WHAT'S NOT TO like about Olivia Newton-John? Olivia Newton-John is harmless. Pop stars aren't harmless anymorethese days even the most preposterously inoffensive balladeer comes armed with a nefarious manager, a team of litigious lawyers, her own reality show, and at least a couple of People's Choice awards to shake at you. But Olivia, who's coming through Seattle after canceling dates to be by her ailing mother's side, has always seemed, well, nice in a warm, welcoming sort of way that has stayed with her even through the "spicier" turns of her career (Grease? Xanadu? Absolutely. Pull up a chair, Livvy).
"Nice" has not really gone over big since the very early '80s, and even then it had its detractors. Rolling Stone, trying to find something good to say about Newton-John's 1985 album Soul Kiss, set some readers off by describing her as "the best pure pop singer" around, though it's not a wildly outrageous assessment. Her output is supremely pure, in the sense that it's demurely unembarrassed. The best of her gushy declarations of love and heartache sound genuine in a way that very few current Top-40 performers can deliverincluding the teenagers with hit singles about young romance who come off like thrice-divorced Hollywood wives giving it another go. Even Totally Hot, the title of her breakthrough "sexy" album, now sounds like something Haley Joel Osment could safely name his CD should he choose to rock the record industry.
And, oh, that tremulous, teary, trademark vibrato! Excuse me if her wistful "Have You Never Been Mellow" isn't one of the best distillations of '70s laissez-faire the Top 40 ever heard ("Have you never been mel-low?/Have you never tri-i-i-iiiied/To find a comfort from insi-i-i-iiiiide yoooooooou?"). That emotive throb served her well in all of her signature tunes, perhaps best in "I Honestly Love You," a goopy, Grammy-winning song that is often knocked, but still somehow sounds as achingly sweet and sorrowful as it did back in 1975 ("I'm not trying to make you feel uncomf'tabu-u-u-u-u-uuul/I'm not trying to make you anything at a-a-a-a-a-a-aaaall").
I saw Olivia's Physical tour when I was 14; my big brother says I was so transfixed he got a little worried I might be in shock. To be honest, I don't remember a lot of it, other than when she sank into a fetal position in her headband and leg warmers for the final dramatic pause of "I Honestly Love You," some of the crowd took the opportunity to howl back, "We love you, Olivia!" I wished I'd screamed it, too.
Olivia Newton-John plays McCaw Hall, 7:30 p.m., Monday, Sept. 29. $37-$77.