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Music Review: John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John – This Christmas

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Before starting this review, I must acknowledge that it goes against my nature to negatively criticize any legitimate charity project, no matter how crass, slapdash, and indefensible it may otherwise seem to be, and I am not questioning the legitimacy of either charity This Christmas benefits. As churlish as it may be to point out the shortcomings of such a benevolent undertaking, though, it would be inexcusable to give this album a pass on the basis of good intentions, alone.

What strikes you first about This Christmas by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John is, really, Olivia Newton-John? Is that still a thing?

And on seeing the album cover, that’s her? She looks healthy, in a surgically enhanced sort of way, which is a relief after her early-’90s bout with breast cancer. But she looks nothing like the co-star of Grease or the perpetrator of “Have You Ever Been Mellow”! This woman could pass for Rachael Ray with a so-so dye job.

The lead female voice on the This Christmas sounds sufficiently Aussie and breathy to convince that, even if she had a photo stand-in, those vocals are courtesy of Olivia (and, most likely, AutoTune). And Ms. Newton-John knows her way around holiday music, as well as she does any, having released at least two Christmas albums in the past decade. Still, given both stars’ appearance, we should not rule out figures from Madame Tussauds standing in for either of them on the cover.

The makeup staff were so intent on Travolta’s “Ken doll” wig remaining securely in place, they apparently not only glued that felt-cloth-looking atrocity on his head, they also conjoined the two stars’ heads. The adorable pair are so close, it would appear, they did not settle for merely tête à tête, they got absolutely ear to ear (or oreille à l’oreille).

It’s impossible to tell from the photo what Olivia has in her cup, although her expression would suggest mulled wine or something lithium based. Travolta’s cup looks to be filled to the brim with crème brulee or, possibly, bacon drippings. Other related photos depict the two adorably sharing a sip from an oversized teacup (judging from their expressions, its contents also liberally spiked with lithium); her wearing a set of green antlers and hefting the giant antidepressant-cup, he in a Santa cap, ready to dive into that cup of bacon drippings again. And there’s a zany shot of them in front of a hearth fire that looks about as realistic as the one on that $2 yule log video I bought, she holding a tiny gift, he with a lapful of festive presents that would be right at home in an artificial tree display at Hell-Mart, with two jumbo cups of Darvon at their feet. And in the “cute couple by the tree” shot, she still doesn’t seem to be herself, while he looks like his unseen hand might conceal a chloroform-soaked cloth he’s ready to clamp down over her mouth and nose.

Don’t these seem like genuine, honest moments of spontaneous holiday joy, shared between two longtime friends as they share a cherished annual ritual, and not at all like calculated, manipulative images meant to convince the buyer that these duets are heartfelt collaborations between longtime friends, inspired by the season?

And that’s just the album art.

The disc’s opener, the notably creepy, predatory “Baby It’s Cold Outside”—surely one of the most dated “masher” themes to endure into the modern age—at least offers the twist is the gender reversal: unlike most renditions, here the woman gets to play the aggressor who the song leads us to believe has loaded the guy’s drink with date-rape drugs. This boneheaded notion of sexual equality is about as enlightened as things get here on This Christmas. And how did this skeevy, boozy seduction scenario become a Christmas song anyway? Just because it’s about cruddy winter weather doesn’t make it Christmas-seasonal.

On the first verse of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” it’s impossible to tell if Travolta is trying to emulate Elvis (who never recorded the song) or a heavily narcotized Brenda Lee. It’s impossible to evaluate Travolta as a singer, here or anywhere on this album, amid all the artificial drawling, strange enunciations, and guttural asides. Before anyone placed a mic in front of the onetime Edna Turnblad, someone should have clued Travolta that, while camp may be called for in Hairspray, it’s not necessarily a welcome addition to beloved holiday songs. “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” in all fairness, is well suited to the pair, and is presented in an understated arrangement. Only when Barbara Streisand horns in to chew the scenery does the song cease being a showcase for the marquee singers’ dueting. The two also acquit themselves adequately on “Silent Night,” right up until the melody soars out of their ranges at the ends of each of their verses and when the children’s choir is trotted out for an “aw, gee” conclusion.

“The Christmas Waltz” also proves itself somewhat beyond Travolta’s rather modest vocal range, and miles out of reach for his interpretive abilities. It’s as if he finds the jazz stylings of Buddy Love a desirable exemplar upon which to model his delivery.

