When Olivia Newton-John turned the gymnasium into a pop playground 35 years ago, she set the stage for Ariana Grande’s 2016 MTV Video Music Awards performance. Newton-John’s hit single “Physical” was banned by some radio stations back in 1981 due to its the sexually explicit lyrics, like “There’s nothing left to talk about unless it’s horizontally.” Today, it’s a classic — and when the lights turned up on Ariana and Nicki Minaj’s performance of “Side to Side” tonight, it felt like the pop star was whipping her ponytail back three decades to invoke Olivia’s historic video.
The performance opened on Ariana cycling on an exercise bike with no resistance at full speed. She was bathed in the glow of a pink light à la Beyoncé’s video for “Blow” — but where Beyoncé delivered an ode to the roller-skating rink era of black youth in the 1980s, Ariana looked to her own pop predecessors for inspiration. Even Kylie Minogue, another ’80s pop legend who got her start in Olivia’s heyday, has her own video where she turns exercise into a metaphor for sexual conquest.
Grande’s lyrics are unmistakably about a fierce sexual encounter: “I been here all night / I been here all day / And boy, you got me rocking side to side.” Just as Olivia used innuendo about physical prowess as a stand-in for knocking boots, so have Ariana and Nicki. Of course, Nicki goes a step further by referencing riding a “dick bicycle,” but Ariana kept her VMAs moment masked in metaphor, taunting and teasing muscled dancers as they lift weights, just like Olivia did in “Physical.” (Also of note: Nicki herself already did the same with her “Anaconda” video.)
It’s a bold statement, and a reminder that the pop stars we adore can also be some of our nation’s greatest athletes, and the MTV Video Music Awards their Olympics. More, even: To witness Ariana singing live while prancing about in heels, Nicki rapping while serving for the gods, Britney turning it out in choreography, and Beyoncé doing vocal laps on the stage — all in one night — was to watch highly trained pop goddesses claim the stage as their own Mount Olympus.
Kanye West reached for a similar history to Ariana’s with his video for “Fade,” which he debuted at the VMAs. The video features R&B singer and choreographer Teyana Taylor, who turned it out in the spirit of 1983’s Flashdance, serving dance moves for black Jesus and the Oscar that Angela Bassett deserved for What’s Love Got to Do With It. Witnessing Teyana’s athletic prowess as she leapt over exercise equipment and showed off her chiseled abs, all adorned in athletic wear, made it clear that she was the very epitome of what the Olympic games were designed for: showing off the best athletes, their immaculate bodies, and their unmatched skills.
Pop music has often been kind to divas who excel above all others, whether it be through vocals, dance, or visuals. The use of athletic imagery in pop music is about reminding people that the idols you listen to are the best at what they do. And just like a few hours in the gym, they can make you better, make you glisten, and make you stronger.