that would lead directly to the pop insurgence of the Judds and McIntrye’s a decade later.

It all felt accidental. ONJ was representing Britain in the Eurovision song contest (yes I know…) and one of the songs was “Let Me Be There” and MCA built an album round the song. This was a new country, not countrypolitan but a middle of the road soft pop: all shiny surface and residual country compromise and ONJ’s country was the tailored sound for a middle class compromise with all but the soap opera disappereard.

The effect on country took awhile but it took: from Womack to Parton the hard men of country were ignored for the shiny pop confection of world conquering everyman country-pop and into billboards pop charts.
As for ONJ: she is the exact expression of a pop music career that exists only in the imagination of American Idol producers. From tween TV ingenue in Australia to country star, to movie star to video star and out. But dotted on her career (she is a great pop star figure by the way) is difficult, smart craeer maneuvers that should be studied by Entertainment Business majors. She allowed MCA to, and with MCA as her partner, remake her. From pop to country star, an affiliation she had no affinity for, from movie star (her Sandy is a wonderful figure but hardly a real person -she is ONJ in a magical Xanadu neverland) to, with the flop of Xanadu the movie, video diva.
The question of artistic pretension is none existence but how about the accidental art of those proto-feminist years in which she moved upwards? What would Tori Amos have done? How could she cope? And on a song as good as, say, “Honestly Love You” (a performance worthy of the Carpenters) isn’t the artistry inherent in the success. A pop music decision that is well executed and popular is the best sort of compromise.
And as for country part VI: here comes southern country rock and into the 90s…

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