The perfectly curled bangs and the twirl at the end of the ponytail, a blonde sheen, Barbie doll hair come to life. Nipped in the waist, full bell skirt, cardigan—oh, the perfect cardigan—over the shoulders, Peter Pan collar. I can’t remember when I first encountered the Oliva Newton-John and John Travolta musical romance Grease, but I had to have been around eight years old, and Newton-John’s Sandy made an impression.
Instinctively, I knew Grease‘s Pink Ladies were cool, especially Stockard Channing’s Rizzo. Rizzo embodied a cruel coolness I’d encountered in the 1980s, an age of cliques and teenage cool that one could never possess. I might have been able to fake my way into being like a Jan or a Frenchie, on my best day, maybe a Marty, but the boys liked her way too much for me to sustain a Marty-ish existence. Jamie Donnolley’s Jan was also funny, clowning it up to TV toothpaste ads featuring a huge-toothed beaver. I don’t think in my teen years I was funny.
Maybe now, perimenopausal-me could be Jan, watching what I eat and cracking jokes. Didi Conn’s Frenchie was friendly, maybe more so than I was as a teen, yet she was also sort of an airhead, and I’ve never been an airhead. But Frenchie also hopelessly dreamed, and so did I (cue up Frankie Avalon singing “Beauty School Dropout”).
As teens, my friends and I would ask one another, like a Cosmo Quiz, “Which Grease character are you?” I figured I was a Sandra-Dee, the nickname the Pink Ladies give Sandy at her most goody-goody. Taking a similar quiz from Buzzfeed as an adult was a surprise. Turns out, I am a Rizzo.
Olivia Newton-John played an outsized role in my early years. We had the Grease soundtrack, which I played on a small, portable turntable in my bedroom. We also had Totally Hot, The soundtrack to the 1980 musical fantasy film Xanadu, and a 45 of “Physical“. Ten-year-old-me listened to them all. I was too young to really understand pop music, yet it infiltrated life in the ’80s. I lived in South Florida and had a little radio tuned to Y-100, where you could hear Olivia Newton-John songs like “Magic” or “Physical” or “A Little More Time”.
Also, roller rinks loved “Xanadu”. All Skate!
I’m a middle-period Gen Xer, and my guess is that other late elementary-school-aged listeners in the early ’80s might have had similar Olivia Newton-John experiences. It turns out that an early Gen Xer indie rocker Juliana Hatfield must have also been listening. In 2018 she released an entire album of Olivia Newton-John songs, Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John.
Hatfield’s renditions from Newton-John’s catalog closely resemble the originals regarding ethos. Arrangements aren’t much toyed with, and underlying themes filter through – breezy songs are still breezy, dreamy songs still dreamy, earnest songs still heavy on earnestness. The songs from movie soundtracks keep a cinematic sensibility. Newton-John’s voice has a clarity that Hatfield’s lacks, but Hatfield’s raspier, saltier versions give the songs less sheen, just a hint of indie rock credibility, aided by removing heavy synthesizer on some songs and amping up the distorted guitars. Still, Hatfield gives us a direct line back to the heady days of the ’80s, the kind that makes you wonder if shiny electric blue was really so bad.
When I first encountered the Hatfield album, I wondered if her project was to bring a sense of irony to the songs, but after many listens I wouldn’t make that case. I think Hatfield just decided she wanted to sing Newton-John’s songs. She takes on both classics and deep cuts. She even donates portions of the proceeds to the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute, founded by the singer, who suffered several bouts with cancer.
In an NPR article about the album, Hatfield notes that she considers Newton-John an influence. that seems strange for a woman who used to tour with bands like alternative rockers the Lemonheads. Yet it’s also “real” and reassuring. Even cool girls had aspects of the uncool in them that they made cooler by association. In the same article, Hatfield claims to have been like Sandy in Grease.
How many Gen X girls felt “Sandy-ified” – perceived as sweet, cute, innocent, and not savvy or cool? Why is Newton-John not “cool”?
