#SheDidThat

November 21, 1981: “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John Hit No. 1

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

On November 21, 1981, “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in America. It became the best-selling single of the decade. Released at the start of the aerobics trend and a month after MTV’s launch, the “Physical” music video was on heavy rotation, earning the Video of the Year Grammy in 1982. However, as a result of some of the lascivious innuendos in the song’s lyrics, some conservative communities in Utah banned “Physical” from the radio. This reaction only fueled the popularity of the song, Newton-John and sweatbands as a fashion accessory.

Newton-John was already a certified star when “Physical” was released in 1981. The Australian native started her music career in 1971, with her Grammy award-winning signature song, “I Honestly Love You” (1974) that became a crossover pop and country hit. She had also famously starred opposite John Travolta as Sandy in “Grease” in 1978. Newton-John had three Top 5 singles from the musical film, including “You’re The One That I Want,” “Hopelessly Devoted To You” and “Summer Nights.”

When “Physical” came out, Newton-John decided to undercut the provocative lyrical content of the song with a music video set in the gym. This decision revolutionized the nascent music video industry and was perfectly timed with the burgeoning popularity of aerobics. The song, which was originally written with Rod Stewart in mind, is considered one of the most popular songs about sex.

With scandalous lines like “There’s nothing left to talk about/Unless it’s horizontally” and “Let me hear your body talk, your body talk,” the music video softened the sexual message with a playful storyline. The video starts with Newton-John surrounded by a bevy of shirtless men with rock-hard bodies working out. Then, Newton-John tries to wrangle up a crew of out of shape men to work out at the gym. After attempting to lead them in an aerobics class, she takes a breather in the shower. However, when she returns to the gym floor, all the men have miraculously transformed into buff fitness gods. However, she soon realizes that they are all into each other, so she ends up going for the one fitness-challenged holdover as her mate.

Newton-John has continued to have a successful career since the 1970s and 1980s, and continues to performs to this day. However, Newton-John has also emerged as an inspirational figure thanks to her strength in battling breast cancer. She created the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness Centre in Australia and has advocated for using the phrase “cancer thriver” instead of “cancer survivor.”

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