What Olivia Newton-John Gave Generation X
Grease was the word, but it’s "Sandy" we heard.
Olivia Newton-John helped Generation X believe. In the possibility of reinventing yourself. In the idea that people can change. In that happy endings could exist - literally riding off into the sunset. Her Sandy character was a high school girl with feelings so many of us were about to experience or would some day experience in high school.
Grease came out in 1978, and though some of us were just on the cusp of high school and some of us wouldn't be for more than a decade later- Generation X was born 1965 - 1980 after all - we'd all see Grease, be captivated by its songs and characters, and feel for Sandy. Some of us had friends like her. Some of us felt like her. I'm hard pressed to recall any other female musical movie star that reached so many of us so deeply, with so much innocence and charm, at such a formative time.
I was eight then and, of course, saw the film for the first time in a movie theater, which only added to the buzz and excitement. Sandy and the Grease characters were literally larger than life on the big screen. Upon seeing Olivia's Sandy for the first time, I thought she was pretty and kind. Upon hearing John Travolta's Danny Zuko character talk to her for the first time at school, I thought "What a jerk." Before long, my friends and I would see our share of jerks in high school, too. And we'd hope and wish they'd change. Most (not all!) never did. But that's another story for another time.
After seeing the movie, I hung the Grease fuzzy dice on my purple banana seat bike, and plastered the movie poster in my room. I had the book, which I read over and over, made notes, and memorized lines.
I thought I'd had it hard moving around in the same neighborhood. Sandy had moved to the U.S. from Australia! Now that was a real change. I felt silly for almost feeling sorry for myself. She seemed delicate, but was so strong. I liked that. A "real" American teenager! Would high school for me be like Rydell for her? I wondered if I'd have friends like the Pink Ladies (would be even better, minus the jackets!), a date for the school dance like Sandy did (I'd go with guy "friends"), or try smoking cigarettes (I did at age 12)? Would we pile into cars? Yes, when the first friend turned 16. Would we fall for guys that seemed immature and unattainable? Yep. Would we wish we could be different, better, and cooler? For sure. But what struck me most was the happy ending - Sandy and Danny riding off into the sunset. It COULD happen! Never mind that cars don't fly. I forgot it was the movies.
Decades passed, and I'd see Olivia Newton John do interviews on The Today Show and elsewhere, and I couldn't believe she was grown up. That we were both grown up. She seemed just as smiley and perky as Sandy was. She seemed like a nice and real person. That made me happy, too. I was sad she had to battle cancer when she'd given the world so much joy.
Earlier this year, I saw The Rise of the Pink Ladies went into production and I got so excited for the younger generations - and for Gen X of course. Maybe I'll gather my high school friends from around the country to see it, and we'll reminisce and laugh and feel wiser, and wonder why the world took Olivia Newton-John away so young. She gave me a glimpse at strength, beauty, and resilience, at the movies and in real life. Like many other Gen X Girls, I remain hopelessly devoted to her memory.