By Juliana Hatfield
Juliana Hatfield is releasing a tribute to Olivia Newton-John called Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John on April 3. When asked to write a piece for Women’s History Month, Hatfield delved into her relationship with the music of the iconic pop star.
Olivia is standing by the side of a road next to a hill. She’s in a denim jumpsuit with feathered shoulder-length hair and the sun is on her face and she’s singing “Don’t Stop Believin’.” It’s grainy, second or third generation footage that looks like it was found on a reel in a musty basement somewhere and cut and pasted into now — from another time in a faraway place where people were more open and hopeful.
Olivia is smiling and swaying slightly, in time to the music, barely moving her feet. She’s controlled, but loose, too. Grounded and free, in perfect harmony. “…on those days when nobody wants to know you and all your smiles keep falling on stony ground…you’ll get by.” Encouraging words.
I go back to the cinema again and again to see Grease. I’m addicted (and I don’t even know what addiction is yet). I sit in a chair for an hour one day at my friend Heidi Holbrook’s house as Heidi takes a curling iron and painstakingly goes around my whole head in sections lock by lock to make me look like Olivia’s Sandy at the end when she comes out in the skintight black satin pants (and the curls) to meet up with Danny at the fair and shake off her “good girl” curse.
Olivia’s sexuality is non-threatening. There’s no danger. It’s a goof, with a wink. She makes it OK for everyone; it is not serious. It’s camp. The sexed-up pop tart, the bad-girl cliché, these are just roles girls play. It’s not real. Or it’s not the whole picture.
Olivia is standing, again outdoors, in a different jumpsuit (spaghetti-strapped this time, white cotton with thin dark stripes) and singing “Every Face Tells a Story.” Toward the end a dog wanders into the frame up to Olivia. This could’ve been staged, but it seems perfectly natural and believable that there would be a dog. Olivia never breaks character, because she is playing herself. Calm, wholesome, sensible, pleasant, unflappable. “If you want to leave me, leave me…it’s no good living a lie.” She crouches down and gives the dog an affectionate series of scratches while continuing to sing.
All of this makes for a compelling video. All the camera needs is for Olivia to be there. It’s simple, it’s straightforward, and it’s magic. Olivia is so lovely that she has an almost medicinal effect. She is a balm.
I hang out at lunch period in the outdoor smoking area off the cafeteria with my punk friends. I like the druggies and the punks because they are interesting and funny — and because they are more than just “druggies” and ”punks” — and I want to go outside of my comfort zone, to see what’s there. I don’t smoke or break the rules, but I don’t think like everyone else and I don’t feel like everyone else and I am not like everyone else. They don’t know what’s inside of me. I want to escape my own good girl curse my way, on my own schedule. I want to see and hear and experience things, at least vicariously. I want to know things. I don’t want to be put in a box or categorized. Hard or soft. Virgin or slut. Angel or witch. Rock or pop. Like all of history. From the beginning of time. We’ve been labeled, slotted, believed to be limited. “Look at me. There has to be something more than what they see.”
Olivia was sweet and strong. Quietly confident from the very beginning, she did the work on each stage and in every appearance, without any hurried desperation for attention.
Some people don’t understand that Olivia is a soulful singer. They think she is a sugary confection, empty calories. That this is not serious. That her songs don’t acknowledge the dark side. But they do. There’s darkness all over the place. It’s just that she doesn’t aim for it and stew in it like some of us do. She gives it a nod and then turns away from it and toward the light.
Olivia is in profile, standing — suspended, though — on a celestial, boundary-less infinity, outlined in a glowing gold aura, singing “Suspended in Time.” She is in a loosely flowing layered white dress and boots, monochromatic. I am listening, crying and blissed-out, then and now, still, every time. Her milk and honey vibrato soars and swoops, carrying the gorgeous, soothing tune, lush and dreamy. It’s like birds, wings and feathers, homing in on the essence. It’s bittersweet; it’s the evanescence of all existence. “Keep me suspended in time with you. Don’t let this moment die.”
I am in the studio trying to sing, trying to figure out how to make “Hopelessly Devoted to You” my own when the original is so iconic it almost cannot be touched — don’t even look at it! —and what the hell do I think I am trying to do, messing with this perfect song, this unimproveable, hallowed recording? Won’t I only make it worse?
I come very close to abandoning the song altogether (although most of the instruments have already been recorded) until I try, on a whim, stepping on my Fuzz Factory pedal and doubling the vocal melody in the choruses with a distorted guitar. This somehow instantly lifts the whole chorus, lights its spark, gives it new life, and the song — my version — is saved by this stroke of luck. It’s like noticing a tiny gleaming thing — a bright spot-flash of light, a lost jewel — on the floor in the corner and grabbing it. It’s such a mystery, how these things are found. It’s magic. We are. I have to believe. “I’ve always been in your mind…I’ll be guiding you.”
Olivia is walking around a sparsely populated Century City shopping plaza singing “Totally Hot.” She is alone, but there’s a spring in her step, like she’s on her way to something good — or just really enjoying the buzzy livewire feeling of the song. “I’m burning up…ooh…If my mama could read my mind she’d lock me up.” Maybe she’s just totally in the moment, à la dérive, an urban-Zen flaneuse without a plan or a destination, seeing where her steps lead her.
A group of children approaches out of nowhere to ask for autographs and Olivia willingly obliges and then continues moving. She makes her way to the empty outdoor part of the plaza and meets up with a male partner and now the solo walking-around video casually and seamlessly morphs into a charming Fred and Ginger dance performance with choreographed lifts and turns and swings. She can dance, too! (on top of everything else).
I am in the studio again, still, trying to sing “A Little More Love,” realizing the control and the power of Olivia Newton-John’s voice are not easily replicated. I am intermittently overwhelmed by the challenge of some of these monumental, Olympian melodies. I have a new, scientific appreciation for Olivia’s skills and deftness as a singer: her range, her seeming ease and effortlessness.
Olivia is onstage, pausing, between songs, to apologize — graciously, humbly, lightheartedly — for needing to pick up her cup from the drum riser behind her to sip some water. I want to yell as loudly as I can from my seat in the 19th row: “DON’T APOLOGIZE! WE LOVE YOU! You can do whatever you want on stage or wherever else, any time, until the end of time. Take as much time — or water — as you want.”