Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Classic Music Videos: Olivia Newton-John "Physical"

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.

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