This was the first music video that I ever saw, which is a scary thing to contemplate, since I was six years old. The context was memorable, since my mom had dropped me off at a friend's place to be babysat, and I am not sure exactly of the reason why, but I think it had to do with my infant little sister being ill and my mom needing to be able to give her total attention. Anyway, this friend had a new invention I'd never seen before: a VCR. (This was circa 1981-1982.) She put on the original Superman film from 1978, taped off of NBC, so the video for "Physical" must have been put on the tape after the movie. I thought it was amusing, totally unaware of the video's sexual content.
I don't think I ever saw it again until I was in college in the 1990s and was spending some lazy time watching Vh1's Pop-Up Video. By that time I was easily able to see the over-the-top homoeroticism of the muscular men in speedos at the beginning and end, and the shots of overweight men trying to exercise as grotesque and demeaning rather than funny. I also realized that the song was not about working out in the gym, but in the bedroom.
I watch it now and see a perfect document of the early 1980s. Newton-John's leotard and sweatbands practically defined the era, where the crunchier aesthetic of the seventies gave way to the idealization hard bodies and hard business practices. The narcissism of 70s self-actualization thus gave way to the 80s narcissism of pure pleasure and profit. The sex described in the song seems as robotic and lifeless as a Bowflex machine. The music contains a similar feeling, seemingly bereft of any distinctive sound. The instruments sound muted and mechanical beneath the singer's jaded, bored come-ons. It has a vaguely funky groove, like disco with all the joy and fun drained out leaving a non-descript musical husk. These days I wonder if the song and video were meant to be a parody of the culture of narcissism reigning at the time. Whether intended or not, that's how I look at this odd artifact today.