When Strength is Earned and Becomes Beauty: On Tina Turner, “I Might Have Been Queen,” Private Dancer, Break Every Rule, Foreign Affair, and More

By Daniel Garrett

Tina Turner, Private Dancer
Capitol Records, 1984

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Tina Turner, a singer and dancer, one of the most exciting performers of the preceding century, sang with gravity, insight, and superb inflections a composition by Joni Mitchell, “Edith and the Kingpin,” for the tribute album to the songwriter that jazz musician Herbie Hancock produced, River: The Joni Letters.  It was, like an earlier song, “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” proof that Turner, whose voice sometimes has been ragged and rushed, pushed to extremes, could be—with a voice calmly dramatic, full, smooth, truthful—a singer of great interpretive power.  Tina Turner, a veteran entertainer, shared the stage with an admiring Beyonce Knowles for the music industry’s Grammy Awards 50th anniversary ceremony and Turner showed that brilliant young performer how it is done—and done well.  It was beautiful how those two gorgeous, southern brown girls shared joy in their art, an art that gave them the world.

“I remember a girl in the fields with no name.  She had a love,” sings the woman who grew up as Anna Mae Bullock, who was born in Nutbush, Tennessee, and might have been that girl in a field, and might have remained that girl, had she, Anna Mae, not found music and become Tina Turner.  “I’m there in history, I’m a soul survivor,” sings Turner in the same song, “I Might Have Been Queen,” from her great and popular album Private Dancer.  One can hear that song, “I Might Have Been Queen,” as significant, as one can hear a song that came many years before, circa 1973, “Nutbush City Limits,” which Tina Turner wrote and which describes Anna Mae Bullock’s birthplace as a tiny one-horse town, where you only get salt pork and molasses in jail.  Anna Mae Bullock, born to a black father, Floyd, and part-Native American mother (Navajo and Cherokee), Zelma, sharecropping parents who abandoned her, Anna Mae Bullock as Tina Turner lived beyond her own expectations and all those who would put limits on her.

Tina Turner: hair, eyes, mouth, teeth.  Glowing brown skin.  Breast, hips, legs.  A burst of dazzling energy.  Honesty and passion.  Dignity and sexiness.  Tough history, tougher spirit.  Serenity sought and found.  A new telling of a woman’s story, of an American life—and the evolution of an international artist and entertainer.  In “I Might Have Been Queen,” a song that she sings with sorrow and pride, with resignation and triumph, Tina Turner looks out over time, looks at and through history, and sees no tragedy.  She sees the possibilities—peasant and queen; the peasant in the queen, the queen in the peasant, and the triumph of lasting effort, of the spirit and its accomplishment.

Tina Turner, when she was known as Anna Mae Bullock, moved from Tennessee to Missouri, where her mother had been living apart from her, and Anna Mae, who had sung in church, began to visit nightclubs, appreciating their secular sounds; and she heard and liked Ike Turner and his band, The Kings of Rhythm, and, after Ike heard her sing a B.B. King song, Anna Mae was soon performing and recording with them, circa 1960 (“Box Top” and “A Fool in Love”).  Some credit Ike Turner as one of the founders of rock music, thanks to his early 1950s song “Rocket 88,” and Ike Turner, a gifted musician and an ambitious man, first gave Anna Mae Bullock the name Little Ann and then the name Tina Turner; and after their professional partnership grew, so did their personal relationship—and they were married.  Their public performances were known for choreography, dress, and energy—style and feeling, elements that civilization is forever trying to reconcile.  The emotions in the songs might have been those of the blues—anger, lust, and pain—but the directness of the delivery and the great speed of the rhythm gave the music the accessible ferocity of rock music.  Other aspects of American folk and contemporary music could be heard too.  It was the kind of entertaining, even invigorating, work that both adults and children, and people of differing cultural traditions, could like.

The still, brooding Ike and the whirling Tina Turner, a musical marriage, an image of eroticism, toured as part of a revue in the United States and the United Kingdom, sometimes on the same bill as the Rolling Stones.  The Brits never forgot the true history of rock music, its African-American roots, of which the guitarist and songwriter Ike Turner was a part, and they welcomed the sexual freedom that Tina Turner suggested.  The couple seemed in tune with an era that was leaving behind many of the repressive conventions of an earlier time for a more experimental way of being; and in an age that glorified many of the impulses of youth, they were a window into one kind of adulthood.  (Of course, some of the things that young people despise—the disciplines and manners—are part of the necessary work of maintaining family, organization, and civilization.)

Tina Turner giving life to an image that fascinated Ike also fascinated European and American boys, an appeal separate from public perception or appreciation of Ike; and in the mid-1960s, she performed alone the song “River Deep, Mountain High,” produced by Phil Spector.  Together, Ike and Tina Turner did “Proud Mary,” a song about riverboat life.  “Proud Mary,” a song borrowed from Creedence Clearwater Revival, a song that Tina Turner introduces by saying that they never do anything nice and easy—they always do it nice and rough, produced in the early 1970s, was probably their best-loved song.  Ike and Tina Turner recorded twenty albums or more, including Workin’ Together (1970), Live at Carnegie Hall (1971), ‘Nuff Said (1971), Blues Roots (1972), Nutbush City Limits (1973), and The Gospel According to Ike and Tina (1974), recording for companies such as Warner Brothers, Blue Thumb, Liberty, and United Artists, but they are remembered together more for their performance of single songs such as Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and Sly Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher.”  I still recall seeing a televised performance of them doing “I Smell Trouble,” probably from a concert filmed in Africa: haunting, it was like something dug from the dark depths of a soul, depths that many people do not seem to have in the light of day.

