Tina Turner’s Greatest Triumph

Tina Turner’s death doesn’t sadden me.

There was certainly an instinct toward sadness. The death of a legend who reshaped popular music at least twice warrants such a reaction. For fans reared in the final quarter of the 20th century, the loss of cultural titans has become common. Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston, Robin Williams, Donna Summer, Aretha Franklin, George Michael; the list goes on. Also common is the feeling that they were taken too soon. The cruelties of circumstance or their fame robbed them of their chance at the final word, even if it was “goodbye.”

But Tina Turner did have the final word.

Tina Turner backstage at the 1985 Grammy Awards (Courtesy: Nick Ut/AP)

It’s insulting to say Tina Turner accomplished a lot in her 83 years on Earth. Recounting every triumph feels impossible. She was one of the most electrifying live acts of the ‘60s, with a stirring catalog that included stone-cold classics like “River Deep, Mountain High” and “Nutbush City Limits.” In the ‘70s, she escaped her brutally abusive marriage and painstakingly rebuilt her career, performing with the same verve and magnetism but as a free woman. The ‘80s saw her rebirth as a rock-and-roll goddess, anointed by the blockbuster release of Private Dancer. In an industry that slavishly relished youth, Turner became one of the world’s biggest music acts in her 40s. She would pack stadiums worldwide for the next three decades, officially retiring from performing in 2008 with her 50th-anniversary world tour.

Her greatest accomplishment, I would argue, isn’t what or how she sang or danced. That was, by her nature, inevitable. All one needs to do is watch her perform “Proud Mary” at any stage of her life to understand her genius. Instead, her greatest achievement is how she reclaimed her narrative and sense of self. 

Tina Turner performs at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California in May 23, 1997. (Courtesy: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

In 1986, she co-wrote her autobiography I, Tina with Kurt Loder, detailing her successes and the abuse she suffered while married to Ike Turner. Her book would be adapted seven years later into What’s Love Got to Do with It, the biopic starring Angela Bassett as Turner. (Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, playing Ike, both received Oscar nominations for their performances.) Turner did land another U.S. pop hit with the film’s single “I Don’t Wanna Fight,” but there were limits to America’s deference to the legend. Subsequent albums, like 1996’s Wildest Dreams and 1999’s Twenty-Four Seven, underperformed in the States. (They were significantly more successful in Europe.) More unforgivable was how Turner’s marriage to Ike provided everyone from Alicia Keys to Jay-Z with lyrical fodder that downplayed her abuse. 

Turner prevailed by refusing to accept less than what she knew she deserved. (In 1997, while visiting her palatial French estate, 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace asked if she felt she deserved it. Turner replied, “I deserve more.”) Turner found love again with German record executive Erwin Bach in 1986 and eventually permanently moved to Switzerland after establishing herself as one of the biggest touring acts on the continent (and beyond). In 2013, she renounced her U.S. citizenship to become a Swiss citizen, declaring that she had no intention to reside there in the future. 

Tina Turner performing in 1990
(Courtesy: Fryderyk Gabowicz/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP Images

That decision marked the beginning of Turner’s final chapter. Her final projects in the last decade were a thoughtful memorialization of her extraordinary life. Just in case anyone forgot her genre-spanning musical vitality, she tapped Kygo to remix her legendary hit “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” She participated in developing the hit jukebox musical Tina, which opened on the West End in 2018 and on Broadway in 2019. She published her second autobiography, My Love Story, digging deeper into her professional and personal triumphs and tribulations. In the book, Turner disclosed her struggles with hypertension and intestinal cancer and shared that Bach, whom she married in 2013, donated one of his kidneys to save her life. Her final on-screen appearance would be for the HBO documentary Tina, arguably the definitive account of her career. 

Tragedy and triumph were undoubtedly the twin forces of Tina Turner’s public life. It’s perhaps impossible to think of one without the other. How else does one, for instance, contextualize Private Dancer’s extraordinary success without considering the preceding decade? However, those forces form the backbone of many pop culture narratives, especially those of the 20th century. They aren’t unique. 

Tina Turner in Tina (Courtesy: HBO Films)

Tina Turner is unique because of her resilience, enforced by her unshakable sense of worth, love, and respect for herself. She used that resilience to forge one of the most enduring careers the world has ever seen. Turner defied every conceivable odd for someone of her race, age, gender, and religion. Most remarkably, she did it all on her terms. Turner struggled but never wavered. And when the time inevitably came, she said everything she needed and wanted to say. 

Tina Turner’s death doesn’t sadden me. If anything, I’m happy. Her musical legacy is unassailable. Her story is recorded, cemented, complete. She achieved what few of her contemporaries and even fewer successors could claim. She didn’t just have the final word; she had every word. And for that, we should be grateful for the privilege of hearing them.

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