Tina Turner Taught Us What It Means to Really Feel

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by editor Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.

The longer the tease, the more alive I felt. I’ve watched all the videos. Sometimes it seemed like the tease went on forever. I loved it.

There are countless performances of Tina Turner singing “The Best” on YouTube: award shows, her own concerts, the iconic Divas 99 performance. In that last one, the thumping introductory bass line edged us for a full minute, as The Legs strutted from a limo, through the theater lobby and audience, and then to center stage. If there was anything that Tina Turner knew, it was to take your time with it—first, nice and easy; then, nice and rough. The good things take time. And they’re worth the wait.

I don’t know how to eulogize Tina Turner, because it’s impossible to distill an artist, a force, and inspiration so great they—to us—transcend humanity and become ethereal. A deity, who we had the good fortune to worship down here on earth. And I’m just the smallest fragment of a person who was changed by her life, talent, and story. She was, for me, the music star; I can’t even imagine how that connection reverberated even deeper for the marginalized, the wounded, the survivors, and the triumphant—those who saw themselves in parts of her life journey.

But I can speak to how I would watch her performances—constantly—and how they changed me. Specifically, I can talk about how they made me feel. Not in the terms of, “What did that feel like?” But the verb. Tina made me feel.

Like many an elder gay millennial—I’m popping a Pepcid as I write this—Tina was always around me, because…Tina was always around. Everyone in my life played her music all the time. Her “What’s Love Got to Do With It” comeback had already happened by the time I was old enough to be aware of pop culture; she was touring the world, and it was just common knowledge that Tina was the greatest. Then I saw her on Oprah. (Some kids watched Power Rangers after school. I watched The Oprah Winfrey Show.)

At first, I thought her appearance was going to be like seeing two supernovas colliding. Instead, I was educated. Even Oprah bowed at her presence. This was someone whose halo was so bright that the most famous person in the world, to me, melted under it. When she was on that show, it’s not that I saw her in a new light. The Tina of it all clicked into a place that’s now in my bones, my heart, my soul—that place that everyone has been talking about in the days since Turner passed; we all know it.

Tina Turner Never Pretended Her Story Had a Happy Ending

There’s not a time (of the perhaps thousands of times) that I have watched a performance of Turner’s and not felt something electrifying. That I’ve been activated, in some way. The more I learned about her biography, the more that kinetic energy I felt became emotional energy.

Watching her on stage transformed me. There was no live performer like her, because no one else could be that wanton and unbridled, but also harness that spirit into something so specific and grounded that all of us related. Now, when I think back to all the times I’ve pulled up that “Tina Turner: One Last Time” concert at Wembley Stadium to watch, I realize what it is we all might have been experiencing through her performance.

It wasn’t just a wall of sound coming at us. It was a tornado of power, athleticism, sensuality, resilience, and experience—a storm that brews from the depth of a person who has lived, and is now expelling that past through her voice and movement. I often think of pop culture as a form of therapy. It mandates that we consider things, that we work through our own issues because it confronts us with truths. It also allows us to retreat into distraction when we need it. Tina, for me, offered both.

What if every feeling—every joy, heartbreak, anger, moment of pride, insecurity, and defiance—could explode out of us, launching out of our limbs, our hair, our kicking legs, and our swiveling hips, like rockets? When the threat of coping with everything life saddles us with threatens to flatten us, what an amazing catharsis it could be to just detonate it all, to have it all erupt from us with all the unapologetic flash and bombast of a fireworks show? What would it feel like, to feel that…free?

I’m not sure if Tina Turner ever truly felt that way. But the forcefulness of her stage presence, of her unmatched vim and vigor, gave us, at the very least, the fantasy of that catharsis. And in the throes of her power for the duration of her performance, she gave us that healing form of escapism.

But the point of her music, the point of Turner’s legacy—in many ways—is that you can’t escape. The reality was very much the point. As my colleague Helen Holmes wrote, Tina Turner never pretended her story had a happy ending. “It wasn’t a good life,” Turner said in a documentary. “The good did not balance the bad. 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.”

That acceptance is the thing. And feeling that is part of the journey. Maybe, if you’re Tina Turner, you can work that out as the greatest live performer there’s ever been on stage. Or, if you’re me, you can give a standing ovation to your laptop screen, as one of her performances plays on YouTube, and start building the path toward vigorously unleashing all of your own baggage, as her performances have come to represent.

“I call you when I need you, my heart’s on fire,” she finally sings, after that gloriously endless intro to “The Best.” Remember that? Being so excited about things that we were all ablaze about possibility, not extinguished from the reality of life—concerned, cynical, resigned. Especially now, it’s prudent to feel the way that Tina taught us. “Take my heart and make it strong, baby.”

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