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24 March 2021

Tina Turner and the music industry’s obsession with survival stories

A new HBO documentary about Tina Turner shows how her victimhood became a commodity.

By Stephanie Phillips

The life of the singer Tina Turner has been one of the most pored over in music. She is known as much for the abuse she suffered at the hands of her ex-husband Ike Turner as she is for her role in rock history. She was played by Angela Bassett to worldwide acclaim in the Oscar-nominated 1993 biopic What’s Love Got to do With It, and inspired a successful Broadway show, Tina: The Musical. In Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love”, Jay-Z references a scene from the biopic: “Eat the cake, Anna Mae.” Her life is one that we, the public, turn to for entertainment, but for Turner herself, it is not easy to look back.

In the opening scenes of Tina, a new documentary exploring the singer’s life, we hear Turner reflect on why she’d never play herself in a biopic: “It was so unlike me, my life, that I don’t even want to know about it,” she says, “you don’t want to pull out old clothes and old memories. You want to leave that in the past and be done with [it].” Beginning with this frank admission puts the viewer in a curious position, aware of their part in her suffering, as she is recalling her life for our amusement. Tina looks at her beginnings as a musician in the late Fifties, the abuse she suffered, the PTSD that continues to affect her, and her unexpected comeback in the Eighties. Most importantly, the documentary seems to question what it means to be a survivor in a world that doesn’t allow you to be anything else.

[See also: Patricia Highsmith’s psychopath heroes]

Tina Turner was born Anna Mae Bullock in 1939 and raised in Nutbush, Tennessee. She grew up in an abusive household, witnessing violence between her mother and father. When her mother escaped the home, Turner and her sisters were sent to separate parts of Tennessee, and Turner felt she “wasn’t wanted” – a notion that would cast a shadow over the rest of her life. In her teenage years she moved to St Louis, Missouri, to be with her mother, and while out at a blues club she first saw her future husband and collaborator, Ike. Both admit that the early years of their relationship were rewarding, and that the two were more like siblings. It was only when Ike realised the potential in Tina’s talent that he sought to exploit her for his own gain, changing her name to Tina Turner and demanding they marry.

Ike was her husband, her band leader and the person she feared most. Though she had little say in what she could do, Turner still managed to carve out a name for herself as the lead singer of the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. Her voice – gravelly and robust – was bigger than those of most R&B performers (male or female) at the time, and alongside her dancers, the Ikettes, she demonstrated a self-possessed sensuality that was completely different from the style of the comparatively reserved contemporary girl groups. Turner was a black female performer in a misogynistic and racist music industry known for its exploitation of black talent, and her performances expressed a sense of power that appealed to audiences, even if it was only a mirage.

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After Turner left Ike in 1976, her story as a survivor (which she made public to People magazine in the Eighties) became pivotal to her relaunch as a solo artist. As the journalist Carl Arrington, who interviewed Turner for that People story, explains in Tina, “The idea of Tina as a presence on her own and having escaped, people loved that story… here was somebody to root for.” Her early admissions to People and in her 1986 memoir I, Tina (co-written with the journalist Kurt Loder) were made somewhat naively by Turner, who hoped that once she got the story out there, she’d never have to talk about Ike again. Sadly, the opposite happened.

[See also: Francis Lee’s Ammonite is a film of earthy, robust sensuality]

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For decades after, Turner was asked to recall the worst years of her life. Sometimes this was done under the guise of helping others, as in an episode of Oprah where the media mogul tells Turner: “We have 50,000 letters downstairs from women who have also been through it and survived. Tina did it, so can you: let’s celebrate.” In response, Turner merely smiles politely and looks away. How can you respond to the reality that the most excruciating moments of your life have become self-help fodder? At other times her story was used purely for ratings, as a morbidly consuming tale of violence and despair. In 1993, when promoting What’s Love Got to do With It on the Australian show A Current Affair, Turner is shown footage of Ike denying abusing her and asked to comment on it. She grimaces in obvious discomfort and tries to make a joke of the moment, saying, “I don’t want to start an argument with Ike Turner via satellite.”

There has recently been a deluge of documentaries looking at women who struggled with the pressures of the music industry. In Framing Britney Spears, we are forced to confront the rampant misogyny that dominated Spears’s early career and the role the public plays in our unhealthy celebrity culture. Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché tells the story of the lead singer of X-Ray Spex and how an uncaring industry failed to support a young woman struggling with mental health problems. The upcoming YouTube Originals series Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil promises a glimpse into the pop star’s descent into drug addiction and the pressures of being held up as a poster child for mental health and recovery.

While Tina may offer a guide for young women in the industry, I can’t help but wonder whether the advice gained from this story is better utilised by the public. We need to allow artists to not just survive the worst moments of their lives, but to thrive, too; to have space to be vulnerable and to set their own boundaries.

[See also: How Georges Simenon found his eye]

There is a heartening scene in the new Billie Eilish documentary, The World’s a Little Blurry, where Katy Perry meets Eilish. Perry embraces Eilish and offers her support, telling her to reach out “if you ever wanna talk, ’cause it’s a weird ride”. No one seems to be waiting for Eilish to fail. She is instead being gently guided by those around her, who are hopefully preventing her from becoming another victim of an unforgiving industry. There is still time for us to change our attitude towards the treatment of women in music.

Turner has undoubtedly had a difficult life, but it is one she now seems at peace with, as she explains in Tina: “I had an abusive life, there’s no other way to tell the story. It’s a reality. It’s a truth. That’s what you’ve got, so you have to accept it.”

“Tina” is available to stream on Sky Documentaries and Now TV from 28 March

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This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special 2021