Unfortunately, Ike Turner, was an angry, willful man (but also an insecure and wounded man) whose desire for control and inclination to punish made him violent, his furies worsened by drink and drugs; and Tina Turner, dedicated to the marriage and music, endured his violence for years, until she felt it was threatening her life.  She began to fight back, and ran away from him in the mid-1970s with only thirty-six cents in her possession, finding refuge and support with friends.  Tina Turner recorded the albums Rough and Love Explosion in the late 1970s; and with the help of a new career manager, Roger Davies, signed with Capitol Records in the early 1980s.  Davies helped her find songs that articulated her unique perspective—and when they were not found, they were commissioned.

The song “I Might Have Been Queen” suggests the possibility of reincarnation; and the album Private Dancer on which it was included was a rebirth for a singer long known for her high-energy, forcefully sensual performances, a woman able to suggest erotic and spiritual dimensions, not only pleasure but also resilience, tenderness, and absolute wildness.  Tina Turner sings “the river won’t stop for me” in “I Might Have Been Queen,” but while the river—whether of water or of years—will not stop for her, she as an artist has been able stand tall against its rushing flow.  Tina Turner began her public career as a male fantasy but lived herself into being her own truth: she is a strength, a strength that was half-known and half-obscured, a strength that emerged through challenge and intuition and tutoring and will, a strength that returned to its source, a desire to make music, and found its fulfillment for all to see.  Her music had encompassed blues, rhythm-and-blues, soul, rock, and even country music, and she, with her new work, began to be received as rock monarch.  Tina Turner has received the admiration of other women performers, from Marlene Dietrich to Cher to Diana Ross to Beyonce Knowles, as well as the enthusiastic admiration of male colleagues and peers such David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Elton John, Lionel Ritchie, and Rod Stewart.  Turner has won music industry awards, including a Grammy (for best pop vocal performance) and an American Music Award (for best female vocalist); and traveled the world as a huge concert draw, filling stadiums.

Tina Turner is able to express a complex of experience: pain, and the knowledge gained from it; desire, and its limits in transforming people; self-consciousness and perseverance, and the loneliness that can accompany them.  Her attitude is one of acceptance and determination.  Some of the other songs on Tina Turner’s Private Dancer that have gained affection and admiration are “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Better Be Good to Me,” “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” “1984,” and “Private Dancer.”  The first composition named, “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” was a song that acknowledged attraction but rejected the automatic sentimentality that seemed to go with it, a realism that cut through the fantasy of the time, not only about love but the larger society, in which Ronald Reagan’s conservative presidential promises of the riches of trickle-down economics, and the bounty that Wall Street bankers and investors were beginning to expect, ignored real world conflicts, disappointments, reversals, and struggles.  Love was not only as good as the lover—it was only as good as the society in which it occurred.  Tina Turner knows how we are and that we can be better people, but that we sometimes, and very frequently, choose not to be.

In Private Dancer’s “Better Be Good to Me,” a song in which Turner sounds both anguished and chastising as she tells a lover that “I don’t have a use for what you loosely call the truth” and “you better be good to me,” the song has all the drama of a scene from film or theater.  The listener recognizes in the song the human condition, senses the recurrent expectation and frustration, the inevitable trap: it is both moving and absurd.  “I Can’t Stand the Rain” is a song of remembrance, isolation, and, again, frustration; and the dryness of Turner’s delivery—the dryness of her tone, the passion without the false sweetness—makes the described circumstances in the lyrics more maddening.  Sometimes Turner’s voice sounds ravaged, roughened by the past, akin to a sword that has been used in many battles and has both sharp and dull areas and its own nicks and cuts.  “1984” sets a scene of money and indulgence—“life is so cool, easy living when you make the rules”—that further captured the time, which may be all times, except that it also contains a small nostalgia for a more promising and rebellious moment; and Turner swiftly moves through the lyrics as if all their observations, no matter how cynical, are the most obvious facts in the world.  It is fascinating to think that part of her triumph is founded on our acceptance of her recognition of how difficult it is to achieve anything of value.  The song “Private Dancer” that gives the collection a title, even a unifying theme, is about a disheartened dancehall girl willing to perform for her customer to any music the customer likes, a form of jaded entertainment rather than art, a form of survival that is not far from defeat, a song Tina Turner may have seen as a warning metaphor or a picture of what she herself was escaping with her renewed commitment to her work and her sense that her audience was again growing large.