There’s a sexual element to coolness, and Sandy, at her most Sandra-Dee, came across as virginal, as in uncool. Yet, to be cool as a girl in the ’80s was to risk being overly sexualized (whether you are having sex or not) and therefore slut-shamed. To be considered sweet, cute, and innocent meant something else. It meant that you were stymied in the kinds of ambitions you had. For instance, in my world, I could be a “chick-lit” writer instead of a serious writer. Maybe you could be a “badass” indie rocker like Hatfield, but you’d never be the headliner.
Some will push back on this, at least regarding Hatfield. She embodies cool rocker chic, strong vocals, distorted guitar, and edgy lyrics. She’s raw and exciting. What I’m trying to get at is less about who she is as an adult and more about how she felt she was as a Newton-John-loving girl. Maybe we Gen Xers, as girls, felt like the Sandy type because the Sandy type, until the very end of Grease, is overlooked. Sandra-Dee is typecast, considered not cool enough for most of the film’s action. She constantly comes up against roadblocks not of her own making, and only through a complete overhaul of her look—her ethos—is she taken seriously, and only then as the sex kitten counterpart to the good girl with the twirled ponytail. There’s sexism at work in both types.
One of the first times I realized I would encounter a lot of sexism as a writer was when a male colleague in my workshop only shared with me those pieces of his that he thought were “in my lane”; that is, some of his work was too strong or too much for me. It suggested that I either lacked smarts, life experience, coolness, or edginess, that je ne sais quoi that allowed some to write quality literary work and others to write fluffier stuff. Women’s writing or chick-lit. The insult came from a man roughly my own age who already considered himself a writer and of a certain ilk. Cool. edgy. I wanted to be a writer but lacked the confidence to pursue an MFA after undergrad. Plus, I read that most programs wanted writers who had some life experience, and I didn’t consider my past life as a ballet dancer enough life experience. I didn’t consider my own experiences at all.
I don’t know what happened to that guy in my workshop, but that moment stands out in my memory as it solidified my standing. Not only did I have lots to learn about the craft of writing, but I also had lots to learn about how to manage and overcome sexism. There was plenty of sexism in my jobs. Mostly, the people I worked with saw me as secretarial material. I could ghostwrite all their business correspondence, make coffee, and answer phones. But could I have an original idea? Have a thought in my head? Not so much.
I suppose I expected sexism at work. What woman doesn’t? But I wanted art to be different. I wanted to write interesting and relevant, and moving stories. Yet, like Sandra-Dee. I kept hitting the chick-lit wall and all sorts of walls.
It’s not my favorite of the songs on Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John but “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, from the Grease soundtrack arouses a certain pang. Not a part of the original musical’s score, John Farrar, who would work with Hatfield on her tribute album, wrote and produced “Hopelessly Devoted to You” for the motion picture soundtrack. Newton-John’s contract specified that she would have a vocal solo to show off her spun-sugar voice. It visually and sonically summed up what teenage crushes felt like. Lovesick. Nothing is better for a pop hit than lovesickness.
In the scene prior, Sandy is mocked by the cool girls who have her join their slumber party. She became Sandra-Dee by decree of Rizzo and her Pink Ladies, wigged, prancing around in overblown imitation of those girls not like them. Sandy asks if Rizzo is making fun of her, to which Rizzo replies, “Some people are so touchy.” No matter how mean the cool ones act toward her, it’s always the good girl’s fault for feeling out of place. Soon after, Sandy wanders outside to sing-think-imagine “Hopelessly Devoted to You” to the floating head of Danny, her crush, played by John Travolta. I cannot hear the song, by either Newton-John or Hatfield, without that sense of social ostracization. She’s been made fun of and she’s full of lovesickness from a brokenhearted teenage crush.
This overly sweet and earnest song somehow works. Hatfield makes it crunchier without losing that heartache quality, a weird nostalgia for the days when crushes were brutal if uncomplicated. For the days when female friendships complicated one’s sense of hurt more than soothed these moments of heartache. God, girls could be mean. A sad crushing girl wants comfort not to be the butt of the joke. All that attaches itself to “Hopelessly Devoted to You” when I listen to it. I remember that particular, awkward grief. The arrangement has just enough of a country twang to amp that melancholy, but not enough to keep it from being a crossover pop song.
