A friend of mine who worked at Elle once told me about an article they ran in which they showed a whole bunch of different men photos of the same woman, photoshopped into different hairstyles and outfits, and asked them to which woman they were most attracted. They asked all kinds of people -- business men, students, stevedores, punks -- and every one of them said they were most attracted to the lady when she was wearing a fluffy pale blue angora sweater.
That story reminds me of the music of Olivia Newton-John, the Australian singer who epitomizes, both visually and vocally, a fluffy pale blue angora sweater. When I was a little girl, in the 1970s, her music was ubiquitous on the radio. She sang soft, soft songs about lurve in a quavery, fluttery voice, and they were all massive, massive hits, because she was the Katy Perry of her era – only whiter and more bland, if you can imagine such a thing.
I always used to think she was supposed to be G rated, but in retrospect, I see how wrong that was. Indeed, even now my discomfort with her music is probably because she was so palpably packaged as the perfect subject of some horrid old man’s wet dream. Emanating out of her every breathy vocal was weakness, vulnerability, and submission. The lyrics to the songs were like “Sex And The City” scripts gone awry, in which the protagonist, i.e. Olivia, offers herself up to men as a genus, promising endless, “hopeless” devotion and deep well of anxiety to boot. For what is a lyric like her aching couplet, “on those days when nobody wants to know you/and your smiles keep falling on stony ground” if not an ode to all the women in the world who have been forever chastised for frowning, who are never allowed to just flaunt their natural resting bitch face, who would like to roll their eyes or slap someone’s hand back, but instead, just smile and laugh?
Or so I used to think.
Or so I used to think.
Newton-John was always way too pretty and innocent to hate on very hard, but despite the absolute blanket nature of her presence in the world – “Grease” is literally one of the best-selling albums of all time ever -- her work didn’t really stick around the zeitgeist. In her later years, she became more of a real person, both as a cancer survivor and advocate for various humanitarian causes. But she came back to my attention recently because former Blake Babies bassist Juliana Hatfield has just released a record on which she covers all these hit songs, and it’s fantastic. Hatfield says in her liner notes that she has always found Newton-John’s work inspiring and positive, and that completely virtuous stance shines through in her interpretations of it: there’s nothing cynical or kitschy in her choice of artist. Unlike the usual goofy ‘70s covers many bands choose, there’s absolutely no irony here: instead, Hatfield successfully injects her vision into ours, so that, at the end of the record, rather than dismissing her, we learn to have that same kind of faith in her too.
In other words, rather than cover Newton-John’s music, Juliana Hatfield reclaims it, singing these songs as they should be sung and performed – exactly as they could have been performed, had the era not dictated that fluffy blue angora sweater mic setting that so offends me even now. On these new versions, the quaver is gone, as are the fluttering, downcast eyelids (or their vocal equivalent.) In Hatfield’s version, the singer looks straight into her object’s eyes, and tells them what they need to know. Thus, in Hatfield’s mouth, the statement “I honestly love you” sounds like a powerful assertion, rather than a doormat’s squeak, and “Have you never been mellow?” sounds like a really pertinent question with an answer that’s going to change your life.
It’s not really surprising that these versions sound more assertive than Olivia Newton-John's, of course. Hatfield’s own work, from the Blake Babies through to her most recent collaboration The I Don’t Cares, aligns a little bit more towards punk antecedents than to mainstream country rock kitsch. Also, she plays guitar and sings on all the songs here, except the ones in which, Prince-like, she plays bass and drums as well, and that is another thing that sets these versions apart from their originals. Divorced from their orchestral settings and blah 70s tempos, performed in a rock trio format by an accomplished musician of the grunge era, the material on this record sounds like a Pazz & Jop finalist circa 1996: like Veruca Salt, or Liz Phair, or the Breeders, or Hatfield’s former band the Blake Babies. The way she’s arranged them is spare and uncompromising, with guitar chords that get leaned into, and singing that sounds unaffected and clean, and for me, that changes them into serious music that I want to listen to over and over. Indeed, it turns out that Newton-John’s songs themselves are exactly what Hatfield claimed for them – i.e. positive and inspirational.
Of course, there’s maybe a little bit of a gut level nostalgia that goes into to liking this music: I probably like hearing poppy hit songs like “Magic” or “A Little More Love” more than most, because it takes me back to when I was really little and listened to this stuff on the car radio of my brother’s red barracuda – and because I was a Blake Babies fan. But it also made me rethink some things about that era, and how it differs so radically from now. Most of all, it reminds me of how one of my TAs at UC Berkeley once pulled me aside and said, that she’d like me to stop responding in class with remarks that I phrased as questions instead of statements. Her name was Andrea, and she told me that I should get rid of the upwards tilt to my voice every time I raised my hand.
I don’t always succeed at that, even today, but I try really hard to, and I think Juliana Hatfield does too. On this record, at least, she’s taken the question marks off these lyrics and turned them into audible declarations.