'Physical': How Olivia Newton-John started the biggest trend of the 1980s

12 August 2022, 15:46

In America, 'Physical' was the biggest-selling single of the 1980s.
In America, 'Physical' was the biggest-selling single of the 1980s. Picture: EMI/MCA

By Thomas Curtis-Horsfall

She was without doubt one of the most successful Australian singers of all time.

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Olivia Newton-John sold millions of records worldwide, and received numerous awards throughout her career.

Even before she'd secure the leading role of Sandy in 1978's Grease - whose soundtrack became one of the most successful in music history - Olivia was already an enormous star at home and abroad.

She achieved huge recognition with her 1974 and 1975 albums If You Love Me, Let Me Know and Have You Never Been Mellow, both of which hit the No.1 spot on the Billboard Charts.

It's safe to say, that by the start of the 1980s that she was already a household name.

But that's exactly when she released arguably her most iconic solo song ever, which started a trend that would define the remaining decade.

'Physical' was raunchy, incredibly catchy, but more important became a pop cultural phenomenon.

With plenty of lycra, flesh on show, and choreography based on aerobics classes, the music video became an inspiration.

When the era of MTV, music videos were just as important - if not more important - than the songs, and 'Physical' hit the jackpot.

As Olivia bounces around the gym, tormenting unfit men who are vying for her attention, it helped change the public perception of fitness.

Wearing a skimpy white leotard over her blue spandex leggings and a sweatband around her head, the look became iconic.

In fact, if you think of fashion in the 1980s, it's a style that no doubt springs to mind first.

Sportswear wasn't really considered fashionable attire until that point, but sales of leotards and lycra went through the roof after the success of Olivia's suggestive single.

So much so, that she wished she'd started her own sportswear brand in conjunction with the song's release:

Olivia explained in a video posted to her YouTube channel in December 2021 (which you can see below) that the video “really helped kick off the entire fitness and aerobic craze of the time."

"It was the birth of the ’80s headband fashion craze. I should have started a headband and leg warmer company or made fitness videos. Jane Fonda beat me to it.”

It's true that Jane Fonda popularised the aerobics trend, making workout videos so people could get fit from the comfort of their own homes.

Fonda had her finger on the pulse of the budding fitness trend too, opening a workout studio in 1979 as well as the best-selling Jane Fonda’s Workout Book being published in 1981.

But 'Physical' took the trend to the mainstream, and it'd influence pop music for the rest of the decade.

Pop music became more dance-centric, and choreography became commonplace in almost every music video.

The aerobics craze also had an impact on films of the era too, hugely influencing the likes of Footloose in 1983 and more evidently Flashdance in 1984.

The iconic music video for 'Physical' helped Olivia Newton-John win the Grammy Award for Video Of The Year.

But it could've been very different, given the song was originally intended for either Rod Stewart or Tina Turner.

The lyrics were deemed too risqué for the pair however, so songwriters Steve Kipner and Terry Shaddick offered it to Olivia who had a more clean-cut image and wouldn't court as much controversy.

She was concerned about talking on the song as it may have damaged her reputation - with obviously sexual lyrics like "There's nothin' left to talk about unless it's horizontally", the meaning behind the song wasn't exactly subtle.

Her managers convinced her it'd be a huge hit however, and history tells us that was the case.

It saw Olivia move away from her country-pop roots, but cemented her status as a global pop superstar.

'Physical' was a No.1 hit in the US for an incredible 10 weeks - by that point, the only song that stayed at No.1 for longer was Elvis Presley's 'Hound Dog'.

In America, it was the best-selling single of the 1980s, and arguably defined pop culture for that decade too.