Guests for this debacle include, to no sensible person’s surprise, such royalty of schlock as Kenny “Where’s My Check” G, whose air-escaping-a-pressure-valve sax tootling lends an irritating ’80s wallpaper music patina on his solo. The same charitable instinct that may lead unwitting buyers to plunk down the dough for this disc, presumably, also led Tony Bennett, along with the Count Basie Orchestra, to class up “Winter Wonderland”; James Taylor and Cliff Richard were likewise hoodwinked into pitching in. Their contributions accentuate how a collaboration between Ms. Newton-John and these guests might have been palatable, or at least tolerable, without Travolta’s aural eye-rolling and bizarre vocal histrionics.

The widely hyped “sequel” to “You’re the One That I Want,” a pretty cool piece of pop that has become the best-selling duet ever, is called “I Think You Might Like It,” a trifle as tepid as its title. Despite authorship by John Farrar, who also wrote the smash from Grease, the sequel is noteworthy only for name-checking It’s A Wonderful Life to make it seem Christmas-y.

Face it, any demand for Grease 2 would be quashed by the prospect of seeing these well-past-their-sell-by-date actors reprise their teen roles from the original. The clamor for more vocal performances from massage enthusiast Travolta has seemingly been drowned out by his fervent denials of any untoward behavior. And, as insinuated above, Olivia Newton-John has gone from “Where Are They Now” to “Olivia Who The-What”?

This may not be the worst Christmas album of recent years—both Billy Idol and Rod Stewart give it a run for that money—but it’s easily as lousy as those other cash-grabs and, heralding Travolta’s unwelcome return to the recording studio, far more unnecessary.

My recommendation, rather than buy this dreadful thing, is to divide the CD purchase price by two and send half to each of the artists’ charities. You’ll be supporting their causes, while doing the greater good of not encouraging John Travolta to ever record again.

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About James A. Gardner

  • Susan

    Just curious why you have this as a “review” and you spend most of it criticizing the cover? The blurb above this comment box states that “personal attacks are NOT allowed,” yet your “review” is focused on attacking the personal. It looks like most of your criticism of the actual music focuses on Travolta, so why spend your first several paragraphs ripping apart the appearance of Olivia Newton-John? Does it really matter?

  • The Other Chad

    @Susan I have to agree with you here. I honestly feel this is overly mean-spirited and way too focused on the cover art and appearances of the performers. The personal digs are uncalled for, in my opinion.

  • El Bicho

    Face it, there already was a Grease 2

  • Reality Check

    I’m a huge ONJ fan. I apologize that so many hardcore fans will attack you and others for having a non-favorable opinion. It’s SO embarrassing the way some fans can’t be objective AND let others have their own opinions. And calling you a so-called journalist or putting “review” in quotes to imply this isn’t really a review, is so childish.

  • Reality?

    Hey “Reality Check” – being objective is one thing, but picking on the way Olivia looks or claiming she’s been auto tuned isn’t “embarrassing” it’s simply slanderous.

  • Reality Check

    Ah, that’s right, the golden rule: don’t mention ONJ has had work done, even if you say she looks healthy (which the author did) Botox? Impossible! Fillers? Hell no! Facelift? How dare someone say that?! Interestingly the above commenters weren’t offended by how Travolta’s looks and singers were portrayed unfavorably, just ONJ. Biased. I love ONJ but I (and my non-ONJ fans) can tell she’s had some cosmetic work done. Read the YouTube comments for I Think You Might Like It. The majority of people don’t recognize ONJ and DON’T like the song…same as this author.

  • Reality Check

    Oh, and I don’t think ONJ was auto-tuned at all but I don’t get offended by the comment. She doesn’t need defense; check out her live performances on YouTube and one can see doesn’t need auto-tune.

  • James A. Gardner

    Thank you all for your comments.

  • craig

    I thought it was an alright review until the mean spirited ending of calling John a “massage enthusiast” and referring to ONJ as “Olivia Who The-What”?
    The massage story was proven to be a hoax from someone trying to get money from Travolta. ONJ is a legend in her own right who does tremendous amounts of work for charity.
    Oh, and way to go for making fun of her looks after surviving chemotherapy and cancer. With your inablitly to write anything cohesive, you must cover that up by going after personal lives and making fun of people’s looks for the sake of a laugh.
    You must be so proud of your “review”.