My mom recently sold the house where I grew up, and in digging through one of my old boxes I came upon an issue of Rock Express from late 1986. It’s an incredible time capsule, with a back-cover advertisement for the story of Max Headroom ($26.99 on VHS) and a Janet Jackson news item headlined “Baby Grows Up.” (“I jumped at the chance to go to Minneapolis to record with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis,” enthuses the star, then 20 years old.) Back in ’86 I didn’t save the issue for Janet or Max, though: I saved it for its cover star, Tina Turner.
I don’t know exactly how the R&B veteran from Nutbush, Tennessee became a special favorite of mine, but I somehow latched onto Tina. When my mom joined Columbia House and let each of us kids choose a few tapes to fill out the introductory package, I was able to pick my first-ever brand-new cassette tapes that weren’t kids’ music—and boy, they sure weren’t. In addition to the Back to the Future soundtrack, I chose Private Dancer and Break Every Rule. Later, I added the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome soundtrack, with both the vocal and instrumental versions of “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome).”
My dad assumed that my newfound Tina fandom represented the beginning of puberty, and at the dinner table one night he kidded that I only liked Tina because of her hot legs. I burst into tears. “No,” I cried, “I like her music! You don’t like Pet Clark just because of her hot legs…do you?!” Indignantly, Dad defended “Downtown” as a classic pop song, while everyone else in the family ate their tater tot hot dish and waited patiently for us to finish.
I wasn’t lying—it was about the music. Though as a tween I had little context for the adult themes of Tina’s lyrics, I loved it when she came on the radio. I dug the percolating rhythm of “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” the anthemic “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” and the slow burn of “Private Dancer.” I think I understood what a “private dancer” was—Mark Knopfler’s lyrics aren’t too ambiguous—and I knew it was an appropriate song for my Sy Snootles action figure to gyrate to.
In retrospect, the most interesting thing about my fandom is exactly how totally (well, relatively) normal it was for a little nerdy white boy in Duluth, Minnesota to be totally into Tina Turner. In the mid-80s, Turner was one of the world’s biggest pop stars—full stop, no qualifications. I was vaguely aware that the singer of “Private Dancer” and “What’s Love Got To Do With It” had a storied past, but when you’re ten years old, everyone on the radio has a storied past—or at least, a past that’s longer than yours.
I only really appreciated Tina’s life story when, at a library sale, I bought a well-used copy of the Kurt-Loder-assisted autobiography I, Tina and took it home to read with horrified fascination. I wasn’t just learning Tina’s story, though: I was learning about the unsavory underside of rock music—and about the complicated realities of adult relationships. By my early teens, though, I’d largely left Tina behind for the heady brew of Bob Dylan and other artists Rolling Stone told me to keep up with.
Paging through that 1986 issue of Rock Express today, I’m struck by how—as strong as Tina’s music was in the 80s—she was constantly seen through the lens of her turbulent history. Despite the fact that she was at the tail end of a years-long publicity push for two new albums, she was still having to answer questions (from reporters for the Sam Goody in-store magazine, no less) about her lowest point with Ike. (“It was when Ike was having sex with the girl in the room next door, and he deliberately kept my door open.”) Even discussion of the producers and writers of her new material was seen in the context of her history—didn’t she want to write and produce her own material?
Of course, Tina’s new music reflected her history as well. The phrase “soul survivor” came up in virtually everything written about Tina in the 80s, and no wonder given that she belts it out in full-throated fury on “I Might Have Been Queen,” the opening track of Private Dancer. As the overture to Tina’s comeback, that song couldn’t have been more perfect: it cast the artist as a strong, sexy, mystical—not to say mythic—powerhouse who could sing anyone under the table. In baring her soul, Tina triumphed.
Though Tina’s subsequent material has never quite lived up to Private Dancer, that album now stands as a classic of the era. While people in the 80s looked at Tina Turner and saw an incredible story, today we have the perspective to look at Tina Turner in that decade and see simply an incredible artist whose success at the time was part of a remarkable flowering of mature pop music.
Rolling Stone recently named 1984 the greatest year in pop music history, and we can hear Private Dancer alongside Thriller, Purple Rain, Synchronicity, and Born in the U.S.A. as part of a wave of landmark early- to mid-80s recordings that married sparkling pop music with mature, often complex and erotic, themes. Tina, like Prince, was one of the artists who merged rock, soul, and pop in a heady brew that paved the way for the hip-hop-infused pop R&B that would define the 90s.
Many would say that Tina’s greatest recordings were her 1960s and early 70s cuts with ex-husband Ike—like Phil Spector, whose production of Tina in “River Deep, Mountain High” was a career highlight for both, Ike was both a musical genius and a reprehensible human being—but truth be told, I never really got into early Tina. I still dig the Private Dancer Tina, the Tina who was one of my first musical loves when I didn’t even know there were any earlier Tinas to love.
Tina Turner made some of the most profound pop music in each of three successive decades, and my own history with her music is an illustration of why pop music can be such a powerful force in our lives. Any time we turn on the radio, we’re just dipping our toes into a river that’s been running since long before we got there, and will keep on flowing long after we’re gone. The longer we live, the more perspective we have on just how wide and magnificent that river is. Tina’s still rolling along on that river like the queen she might have been—like the queen that, in fact, she is.
This February, The Current is celebrating Black History Month by celebrating four artists chosen by our listeners: Al Green, Nina Simone, Tina Turner, and John Coltrane. Previously, Sonny Knight wrote about Al Green; PaviElle paid tribute to Nina Simone; and Lowell Pickett remembered bringing Nina Simone to play at the Dakota Jazz Club. Watch for more on Tina Turner later this week, and on John Coltrane next week.