The Power of a Name: Tribute to the Shapeshifting Ms Tina Turner

It’s no secret that names are powerful. Across cultures, it is believed that to know the true name of a god, demon, or mystical being, is to have power over it. Tina Turner has had many names throughout her life, and it would be impossible to deem any of them her true name. Aside from Tina Turner, there was also her birth name – Anna Mae Bullock – and her nicknames: Ann, Little Ann, and of course, the “Queen of Rock & Roll.” She shapeshifted and reinvented herself between these, and likely countless other names, because her life exacted this of her. In doing so, the names, the semiotics they’ve suggested, became powerless in controlling her. The person and talent that she was extends past the constrictions that anyone was able to place on her.

She shapeshifted and reinvented herself between these, and likely countless other names, because her life exacted this of her.

For FF2 Media’s 16th Annual SWAN Day – SWAN Day Sweet Sixteen! – we are saluting Tina Turner in the year after her passing and remembering what a powerful artist and pioneer she was.

Tina Turner was born Anne Mae Bullock in 1939 and passed away in May of last year, at 83 years old.

It is, simply put, impossible to even begin to surmise her life, accomplishments, and trials, but so much of her story might be uncovered in her shapeshifting between monikers and their associations, until Tina Turner became a household name.

Due to a turbulent childhood, Tina moved from her birth home in Nutbush to Brownsville, Tennessee to live with her grandmother, and then to St. Louis, Missouri after she had graduated high school. It was while going out to clubs with her sister in St. Louis that she first met Ike Turner, while he was performing with the Kings of Rhythm. During one of their shows, Tina was passed the microphone to accompany Ike in a duet, and the rest is history. Enamored with her voice and presence, Ike asked her to be a part of the band.

Originally, Tina was known as “Little Ann” in the group. However, after beginning their sexual and subsequently romantic relationship, Ike had her change her name to “Tina Turner,” inspired by his love for Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Sheena is a fictional protagonist and the first female comic book heroine with her own title. Certainly, it is not a stretch to see the ‘untamed’ implications that Ike was trying to draw to Tina on stage, naming her after a character of the jungle. His ultimate goal in doing this, however, extended past that of a sexualized image. Rather, if Tina ever left his band, he figured he could replace her with another “Tina Turner.” Though it is not necessary to say, it’s evident that this would never even be remotely possible, as there is and only ever has been, one Tina Turner.

The reality of the name, at first as something that would keep Tina indebted to and dependent on Ike, existing entirely because of him, did not survive for long. One need only to view a single recorded performance of the two to know who was the star of the show.

For instance, to watch the two perform “Nutbush City Limits” for the first time is an exercise in disbelief. It is beyond evident that Tina was the showstopper, the commander of the room, the energy and soul of the music. Ike’s contributions to the band are also essential, but seeing them perform together is knowing that he is there merely to support and accompany her shine, not in any way to direct, orchestrate, or create it.

Click on image to enlarge

The Ike and Tina Turner Revue was a promising success at first, especially after releasing their first single together, “Fool in Love,” which reached the Top 30 on the Billboard 100. Quite quickly, however, Ike’s paranoia and mistrust began affecting both his relationships, as well as the band. He continued to sleep with other women, and when Tina expressed her unhappiness, suggesting she would stop touring if it continued, the abuse began.

Tina remained loyal to him through years of mistreatment and his spiraling cocaine addiction. The band continued to get more successful, largely due to her unwavering performances, dedication, and talent, despite being exhausted due to the unrelenting touring schedules and the continuous cruelty.

While the band still seemed to be on the rise, they toured with and opened for the Rolling Stones during their US tour in 1969 and subsequently covered “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, making it one of their most popular and well-received songs. Tina’s influence on countless well-known and, in their own right, influential artists is ever-present, perhaps especially with Mick Jagger’s stage presence, her significance to Beyoncé’s career and music, and countless others.

In 1976, Tina gathered enough strength to leave Ike. Without a dollar to her name, she hid out in a motel on the freeway and later filed for divorce, which was not finalized until 1978. In the agreement, it was her name that she most cared about keeping.

For about eight years after leaving Ike and the band, Tina struggled to establish herself as a solo artist. She appeared on variety and game shows and performed at lounge gigs in order to support herself, continue her career, and work off some of her debt, built up over canceled gigs with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue after she left.

Her comeback started with a release of her rendition of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” with Capitol Records. This was quite successful, prompting the label to approve her for a studio album. She recorded Private Dancer in just two weeks. “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” perhaps one of her most popular songs and the final track on the record, was number one on the Billboard 100 for weeks, and she solidified herself firmly at the top of the music world once again. She would go on to win three Grammys that year for the album.

She recorded Private Dancer in just two weeks.

The song “What’s Love Got to Do With It” is her most emblematic and famous song for multiple reasons. For one, it is a perfect pop song: a narrativization, a lament, captured in an arresting question – what has love got to do with it? To know there is energy between people is, sometimes, to become a subordinate to that energy. Tina was always special, but along with the incredible moments born from this, there was also tremendous difficulty: the world doesn’t cater to those who are unique, but rather to a norm and its machinations. By the time that she wrote and released the hit song, Tina was 44. It’s not so much that she comes across as jaded or bitter in the lyrics. Rather, the song seems far more like a genuine questioning. Where does love fall into the weighing of a relationship, when it can be used as some justification to cause hurt? When it can hurt you?