Tina Turner followed Private Dancer with her participation in the all-star recording “We Are the World,” a charity song on behalf of Africa that included Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick, Bruce Springsteen, and Bette Midler; and Turner participated in a “Live Aid” concert, singing with Mick Jagger “I Know It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll (But I Like It).”  Subsequently, Tina Turner sang songs that expressed intelligence, as well as emotion, about a woman’s life, as had Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Roberta Flack, and Chaka Khan, other women performers who had seen great changes in the social status of women during their lives.  In her 1986 biography from William Morrow—I, Tina—Turner discussed how she had been alienated from and attracted to the feminine in her own life, the quality she had associated with her distant mother.  Tina Turner’s own stage persona had been nearly masculine in its aggression, part of the reason why men who otherwise disdained femininity and the women who possessed it (when it is pretty, polite, professional) could approach and affirm Turner.  The same could be said of Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin.  It is arguable that Tina Turner reconciled the masculine and the feminine in her stage performances and in her solo albums, evidenced by Break Every Rule (1986), Tina Live in Europe (1988), and Foreign Affair (1989).

On Break Every Rule, Tina Turner’s single “Typical Male,” in which she calls a lawyer to romantic account, was popular, but I liked the more intimate “Paradise Is Here,” a ballad of both simple acceptance and growing eroticism (she sees her lover as lost out in the future, and tells him that paradise is here, saying “devour me”).  Songs like “Ask Me How I Feel” and “Falling Like Rain” on Foreign Affair continued the honesty and sensuality Turner has explored.  Her music moved beyond the boundaries others had set; and she pursued a rock music that allowed for her experience, hopes, ideas, perception, and wisdom, a music that expressed her freedom.  Two men of the rock band U2, Bono and the Edge, wrote “Goldeneye” for a mid-1990s James Bond film and Turner recorded that; and later came her album Wildest Dreams (1996).  The Wildest Dreams album, on Virgin Records, featured John Waite’s “Missing You,” which—sung with raspy insistence—has become her song.  Tina Turner released the album TwentyFourSeven in February 2000, having performed at the world-watched Super Bowl football game the month before.  Through changing times, Tina Turner has been able to maintain enormous respect and affection from her audience and much of the larger public; but having made music for a half-century or more, a legendary artist and an elder woman, an icon, she has lessened her public performances.  When Tina Turner has returned to public performance—such a singing a beautiful interpretation of a Joni Mitchell song with pianist Herbie Hancock, or as part of a televised performance with the talented, vibrant dancing singer Beyonce Knowles, and then embarking on her own career-spanning fiftieth-anniversary tour—Turner has not disappointed admirers.

Tina Turner, a mature but youthful woman, a woman of kindness, humor, and some spikiness, a woman who tells the truth in her voice and with her movements; her eyes bright, her beautifully disheveled hair blonde and brown, her dress shining and short, her walking and dancing quicker than anticipation: one watches her and sees a capacity for experience that is rare.  Tina Turner’s image lives, and will live, in human memory and on film, from Ken Russell’s presentation the of rock musical Tommy (1975), written by the Who, and featuring Roger Daltrey, Elton John, and Ann-Margret, in which Turner appeared as the Acid Queen, on to the popular biographical film inspired by Turner’s own life, the early 1990s What’s Love Got to Do with It, based on Turner’s book written with Kurt Loder (I, Tina), starring Angela Bassett as Tina and Laurence Fishburne as Ike.  (Turner herself was glimpsed at the film’s end.)  I understood the biographical film’s appeal and respected the acting but thought the film focused too much on Tina Turner’s early life of trouble and not enough on her liberation.  Of course, the negative emphasis is understandable in a culture for which conflict is a galvanizing principle, with many people finding it easier to identify with misfortune than achievement.  (I wondered, a little perversely, if the film would not have worked better as dark satire, a black comedy.)  There might have been something questionable about so much of Turner’s personal life becoming known, but that publicity made her less dangerously mysterious than many African-Americans are perceived to be, and less bland and boring than most popular entertainers; also most of what was revealed was the past and, as has been said, the past is like a foreign country: you do not have to live there, or take its habits for your own.  I regret that Tina Turner chose not to appear in The Color Purple, Spielberg’s film of Alice Walker’s novel, a (too glossily sentimental) film with a story revolving around youthful female abuse and suffering and adult independence, as Tina Turner was repelled by the story line, finding its subject too close to what she had known already, not new enough.  She would have made a great blues singer in the film—a liberated woman who liberates others.  But she did appear as a post-apocalypse frontier businesswoman, Aunty Entity, in the George Miller movie Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) with Mel Gibson, a movie for which Turner performed the song “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” which she infused with a wisdom both calm and scalding, and it became an anthem.  There are also the audio-visual documentaries of music concerts in which she appeared, and the music videos.

It cannot surprise anyone that Tina Turner refused to make the films other hoped she would make; rather she did something—something adventurous, something fun—that she wanted to do.  She has made the music she wanted to make, refusing to be confined to the blues, refusing the circumscribed life and continuing complaint of the blues, even if dancing rhythm had been added to the form or greater soul discovered among its possibilities.  She wanted to have fun—she wanted to rock: she wanted transcendence.  She found Buddhism, she rocked, she moved to Europe: she found a way to live as Anna Mae Bullock and Tina Turner and then she became a private person, in the home she built in southern France.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art.  He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.