As we mentioned in our introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of 100 Greatest Women, Country Universe will have a greater focus on historical content moving forward. One way we will be doing this is with artist retrospectives. We are kicking off this new series with an in-depth look at an artist who is one of the most commercially successful and critically underappreciated female singers of all-time: Olivia Newton-John.
Her success is well documented, so how is she so easily overlooked as an artist?
She was a global superstar in an era of regional hits.
Olivia Newton-John was consistently successful around the world, racking up a string of hits from 1971 through 1985. However, his was before there was a truly global marketplace for music. Newton-John’s big early hits in Australia and the United Kingdom made little impact in the United States and Japan. Her string of five gold singles in the United States often failed to chart in the United Kingdom. Just when pop radio completely cooled to her in the mid-seventies, she started having big hits in Japan and her albums started topping the charts in continental Europe. It wasn’t until Grease that she had singles that were successful everywhere. Speaking of Grease…
Her biggest hits are associated with film soundtracks.
Yes, she had many gold and platinum studio albums and hits collections, but her biggest hits are inextricably linked to two of the films that she starred in: Grease and Xanadu. Her music career was tremendously successful, but with the possible exceptions of “I Honestly Love You” and “Physical,” which were both much bigger hits in the U.S. then they were in the rest of the world, Newton-John is best known today for the songs she sang on film. It’s an odd reality for someone who was more commercially successful as a singer than an actress. Grease was her only hit movie, although Xanadu eventually became a cult classic. Newton-John’s signature films, and the songs from them, have had a much longer shelf life than the rest of her radio hits.
She never had a musical home base that claimed her as their own.
Further complicating her legacy as an artist is that while she had many pop, country, and even rock hits, none of those fields championed her work. Her seventies albums are eerily similar in structure to the eclectic collections that made stars out of Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, but Ronstadt was enthusiastically embraced as the leading female rocker and Harris as a country crooner, despite both ladies dabbling in all three genres on their seminal albums. Newton-John was a country star from overseas at the height of that genre’s xenophobia, and she was a pop star before being primarily a pop star was taken seriously by the white male-dominated music press. Then again…
She never stood still long enough to claim a musical home of her own.
Newton-John’s own eclecticism has further complicated where to place her. This retrospective is taking place on a country music website, a genre she didn’t know existed when she started recording country songs and that she now only revisits every decade or so. Her early pop hits were also grounded in folk music, before she went full Adult Contemporary for a few years. From Grease through 1988’s The Rumour, she kept up with current pop trends, and every once in a while, she revisits the rock and dance styles that dominated her late seventies work and pretty much all of her eighties recordings. Since her 1992 cancer battle, she’s regularly recorded New Age and healing music, and has written most of her own material. The goal of this feature is to show how she’s been consistently good no matter what she was doing. In her fifty year recording career, her talent as a singer has been the strongest common thread.
This retrospective will take a chronological journey through her catalog, rating the albums and singles while also providing some historical information along the way. First up: her debut single from 1966, “Till You Say You’ll Be Mine,” the 1970 Toomorrow soundtrack, and her debut album from 1971, If Not For You.
Up Next: 1966-1971