I suppose I wanted the Hatfield version of “Hopelessly Devoted to You” to overcome the awkwardness I sense in Newton-John’s version. Undoubtedly Hatfield reigns as a cool girl. Boys crushed on her—at least those boys I knew devoted to the indie music scene. Hatfield makes the song edgier, as she does with most of the songs on her tribute album. But Newton-John’s original breathes through. Hatfield interprets Newton-John’s songs through her indie-rock sensibilities but never hides them. Just as Newton-John walked the line between country and mainstream pop, Hatfield uses her indie bent to interpret pop.
In the spring of 2020, “sheltering in place” among the raging COVID pandemic, approaching the first anniversary of my brother’s death, the song that kept comforted me was “Suspended in Time” from the ill-fated movie, Xanadu. Anxious, scared, and stressed—I was interim director of an academic program and interviewing via Zoom for two overlapping positions—the song I probably should have been listening to was “Have You Never Been Mellow”. It would have done me some good to contemplate the question of happiness that song offers up.
But in Spring 2020, I identified more with being suspended in time. Those lyrics start by invoking a fool—and a child— I felt I was both as the pandemic started in 2020. “Hopelessly Devoted to You” spoke to that period of isolation as I longed for connection, for touch. Almost everyone was suspended somewhere I could not access them except through screens, as if they were movie versions of themselves. Longing is a cruel emotion. It dangles what you want just beyond your grasp.
Grease portrayed a teen girl who did not fit in. Newton-John’s Sandy is not the only character to experience a kind of imposter syndrome. Frenchis is a beauty school dropout, failing at the one thing she crafted her identity around. Rizzo sings of the “worse things” she could do than be who she is, which conveys her worry about who she is. Jan is always on a diet, and Marty feels she has to flirt with a man much older than her to be attractive. These female characters define their self-worth in terms of the male characters and very conventional beauty standards. Watching Grease now, I’m tempted to wonder how we made it through those years.
When Newton-John and later Hatfield sing “Hopelessly Devoted to You” it might as well be an ode to that perfect white feminine beauty standard, the power of pretty: high cheekbones, long eyelashes, full-lips, thin physique—but not too thin, curves in the right places, and so-on. I have pushed back on these beauty standards my whole life, but they still exercise their power on me. Ridiculous standards by which I measure myself continue to dominate my thoughts. It’s like being Sandra-Dee, by the outdoor pool, singing her guts out but never making it to the scene where she takes the lead.
What is the cost of taking that lead? Sandra-Dee literally remakes herself into the Sandy of sewn-into pants and teased hair, smoking and shaking her assets. The message seems to be that if you want to be happy, change everything about yourself to please, in this case, a teenage boy. Sandy changes so Danny will find her irresistible—not exactly love her. How long will that ruse play out? Her change depicts the very essence of being an imposter. The nostalgia of watching Grease comforts me even as I recognize its message to young women as problematic.
People will describe me as confident, but it’s only a role I play. In private, I’m a wreck, suffering the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and angioedema, where my eyelids or lips swell to the point of making me look disfigured. My body makes me feel like a fraud. I start minimizing my accomplishments.
I don’t go through a transformation as Sandy does at the end of Grease. She is making herself in the image that she thinks Danny wants. How damning it was to those of us watching.
In artistic disciplines, we’re quick to conflate earnestness with superficiality, making vulnerability problematic, even if it’s honest. So fearful of sentimentality, we reward a kind of cunning cleverness before we acknowledge the sincerity. It’s easy to ascribe this to pop songs like Newton-John’s.
What does my sense of imposter syndrome have to do with Juliana Hatfield’s Olivia Newton-John tribute album? Hatfield put her indie cred on the line to make this album. She took a body of songs that could easily be written off as fluffy and sentimental, making them both hers and a celebration of the original artist. Maybe Hatfield didn’t have anything to prove and made the album as an expression of being Juliana Hatfield. Hatfield can do whatever the fuck she wants. I want that level of personal empowerment. It eludes me, but I have a model.
Listening to Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John, I loosen from the grip of wanting to be cool and embrace moments when I’m just me, without expectation or provocation. I can be quirky. I can listen to any damn song I want. I can bask in Hatfield, and then Newton-John and I can like them both. Buzzfeed’s quiz might tell me I’m a Rizzo, but I’m not fooled. I’ve always loved the Sandra-Dee in Olivia Newton-John, Juliana Hatfield, and me.