What Tina Turner Meant to the MTV Generation
The death of Tina Turner is heartbreaking for anyone who’d ever marveled at the brilliance, basked in the warmth, been enthralled by the titanic talent of the woman born Anna Mae Bullock. Her resilience became an inspiration around the world, and Tina Turner’s musical and cultural legacy is unparalleled — an influence that stretches across generations and genres. The Queen of Rock & Roll title means so much in regards to her; when people struggled to remember and name historical figures like Big Mama Thornton and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Tina Turner was doing U2 and Springsteen numbers around the world. A Black woman in her forties who was a bonafide rock star at the height of the multimedia 1980s, Tina reinvented herself on her own terms and provided a blueprint for so many to come.
She rose to fame 20 years earlier as the frontwoman for the Ike & Tina Revue, a powerhouse R&B combo musically led by her abusive first husband, Ike Turner. Starting in 1960, years before the Beatles or the Roling Stones, the duo traversed through everything from gutbucket soul to psychedelic pop en route to becoming one of rock and soul’s most revered acts. It was only later that the world learned about how Ike’s brutality had tormented Tina during their time together. She split from Ike in 1976, before resuming her career as a solo act via Vegas and disco. The following decade, with 1984’s Private Dancer, Tina did the seemingly impossible, fully re-emerging with a multiplatinum smash.
For Gen Xers and elder millennials who didn’t have a firsthand witness to the Ike & Tina years, her superstardom in the 1980s was staggering. Throughout the decade, Tina Turner stood on the Mount Olympus of cultural ubiquity next to fellow icons like Whitney, Bono, and Michael, having climbed to heights that made her one of the most omnipresent stars of an entirely new generation. In the post-apocalyptic Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, she starred alongside Mel Gibson as Aunty Entity, and she spent the decade criss-crossing the world with blockbuster Private Dancer and Break Every Rule tours. The abuse she had suffered in her years with Ike was devastating. The fact that she came out of that dark place and wrote an entirely new story for herself — one where she wasn’t defined by what she’d been put through in the past, but was a fixture at the very top of entertainment in the present — remains a comeback unlike any other.
In her riveting second act, Tina Turner ushered in a new era, and ignited a wave of Black female performers who would take over arenas in the 1980s. Soon after Tina’s 1985 Private Dancer tour, Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson would deliver blockbuster live excursions of their own. For Tina, the success she was seeing was a testament to her commitment to her own vision. “Why I didn’t stop? Because I hadn’t gotten what I wanted,” she told Swedish TV host Jacob Dahlin in 1987. “I didn’t allow my spirit to be broken because I hadn’t done what I wanted to do.”
Tina was 47 and had just released Break Every Rule when she gave that interview, discussing her then-new autobiography, her three-year run of success, and what she’d gone through to get there. For a new group of fans, Tina Turner was the leggy sex symbol with the big hair, a fixture on music video television who’d strutted in the “What’s Love Got To Do With It” video, lent her star power to “We Are the World,” and gone beyond Thunderdome. Her image and music were pivotal for Black Gen X kids growing up with MTV. The network had infamously rebuffed Black artists in its initial years, before Michael Jackson and Thriller tore down the proverbial wall. Tina was one of the first Black artists to follow in that wake, as Private Dancer and music videos like “Better Be Good To Me” and the title track followed “What’s Love…” onto the Billboard Top Ten.
With her distinctive mid-’80s image, Tina Turner was a rocker who towered alongside the Jaggers and Bowies of the day. Unlike so many of her peers from the 1960s, she spent the Eighties delivering music that was vital and engaged; she wasn’t interested in rehashing any old approaches or even referencing what she’d done before. She was too busy breaking new territory. When her Break Every Rule tour — a massive trek of 132 cities around the world over 12 months — hit Rio De Janeiro on Jan. 16, 1988, Tina took the stage to an astounding crowd of 180,000 people. The massive audience swayed and rocked throughout Maracanã Stadium, a towering moment that affirmed that Tina Turner was one of the biggest draws in the world.
Tina’s pains were plentiful; the abuse she suffered during her marriage to Ike, the death of her sons, the abandonment by her parents and strained relationship with her mother. Her fortitude was the hard result of all that she endured, and simultaneously a shining example of how determined and inspired she’d always been. That’s a big part of why her fans seemed to be so personally invested in Tina, all over the world.
Her acclaimed 2021 HBO documentary Tina! showcased just how impactful Tina Turner’s run in the 1980s and 1990s had been on global audiences. A rock & roll queen who’d spanned generations, Tina’s love around the world was unique; her crowds featured grandparents and grandkids who’d discovered her at completely different entry points, bonded by a powerful story of survival that grounded her and mesmerized by a performer who seemed to have limitless grace, energy, and power. Tina’s live performance could be breathless and grand, but she always radiated an intimacy that might seem inconceivable for a star playing in venues that big. Her 1993 What’s Love Tour was right after the film that brought her story to the big screen, and she seemed more connected to the adoring public than ever. When she took to the road for one final time in 2009, she was still a force onstage.
In many ways, the love she felt from the public was always most prevalent in Europe. Tina’s stature as a global icon had given her frequent presence in England and France, and she would eventually call Switzerland home after finding love with her second husband, European music executive Erwin Bach. Her permanent residence in Switzerland was evidence of how comfortable she’d always felt overseas, and the audience she’d cultivated remained most appreciative.
In 2005, when she was interviewed by Oprah, Turner expressed a desire to push society forward. “I believe I’m going to learn something about how to help people think,” she said. “We are not thinking correctly. I want to tell people how to live spiritually. After you’ve bought all your houses and your clothes, you want something bigger. I want my gift to become a gift for others. We’re caught in a stagnant belief system passed on to us from our parents and what’s been given from the churches. I believe there’s another truth. Dancing and singing is all good, but the ultimate gift is to change people’s minds. What else is there?”
The Queen of Rock & Roll taught everyone another truth. Musical titles can often ring hollow and hackneyed, but her crown is especially significant. In a culture that so often downplayed or dismissed the contributions of Black women, from Patti Labelle to Grace Jones, Tina Turner was undeniable. Her presence was a challenge to a music industry that had always undervalued its women; her success was a rebuke to a genre steeped in a dream of whitewashed greatness. And for those of us who grew up on “The Best” and “Typical Male,” she defied any notion that age has to slow us down. Tina Turner was a boundary-shattering beacon. That she’s no longer of this world is a sad occasion, but she did so much while she was here. Her rest is beautifully earned.
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