Juliana Hatfield's hopeless devotion to Olivia Newton-John: 'Everything I do is influenced by my love for her'

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·7 min read
Juliana Hatfield, left, reflects on her lifelong love for Olivia Newton-John. (Photos: Dave Doobinin, Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Juliana Hatfield, left, reflects on her lifelong love for Olivia Newton-John. (Photos: Dave Doobinin, Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)

When '90s indie icon Juliana Hatfield was growing up, she was, like every other little girl of the 1970s, obsessed with Grease. But her hopeless devotion to the film’s superstar, Olivia Newton-John — who died Aug. 8 at age 73, after a long struggle with breast cancer — went far beyond that. She honestly loved her.

“Her music never really lost its appeal for me,” Hatfield told Yahoo Entertainment in 2018. “She was always kind of in the back of my mind. She’s been a thread running through my life.”

So, when Newton-John’s cancer (which the Australian singer had battled on and off since 1992) returned in 2017, a “concerned and sad” Hatfield felt she needed to “do something to show my appreciation and to share my love for her music.” The result was Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John, with one dollar from the sale of every album going to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre.

While Hatfield — known for her work in Blake Babies, the Lemonheads, and the Juliana Hatfield Three, as well as for her guest spot as a Christmas angel on My So-Called Life — self-deprecatingly describe the passion project as “pretty self-indulgent” at the time, the record in fact made a compelling case for Newton-John's artistry, which was unfortunately overlooked throughout much of Newton-John's career.

“I was hoping that this album would make people revisit her and re-appreciate [Newton-John],” Hatfield, who tweeted that she was "bawling" upon hearing the new of her idol's death, explained. “I mean, sure, some people appreciate her and give her credit for being really talented and enduring, but I definitely think she’s underrated as a singer. There’s this condescending attitude toward her sometimes, and it really bugs me. Just people think of her as a cupcake or just this sweet confection, as if she hasn’t had a decades-long body of really substantial work, you know? She’s a very hard-working, talented singer and actress.

“She has an authenticity and a humility that you don’t always see in every megastar," Hatfield continued. "Yeah, she put on the costumes and the hair and makeup and all that jazz, but she was never pushing it too hard. It seemed like she always had this sort of quiet confidence in who she was, and she didn’t have to pretend to be anything that she wasn’t."

It’s understandable that Hatfield related to Newton-John’s “simplicity and innocence.” When she was coming up in the 1990s’ alt-rock era, the music press often made her out to be a “cupcake” herself, a virginal goody-goody not unlike Newton-John’s (pre-makeover) Grease heroine, Sandy.

“I definitely identified with the clean, innocence/purity side of Olivia’s image, because I felt like I was kind of [like that]. All around me, my peers were doing drugs and having lots of sex … and people in bands were living dangerously compared to me. And I always felt like I was a little bit of an outcast, because I wasn’t doing those things,” Hatfield mused. “I wasn’t reckless. I was always asking myself, ‘Am I missing out by not taking part in these things that everyone else is doing? Should I try to do these things that make me uncomfortable?’ That was always something that I was struggling with. So, I did definitely identify with the character of Sandy.”

Hatfield admitted that the finale of Grease, when Sandy “sluts herself up to get the guy in the end,” was “complicated and problematic now, looking back at it.” But in a personal essay for Tidal's 2018 Women’s History Month celebration, she wrote, “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.”

Hatfield jokingly told Yahoo Entertainment she never went through a “sexy period” in her own career, but she didn’t shy away from the sexier songs in Newton-John’s catalog, like “Make a Move on Me” and “Physical.” However, she still seemed to be in “Sandy” mode: In a statement accompanying her “Physical” music video, she said, “‘Physical’ is a groovy, bouncy song, but my take on it is darker, more aggro, because I don’t think of lust as fun or funny; I think it’s dangerous and disruptive and mostly unwelcome. So that is my interpretation of ‘Physical’: The human condition is a bummer, and desire a frustrating impediment to serenity. My visual take on the song is not as conceptual as Olivia’s 1981 colorful workout video. Mine is more of an impressionistic exploration of my own awkward and self-conscious physicality.”

However, it was during another sultry Newton-John song, the title track from Totally Hot (the rock-ish 1978 album on which Newton-John posed in Grease-reminiscent black leather), that Hatfield took the most artistic liberties, with Hatfield turning the “little bit goofy, little bit white-funky, little bit hammy” original into something cooler, scrappier and edgier. Another Totally Hot track, “Dancing ’Round and ’Round,” also underwent a radical transformation: “We made it a lot faster. We made that one into, like, a Ramones version of a slow ballad.”

One song Hatfield considered doing was “Suddenly,” Newton-John’s Xanadu duet with Cliff Richard, but she decided against it — not only because “there’s a million chords in that song and it’s just very tricky to get the groove right,” but also because she couldn’t come up with a proper person to fill the Richard role. “I was going to have to figure out, ‘Who can I ask to sing on this, and who will say yes?’ It’s like, a bold thing. It would have to be a special kind of person who would sing that song with me, someone who’s very confident with his [masculinity]. … I will tell you that in the small handful of people I was thinking about, I was thinking of maybe doing it as a duet with a woman.”

Hatfield did not rule out recording “Suddenly” in the future, so it's possible that she may release that as a tribute to Newton-John in the future. But sadly, her dream of one day collaborating with Olivia Newton-John herself will now never be fulfilled. However, Newton-John did give Hatfield’s tribute album her stamp of approval four years ago. “She was aware of it and she tweeted a couple times about it, just putting the word out and thanking me. She was so gracious to do that,” Hatfield marveled.

Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John followed Hatfield’s 2017 effort Pussycat, an incendiary album inspired by the Trump administration, and when Hatfield explained how the covesr project was the perfect post-Pussycat palate-cleanser, she perfectly summed up Newton-Joh's timeless, universal appeal.

“I needed to do something that would bring me up out of the muck, into the light. To me, that’s what Olivia Newton-John does for me," Hatfield said. "It pulls me back up to the good place. … It’s just a very likable and pleasurable sonic experience. The sound and quality of her voice affects me in a very inexplicable way, like eating something that tastes really good. It has an immediate, pleasurable effect on my being. ... I will always respond to that in some way.”

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