There’s no answer – as there often isn’t to these questions. There is, of course, the implication of an answer. She takes her time with the building of the verses, which culminate in the powerful chorus, the focus that the song continuously returns to; a chant of sorts, even. To ask again and again, a question that seems to be more of a statement.

The music video for the song finds Tina walking around town, looking stunning in a little black dress and her hair styled up to the gods. Men stare at her when she walks past, some try to engage her, but the most she gives them is a couple seconds’ time, after which she is again on her way. The final shot is one of her name and an image of her on the ground. It looks like her, but also alludes to her name’s origins (Sheena, Queen of the Jungle) and, in a way, Ike. She’s sitting on top of what appears to be a mountain in the picture with only her first name, Tina next to her. A victory, but everyone knows that you cannot really win without also losing, sometimes too much.

You do not get to see her face in this final shot. During the entirety of the video, you are privy to her facial expressions, her knowing smirk – she’s having fun. But this final shot is only for her; it is personal. She dragged herself to the top of the mountain, carrying her name, ironically the deepest signification of the wound, with her. And the shot goes dark as she confidently continues to strut forward, past the name, past the image of herself on the mountain. Tina, the person that she has created, has far superseded what it initially encompassed and meant. To rewrite the connotation of a name, of a signifier, to dictate how to wield it, is no small feat, and she’s done that.

…this final shot is only for her; it is personal. She dragged herself to the top of the mountain, carrying her name, ironically the deepest signification of the wound, with her.

After this success, she carried on to star in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome — which included another hit, “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome),” and also co-wrote her first memoir, I, Tina. Her subsequent album, Foreign Affair, was also incredibly successful, marked by the hit single “The Best.”

She released her final album, Twenty Four Seven, in 1999. Later, throughout 2008 to 2009, she went on her 50th Anniversary Tour. Her story has been told and retold countless times. Namely in the biographical film What’s Love Got to Do with It, released in 1993, starring Angela Bassett as Tina. Later, in 2019, the Broadway musical Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, first premiered, as well as the musical documentary, Tina, which came out in 2021.

In the end, Tina Turner became the only one that could summon herself. With her reclamation of her name, she changed the landscape of what it meant, what it could mean. Even now, it is a name that feels alive and mythical, larger than life – because that’s what she was and continues to be. Her reshaping of the musical landscape, then and now, and everything she worked for and overcame because she had to, continue to inform and create the associations of the name. She created Tina Turner and Tina Turner was born of her.

© Yoana Tosheva (3/26/24) — Special for FF2 Media

PS from FF2 editor-in-chief Jan Lisa Huttner: Big Eyes was released in 2004, making this Big Eyes’s 20th anniversary. FF2 Media is extremely proud to announce that Big Eyes is the focal point of our SWAN DAY SWEET SIXTEEN program on March 30, 2024. Based at the SVA Theatre in NYC, the program will be livestreamed and available to all simultaneously as well as afterwards on YouTube. If you are in Metro NYC, make an NYC reservation here via EVENTBRITE. If you are in Chicago, make a CHICAGO reservation here via EVENTBRITE for the parallel program. Our program is free and open to the public, but you must be on the reservation list to enter either the SVA Theatre building (in NYC) or the Claudia Cassidy Theater at the Chicago Cultural Center (in Chicago). 

LEARN MORE / DO MORE

Watch the biographical film What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993) with a Disney+ subscription, or on YouTube or Amazon Prime.

Watch Tina (2021), the musical documentary, on Netflix.

Visit YouTube to watch the music video for “What’s Love Got To Do With It”

Visit YouTube to watch Tina Turner’s iconic performance with Mick Jagger for Live Aid and her performance of “Nutbush City Limits” with Ike Turner.

Read more about Tina’s comeback from Rolling Stone.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo: Tina Turner in concert in Oslo (Norway). Photo Credit: Morten Hvaal (6/20/87) / NTB / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2K8M7A9

Middle Photo: Tina Turner as “Auntie Entity” in MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985). Photo Credit: © Warner Bros. / Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: T01EJK

Bottom Photo: Crop of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush at the White House with 2005 Kennedy Center honorees Robert Redford and Tina Turner. Photo Credit: Eric Draper (12/4/05) / White House via CNP / Sipa USA  / Alamy Live News. Image ID: 2RDG20R

Tags: Ike Turner, Kennedy Center Honorees, Laura Bush, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, music, Nutbush City Limits, Proud Mary, Queen of Rock & Roll, rock, SWAN Day Sweet Sixteen, Tina Turner, What's Love Got to Do With It, Yoana Tosheva

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Yoana Tosheva is an artist, a writer, and an immigrant. She graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a BA in English and Art History. Her poetry and essays have been published in Sixty Inches From Center, West Trade Review, Sunlight Press, Constellate Literary Journal and elsewhere. She is also a part of Pink Slip, a zine and budding press based out of the west suburbs of Chicago. Yoana is most interested in the collective and personal archival nature of music, making this the focus of much of her work. She'd love to talk to you about your band, your favorite band, or why you've decided you'll never date another person in a band ever again.
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