Tina Turner’s Tough Love

Michael McKoy

In his soliloquy on love in 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul lists several attributes of love. “Easy” is not among them. Tina Turner, who recently passed away at the age of 83, would have understood that. As she noted in her opening to “Proud Mary,” she never did nothing nice and easy.

Tina Turner was a musical icon of my childhood. The album Private Dancer and the movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, where she plays the leader of a post-apocalyptic outpost, were constants in my home. Turner’s greatest hits album was one of the first CDs I ever owned; I permanently borrowed my mother’s copy of the album Break Every Rule. What’s Love Got to Do With It, the movie about Turner’s life, was my first real introduction to the realities of domestic abuse. (It also began my lifelong crush on Angela Bassett, who played Turner.) Turner’s influence is such that Australia turned her hit, “Nutbush City Limits,” into their unofficial national dance anthem.

As I listened to her songs over and over again throughout my childhood, I noticed that many had a rather cynical view about love. Her biggest hit, “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” a song Turner notoriously disliked, expresses open fears about falling in love, asking “who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?” “’Til the Right Man Comes Along” is about being temporarily satisfied with hookups while you wait for “the one.” “Private Dancer,” with its absolutely mesmerizing bluesy intro and interlude, describes the emotional numbness needed to be a sex worker. Admittedly, Turner did not write these songs herself, but the power of her rich, soulful voice and the explosive energy of her every movement gave these lyrics a vitality and relevance they likely would not have had otherwise.

Turner certainly had reasons to be cynical. Her abusive marriage to Ike Turner is well-chronicled, so much so that Turner openly fretted in the recent documentary, Tina, that it has at times overshadowed her musical legacy. The documentary also describes her parents’ abusive marriage, breakup, and mutual abandonment of their daughter. In a heartbreaking interview, Turner’s mother still seems to have little maternal affection for her world-famous daughter.

As I listened to Tina Turner's songs over and over again throughout my childhood, I noticed that many had a rather cynical view about love.

Yet, despite such pain (or perhaps because of it), Turner’s unromanticized takes on love also carry deep wisdom. “Better Be Good to Me” is a refusal to accept love “on blind faith” and a demand that sweet words be matched by loving actions. “I Don’t Wanna Fight,” from the soundtrack of her biopic, expresses the peace and pain of ending an abusive relationship. Despite all Turner suffered, she does not dwell on these things in this song. Rather, the lyrics’ depiction of a broken relationship is honest, humble, and generous, in the hopes of healing and with an eye towards forgiveness. In the bridge, she sings:

Hanging on to the past
It only stands in our way
We had to grow for our love to last
But we just grew apart
Oh, I don’t wanna hurt no more

Listening to these lyrics as a teenager helped me work through my own parents’ divorce, as my family navigated similar emotions.

Indeed, Turner’s songs about love are not solely cynical. Endurance is another prominent theme in several of her love songs, including her cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” which helped relaunch her career after splitting from Ike. “Afterglow” is about love enduring despite the long distances and hectic life of being on tour, a life Turner knew quite well. But my favorite of these is “Two People,” which is simply about the daily need for endurance in any loving relationship. The chorus declares:

Two people gotta stick together
Love one another, save it for a rainy day
Some people gotta stay whatever
And give one another shelter on a rainy day

Turner’s life demonstrates that this is not a call to stay through terrible abuse. Rather, it is about the responsibility to, as she says in the song, “try to keep a love anew.” This requires a daily commitment to know and re-know your spouse, your children, your family, your friends, your community. This requires putting away those common impulses and desires to place your wants over others. It requires knowing and believing that love, as described in the New Living Translation of 1 Corinthians 13, “does not demand its own way.”

Turner largely avoided the silly love songs that can make love seem easy. Pastor and Christian apologist Tim Keller, who also passed away recently, declared, “Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws.” And when we expect love to be easy, our shock and disappointment at the reality of love can harden into cynicism. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned against a cynicism that becomes “too unconcerned to love and too passionless to hate, too detached to be selfish and too lifeless to be unselfish, too indifferent to experience joy and too cold to experience sorrow.” Some of Turner’s songs reflect these sentiments. But other songs of hers reflect Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”

And above all the things she did, Tina Turner endured. The life she led, even more than the songs she sang, is a testament to that.

Topics: Music