tina turner: life lessons from a private dancer

November 26, 2018
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Tina Turner is one of the first mainstream artists to display what survival can look like. A huge portion of her career has been intertwined with an abusive relationship that she was in with musical partner, Ike Turner. With the film, What’s Love Got To Do With It, starring Angela Bassett, Tina Turner’s abusive relationship has turned into a type of legend for those partnering in the business together, and as a type of symbol for escaping abusive relationships.

Often we forget the depth of our living legend’s work because of the biomythography around their lives, most masterfully used in literature by Audre Lorde in Zami where she weaves legend and fact together for a powerful narrative. In music and film, there is probably no other biomythography as recognizable as the one created on the behalf of Tina Turner. It is still a shame to think that an artist with as much longevity and diversity as hers might only exist as the romanticized two-hour depiction of the worst era of her life in many people’s minds, especially the younger music lovers amongst us.

This is why I revisit Private Dancer. This is where Tina Turner’s biopic left off, right before the credits rolled. We know What’s Love Got To Do With It?, but we must always engage Tina Turner as an example of a rich afterlife that exists after abuse, not just the escape. This is what the Private Dancer album represents.

The choice of Tina Turner to cover Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” has a double meaning. She is daring to sing a love song again knowing love can turn toxic and she is also speaking to herself; she is daring to choose and prioritize herself whether times are good or bad, happy or sad.

The sensuality expressed in the title-track of a woman who once had her sexuality and womanhood dominated through emotional and physical abuse, and sexual assault. The strength and self-awareness it takes to sit back on your throne in a short dress, look directly in the camera and seduce us all when such power was attempted to be abused out of you is the height of performance art. Black genius and sexuality can be abused, but it cannot be defeated. Turner sings, “I’m your private dancer, a dancer for money. Any old music will do.” She is reminding us that is her voice, her spirit, and her history is what breathes songs into each note and melody. In order for her to play this trick, any old music can do.

Lightyears before the current #MeToo era we’re in, Tina Turner reclaims her sadness in the same way she reclaimed her sexuality and self. On her cover of “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” she breathes new meaning into lyrics. Turner relaxes in the idea that she does not have to perform victimhood or survivor for the public. It’s her life, or window, and however she performs survival, joy or sadness is her own to define. Ann Peeble’s original given new life by Tina Turner reminds me of Nina Simone bringing another dimension to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”; the sacred art of Black women in conversation, and using each other’s work as a device to further find themselves is beautiful to witness, especially in music.

Today, the day of Tina Turner’s birthday, I’m reminded that in the wake of the passings of musical architects like Prince and Aretha Franklin, it’s important to expand our knowledge of our artists while they’re alive. We must widen our understanding of why the biomythography is so much apart of our public consciousness because it happened to a Black genius. And the abuse a Black female genius undertakes should not be defined by said abuse, but the diamonds that are birthed, regardless. Private Dancer is such a jewel.